Why do North Americans hate their cities? That's the question posed, and at least partly answered, by the Star's Business columnist David Olive in his column this weekend.
City hating "is especially pronounced in Canada," he notes, "where the urban centres are powerless creatures of the provinces, with no constitutional standing and very limited spending powers."
"Municipalities are routinely depicted as feckless authors of their own misfortune," he continues, "even after, in Toronto's case, accounting firm KPMG concluded that the city is an able steward of its finances."
It's hard to refute Olive's observations. The recent report by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which totted up the bill for our cities failing infrastructure and reached a figure of $123 billion, has been widely ignored by our federal reps.
"I call upon the cities to go and sit down with the provinces," declared Lawrence Cannon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minister of transport and infrastructure.
"We're not in the pothole business," said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
How did we come to this? Well, it may be because politicians fear the intellectual capacity created by cities, he suggests. He quotes Creative Class author Richard Florida: "Many political leaders just don't like cities. They often think they can mobilize rural and suburban voters by running against (them)."
Olive traces the historical evolution of large population centres, noting:
Suspicion of cities is as old as the Scriptures, where the Christian regard of urban life begins in Genesis with God's wrath in destroying Babylon, Sodom and Gomorrah.
As for how we stack up around the globe, well, our attitude is telling. Other cities regard cities as "national treasures" and federal governments support city projects directly.
He notes the "stunning makeover" of Charles de Gaulle Airport, the development of London, Boston's Big Dig, and the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, all funded by federal governments.
Olive is a first rate business columnist. He is also a fierce city advocate. He, like Richard Florida and most progressive politicians in our midst, recognizes the uniqueness and importance of the urban landscape. Again, quoting Florida:
He also quotes Thomas courchene, director of the Institute for Intergovernmental Relations at Queen's University, in a report he wrote last summer for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, called Global Futures for Canada's Global Cities [PDF].
When large numbers of entrepreneurs, financiers, engineers, designers and other smart, creative people are constantly bumping into one another, business ideas are more quickly formed, sharpened, executed, and - if successful - expanded.
Courchene describes a “virtuous circle” by which global city regions can take “actions that make them attractive to human capital, which, in turn, allows them to become magnets for attracting knowledge-based industries.
“Evidence suggests that privileging Canada’s `hub cities’ will propel them and their hinterlands forward economically.”
Yet Canadian cities are starved of the cash to fund such a renaissance.
“The international evidence on our global city regions’ fiscal weakness is striking,” Courchene warns.
As for what to do about it, Olive is clear: "It's time Canada's communities were funded directly by Ottawa," he suggests, noting that we are projecting a $26 billion surplus over the next six years.
He recommends "withhold[ing] political support" from leaders who continue to ignore the role of cities in creating a prosperous future.
Related: Fix the Municipal Funding Formula, Raise the Hammer.
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