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The Toronto skyline in the winter

January 20, 2020

The Biggest Challenge for Canada’s Major Cities: Structural Impotence

Anne Golden,
Chair of the Ryerson City Building Institute and Future Cities Canada Fellow

Canada’s major cities today are sites of innovation and production of knowledge-intensive goods and services, the engines of our nation’s economy. And many know that our current and projected challenges – infrastructure deterioration (from public transit to pipes and sewers), congestion and urban sprawl, rising income inequality, housing unaffordability, and climate change – are most present in these city-regions, where population growth is intensifying.

Yet Canada’s major cities remain structurally quite powerless, hamstrung by a governance and fiscal architecture built for our earlier rural past.

I have spent most of my professional life searching for solutions to the most critical problems that Canada’s cities face. But the privilege of working on these public policy issues has been matched by my deep disappointment in witnessing our failure to make the requisite investments and reforms.

Just a few years ago, I was starting to feel optimistic that we were on the threshold of a new era for cities in Canada. A spate of new monographs on the urban resurgence testified to an explosion of interest in city-building; an inventory by the Ryerson City Building Institute documented more than 230 civil society organizations in the Greater Toronto Area advocating for new progressive urban policies; top quality mayors were heading up our major cities across the country; there was renewed interest in the public realm, including parks, streets, waterfronts and laneways and the notion of “eco-design” to accommodate growth without destabilizing natural systems was gaining acceptance.

In Ontario, the proposed expansion of the Billy Bishop Island Airport was stopped by citizens seeking to protect the waterfront and adjacent communities; the Province committed to a major program of regional transit expansion; and Ottawa indicated it was coming to the table as a significant and reliable partner with funding for infrastructure and affordable housing.

It seemed to be a moment of opportunity to tackle our big issues and embrace the emerging ideas for sustainable urban regions.

However, the momentum I sensed is not continuing. Promised federal infrastructure funding has mostly stalled, and in the single national leadership debate in last year’s federal election, urban issues were conspicuously ignored. The possibility of a sustained and strategic focus by Ottawa on cities no longer seems likely.

In Ontario, we seem to have reverted to a period of disempowerment, with provincial governments refusing to let Toronto City Council raise own-source revenues through tolls and cutting, mid-election, the size of City Council after the Council had revised its ward structure. Proposed provincial amendments to the Provincial Policy Statement, which sets out Ontario’s land use planning for managing growth and development, will likely lead to more suburban sprawl, undercut the viability of public transit, worsen congestion, and weaken environmental protection. And proposed funding cuts to public health and social services, temporarily postponed, have worsened budget pressures on municipal budgets.

All of the above underscores the fundamental governance fact about cities – their dependence on senior levels of governments for decision-making authority and for money to execute decisions. None of the critical problems can be solved by cities on their own. Without the appropriate governance framework and revenue structure, our large city-regions, where six in ten Canadians live, cannot fulfill their potential as engines of economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable national growth.

I believe that the biggest challenge for Canada’s major cities is their structural impotence.

Various solutions have been proposed. They include bold constitutional remedies such as special status for the country’s three largest city-regions and a Federal Charter for Cities. Others place their hope for urban empowerment on local action and political will to raise property taxes and re-prioritize spending.

In my view, the most realistic and effective option for empowering our city regions that would provide both authority and accountability is a multi-tiered governance structure. More than two decades ago, the GTA Task Force, which I chaired, proposed replacing the GTA’s existing regional governments with a single, indirectly elected regional government with responsibility for matters requiring coordination across the region, including regional land use and transit planning, police, water & sewer plants and environmental protection. The role of local municipalities to plan for and deliver local services would be expanded. And the Province would continue its strong historical involvement in municipal affairs via hopefully enlightened policy frameworks and financial investment.

Our proposal was essentially an extrapolation of North America’s first metropolitan government, Metro Toronto, created in 1953, and universally praised as the “jewel in the crown among metro authorities around the world.” The governance problems besetting our city region today are extensions of the growth management and suburban expansion challenges we faced in the 1990s, exacerbated by climate change and growing income inequality. The same basic principles underlying the creation of Metro Toronto are valid today. It worked then and can work again.