Jeff Lehman is the mayor of Barrie, Ontario and the chairman of the Large Urban Mayors’ Caucus of Ontario.
When municipalities were created in Canada, we were an agrarian nation with less than a quarter of our population living in cities. Today that percentage is reversed, with more than three-quarters of us calling cities home. Pioneering municipal leaders in the 20th century managed the urbanization of Canada while lifting our quality of life and creating safer, more prosperous communities.
But the sands are shifting, and mayors and city councils risk much if they fail to pay attention. This list could be much longer, but here are five things that Canada’s cities must address in the coming years.
1. Don’s World. Two years ago, economist Don Drummond published his comprehensive blueprint for a public sector that lives within its means. It suggested, if I may grossly oversimplify, that Ontario governments need to adjust to revenues growing more slowly by reforming services and changing the way they do business. Cities must listen to this advice. This goes beyond controlling costs; services must be delivered differently if they are to be sustainable.
Municipalities need to consider the approach being taken by the Ontario government with the streamlining panel it has established under the leadership of TD Bank Group CEO Ed Clark: identifying services and assets that are candidates for public-private partnership. This need not entail privatization, as public funds such as pension plans are eager to invest in infrastructure. Across the country, it’s a situation crying out for some entrepreneurship by mayors, councils, and the financial sector.
2. Resiliency. Resiliency is the adapting and hardening of infrastructure to respond to the impacts of climate change. This is no longer the stuff of long-term planning. If the floods in Toronto and Calgary last summer didn’t convince you, maybe this will: Canadian insurance companies have doubled their payouts for natural disasters every five years since the early 1980s. On August 4, Burlington, Ontario saw two months worth of rain in one day. The cost to our economy is extensive and the threat to the safety of our residents is very real.
Cities will need to take immediate action to reduce the impact of severe weather. How we handle storm water will need to be rethought in a world where more rain falls, faster; populations vulnerable to extreme temperatures will require far more attention on city agendas.
3. Affordable housing. Canada’s property markets have inflated rapidly, a trend the federal government has been happy to allow, but one that has caused repercussions as middle-income families are priced out of reasonable housing in our major cities. Longer commutes are traded for more affordable homes, with financial, social, and environmental consequences. Worse, lower-income Canadians cannot find housing at all.
Cities can encourage more rental housing through everything from fairer tax policies – most cities charge multiple-housing units much higher rates than singles – to more supportive planning policy. This requires political will which, one hopes, might now exist to an extent that it hasn’t for some time.
4. Slaying the infrastructure deficit. Freeways rotting, transit systems stalled, water mains breaking at record rates. Gridlock costing us billions. Cities have been beating this drum for decades, but let’s be frank, the problem is not getting solved.
All levels of government rightly chose infrastructure investment for economic stimulus during the recession. While both provincial governments and Ottawa are promising extensive infrastructure investments, there are few details available and it appears that while the long-term investments are substantial, in the near future the federal investment will be smaller than in recent years.
The issue is more fundamental, though. If austerity drives cuts to capital budgets instead of operating budgets, we will make a double mistake – making short-term gains at long-term expense, and continuing to hold back our economy through underinvestment in the basic infrastructure needed for economic success. Part of the solution may lie in innovative approaches to public financing of infrastructure.
5. A new federalism. Today, services not dreamed of by the Fathers of Confederation are delivered by city governments. My own city delivers 60 different services, but these are still funded and regulated by a 19th-century legislative framework. We simply don’t have the tools we need. We’re like a mechanic trying to fix a 2014 luxury car with the toolbox of a colonial-era blacksmith.
Reform of Canada’s fiscal federalism is essential. What is needed is a new framework which recognizes that cities now deliver most of the services that shape our lives as Canadians. This challenge may be the most difficult of all, as there is little incentive for federal or provincial governments to act. But our federalism is a living entity and although change comes slowly, giving cities the tools they need to compete in the global economy, and to maintain our quality of life, is an essential challenge.
Responding to these challenges will require two things too often in short supply: political will and a willingness to innovate. With new or renewed city councils elected this fall, and with governments with fresh four-year mandates in many provincial capitals, there is a unique opportunity in the coming months to set a thoughtful urban agenda, rather than the hyper-political sideshows that have dominated the past few years. All residents of Canada’s cities would surely benefit.
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