The business of city councils often goes by with little fanfare. Despite being in charge of so much that touches the daily lives of Canadians, from local infrastructure to emergency services, city hall rarely gets even a fraction of the attention cast on provincial capitals and Parliament.

Next week, councils in Vancouver and Calgary will meet to weigh what seem like local issues, but which in fact are much bigger. Vancouver councillors will consider a climate-change report that includes a call for transport pricing in and near the city core. In Calgary, councillors will vote on whether their sprawling city will sprawl even further.

As Canada grapples with the climate crisis, the main focus is on the top level of government, and the oil and gas industry. In Canada, this means Ottawa’s carbon tax, and emissions reductions in the oil sands. This makes sense, because change has to come from the top.

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But there is no single answer or big decision that will lead to a solution. Driving down greenhouse gas emissions requires everyone, and every level of government, working in the same direction.

City councils will need to be climate leaders. How we build our cities going forward will go a long way in shaping our collective climate future.

In Calgary, the economy is still suffering from the long oil market bust. A merger of two oil sands producers, announced last Sunday, may see more than 2,000 people lose their jobs. Housing prices peaked six years ago and are down 8 per cent since then.

Yet city council continues to endorse sprawl. For perspective, the City of Calgary is a third larger than the City of Toronto, with less than half the population. In 2018, Calgary council approved 14 new communities on the city’s fringes. City staff had recommended only eight. It was an expensive decision, forcing an increase in property taxes and water utility rates of about 2 per cent for all Calgarians.

On Monday, council will vote on 11 more proposed new developments. City staff say they should all be rejected. This is exactly right. But councillors, supported by developers, are leaning toward approval.

Voting in favour would be a major mistake, in the immediate and long term. Right now, the financially squeezed city is cutting services in existing communities, and city staff say there is no indication of demand for 11 new developments. Looking ahead, more sprawl goes against Calgary’s own development framework, of which a “compact city” is a pillar.

Vancouver is in a different situation. The city itself has about half the population of Calgary, in one-seventh of the space. But make no mistake: The Vancouver region is as sprawled as any other in Canada, over almost two dozen cities in the metro area.

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Standing at the centre of the region, Vancouver faces external pressures it has to manage within city limits. On Tuesday, council will hear a presentation about taking on the climate emergency, a declaration it made last year. The report contains an array of actions, the most controversial being a proposal to charge drivers on and near the city’s downtown peninsula starting in 2025.

There’s a lot to be decided between then and now, but next week marks a significant step.

To state the blindingly obvious, tolls and the like are not popular. John Horgan, NDP Premier of British Columbia, won his first election in 2017 in part because he promised to scrap tolls on two bridges near Vancouver. Before his second victory this month, he forever rejected road pricing – “never has been, never will” be part of the NDP’s plans.

That’s the popular thing to say. It’s also a failure of leadership. Road pricing in cities in the years and decades ahead will become common, in order to raise revenues and discourage driving. It’s already a fact of life in places such as London, Stockholm and Singapore. And it works. New York will soon bring it to Manhattan.

So much of our cities is given over to roads and parking. Transport pricing is a key option – the “game changer,” in the words of Vancouver city staff – for rethinking that equation in the 21st century.

City council business may often be ho-hum and largely ignored. Next week in Vancouver and Calgary, the opposite is the case. They may be local decisions, but their implications are much broader.

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