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Art & Architecture City elections are about the small stuff – and the big stuff, too

A week ago, as people voted early in Toronto’s municipal election, I decided to take stock of how local government was shaping my day. After a shower and then breakfast (thanks to Toronto Water), I walked down my street and past a neighbourhood park (both maintained by the city), to board a subway train (run by a municipal agency). As on every other day, city government was intimately involved in my daily life.

This is particularly true for the 80 per cent of Canadians who live in urban areas. And it’s worth remembering this week, as Ontario and Manitoba municipalities head into elections and British Columbians mull the results of Saturday’s vote.

As a country, we don’t pay enough attention to our local governments – nor do we agree, as a country, about what urban places should be or how to deal with their biggest challenges. Those two issues are related, and, for the good of all Canadians, we need to tackle them both.

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First: What is a city? There’s a common confusion between the legal sense of the word and the more common understanding of cities and suburbs. (I’ll return to the equally contentious term “suburb” in a minute.) Canada has “cities” with subways and cities with almost no transit, cities of millions and cities of thousands.

What these shapes on the map share is a tangible connection to the lives of their residents. “Municipal government is the level of government that’s closest to the people,” says Shauna Brail, who directs the Urban Studies program at the University of Toronto. “They provide a lot of the services we use every day, and for the most mundane things − a stop sign, a leaking water main − you go to your local councillor.”

On the other hand, we don’t always understand precisely what local governments do. The issues are murky, and there generally aren’t party affiliations to help us out. How many of us can name our MP, or even MPP or MLA, but not a city councillor? “The interest in municipal affairs is lower than it should be,” says the Vancouver-based planner Brent Toderian, “and the reason can be that there’s an idea that the trains are running on time and things are going fine.”

In that oversight, we are missing a lot. “Cities are simply doing much more than they used to 50 years ago,” says Enid Slack, the director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto. Yet cities in Canada are legally creations of the provinces, meaning that they don’t have the powers of legislation and taxation commensurate with those responsibilities.

Cities, too, are simply more socially complex places than they were half a century ago. Take immigration. While the federal government shapes policy, the bulk of immigrants to Canada since 1945 have landed in the major metropolises. Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, too, is an urban issue: According to Statistics Canada, more than half of the Indigenous people in Canada live in cities of at least 30,000. And the opioid epidemic, which is inflicting such harm on so many Canadians, is doing so disproportionately on the streets of Winnipeg and Vancouver and Toronto.

Housing, too, is basically a local issue that needs to be addressed with local tools. The housing crisis in Vancouver and Toronto – and crisis is the right word for the unaffordability and inequality that we are now seeing – has spillover effects on the rest of those regions and on the country. Yet any practical solution to that problem includes more supply of market housing, which is effectively a matter of local government, as well as more social housing, which – even if paid for by senior levels of government – has to go in somebody’s neighbourhood. Vancouverites have woken up to that reality perhaps too late.

Then there’s the threat of extreme weather due to climate change, and the economic and cultural upheaval that’s coming with it. While the federal and some provincial governments are taking action, others – Doug Ford’s Ontario, for example – are choosing inaction or even moving backward. That’s a problem for cities, because rising sea levels are not going to hit “Canada,” they’re going to hit downtown Vancouver and downtown Halifax. But the biggest tools we have to mitigate climate change involve how we live and how we get around: denser urban development, more mass transit and less driving. These are concrete things, local things, that involve land-use planning, transit planning and construction, and the management of roads.

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Unfortunately, those subjects all lie on the fault line in our municipalities, between urban and suburban. The best way to define that split is to divide “active cores” from “automobile suburbs,” as David Gordon of Queen’s University has done in his continuing research on suburban growth. A growing majority of the country is on the driver’s side of the line, while those in core cities – predominantly in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal – live on the other side.

This produces a kind of tribalism that’s convenient to politicians. Mr. Toderian sees populism on the rise in Canadian cities, and it’s easy to see the theme. Some examples of this include: a threatened conflict between Montreal’s progressive mayor, Valérie Plante, with the suburb-friendly CAQ government, as it plans to push transit money from the city to the suburbs; Winnipeg’s debate over whether to unbarricade Portage and Main; the debate in Hamilton, in which a mayoral challenger is promising to refuse a funded and planned LRT line; and a fully funded bus rapid-transit project in London, Ont., that is at stake. “The idea that London and Hamilton would reject established funding for LRT and BRT, because of ideology and deliberate misinformation, is staggering,” Mr. Toderian argues.

Then there’s Toronto’s continuing debate over altering one piece of its downtown Gardiner Expressway, or expensively rebuilding it. And, very visibly, Mr. Ford’s unprecedented meddling in the workings of Toronto City Council. “Even in Vancouver,” Mr. Toderian says, “a candidate [was] running against popular and successful bike lanes.”

Implicit in Mr. Toderian’s point of view is an understanding that mass transit and active transportation are good for cities – not only those who use them but those who drive as well. Those tools “make cities work better in every way we can measure, and many that we can’t,” he says. “There is a false dichotomy between city and suburb.”

And if that doesn’t ring true for you, consider how much attention you’ve paid to municipal politics and policy compared with attention toward your federal counterparts. The voter turnout numbers tell the story: the federal election in 2015 saw 68-per-cent turnout. Winnipeg’s civic election in 2014? Fifty per cent. Vancouver’s in 2014? Forty-four per cent.

In this year’s municipal elections, there’s a lot at stake. But there always is, for our cities, and for us.

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