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The gong show is over in Toronto. Effective municipal government returned last year to Montreal. The Jim Watson era rolls on in Ottawa.

Competence is the order of the day in Central Canada's largest three cities, as it has been in the largest cities of Western Canada for some time.

Of course, mayors get knocked about. Even Mr. Watson, who won 76.3 per cent of the vote in Ottawa, has detractors. And John Tory captured only 40 per cent of the vote in a three-candidate contest in Toronto, the message for federal politics being the very poor showing of Olivia Chow, the former New Democratic MP who did well only in and around her old federal riding.

But what runs through Ontario big-city municipal results, and those elsewhere, is the desire for competence. Vision is nice, but competence is a bottom-line demand.

What did in Doug Ford, subbing for his ill brother, Rob, was the pervasive sense that Toronto municipal politics had become a narcissistic game played by two not very competent people for their own amusement and self-satisfaction. That era is over, although the roughly one-third of the vote Mr. Ford got, mostly in the outer suburbs, suggests that crude populism still lives in certain quarters of the city.

Municipal politics counts more than is suggested by chronically low voter turnouts. Canadians are urbanites and suburbanites. Their country is vast, but the large majority of the population clusters in cities and immediate surroundings.

What happens in the big cities counts hugely for the entire country's economic development, cultural accomplishments, social integration of immigrants, innovation and overall well-being. If cities don't work, the country won't work. It's as simple as that.

You can point to various examples, but consider Montreal, where Denis Coderre has been mayor for a year. A former Liberal MP, Mr. Coderre is very much a man of the people. He communicates well and displays a common touch, but knows how to make decisions. In the space of a year, he's become very popular, after too many years of drift and institutionalized corruption in parts of the city's administration.

For decades, poor municipal government, corruption and systematic neglect by Quebec's provincial government hastened Montreal's infrastructure decline. Now, hopefully, the page is being turned, and not a moment too soon.

Toronto, too, has suffered from a dysfunctional city government and a provincial government unable to grasp the nettle of the infrastructure challenges. Now, maybe with Mr. Tory at City Hall and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne pledging to do something dramatic about transportation gridlock, the city can begin to catch up.

In Calgary and Edmonton, with growing populations, the infrastructure challenges are also evident, although not as clearly as in Montreal and Toronto. The mayors of B.C.'s Lower Mainland have put together a long-range transportation plan (rather miraculously for a group of elected officials), but implementation will require provincial assent and money.

Perhaps, therefore, this urban country is slowly turning more of its attention to urban needs, starting with large investments in moving people around and through urban areas. Perhaps, too, there is a dawning recognition among politicians and planners that endless urban sprawl contributes to the choking transportation problems.

Everywhere, "densification" of downtowns is the order of the day, which makes eminent sense, provided the increasing density is done properly from planning, lifestyle, transportation, and carbon emissions reductions perspectives (which hasn't been the case in central Toronto's condo-land, as one example).

Cities are on the front line of many issues that transcend their boundaries, climate change being one. Municipal governments have a host of powers – garbage, building codes, development, transit – that directly affect carbon emissions. What they do, or don't, is consequential for the country's overall record.

Similarly, how cities integrate newcomers to Canada affects the entire country's civic life and economic prospects. Thus far, the melding of so many immigrants into the Canadian mainstream has been one of the country's most significant accomplishments. It happens, overwhelmingly, in neighbourhoods, schools and other urban public places.

Various international surveys place a few Canadian cities near the top for "livability," Vancouver being the most obvious. Competent mayors, of the kind that most large Canadian cities now have, are vital players on the public stage for keeping things going in the right direction.