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From the archives

Referendum Trudeau

He campaigned in poetry but governed in prose

Rinkside Reading

What does hockey’s literature say about the sport?

Alarm Bells

Fort McMurray and fires hence

Getting Smart about Cities

A journalist lays out a primer of Canada’s urban landscapes

John Honderich

The New City: How the Crisis of Canada’s Urban Centres Is Reshaping the Nation

John Lorinc

Penguin Canada

392 pages, softcover

To date, this country has been slow to get it. Cities matter. Indeed, the relative vibrancy, economic vitality and social cohesion of our major cities will determine, in large part, how this country will survive in a global economy.

At the outset, it must be acknowledged that the status of cities has been one of my passions and the essence of my current work. In no way do I pretend to be neutral or agnostic on the subject. Thus, an urban-primer-cum-advocacy treatise outlining in compelling tones the urgency of the situation can, in my view, only add constructively to the debate.

That said, well-known urban journalist John Lorinc has written a forceful, well-researched and trenchant book on the crisis of Canada’s cities. Anyone interested in understanding the scope of the problems, their inter-connectedness, and the manner in which they should be addressed, will find Lorinc’s The New City: How the Crisis of Canada’s Cities Is Reshaping Our Nation required reading.

The palate of Lorinc’s canvas is all of Canada’s major—or “hub” in the vernacular of today’s urbanists—cities. By definition, this creates an almost impossible challenge, for all of this country’s cities have not been created equally. As former British Columbia premier Mike Harcourt, who headed up Paul Martin’s task force into cities and communities, was often heard to say: “Ultimately it’s the big three (Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver) that really matter. Of those, the biggest (Toronto region) most of all.”

Coming from an established westerner, these comments cannot be easily discarded as parochial Torontocentrism. Rather, they reflect the bald truth that the Toronto region, with its relative size, the economic and social consequences of its disproportionate influx of immigrants, and the imbalance between its revenue and service responsibilities, suffers more acutely relative to others.

Not that there are not common issues that afflict all of Canada’s hub cities. There are. And Lorinc has done commendable and extensive research to provide examples and solutions from across the land.

Yet he correctly points out that Vancouver has benefited from a tradition of benevolent support from a series of B.C. governments, a municipal and planning structure that is the envy of the nation, and a history of former Vancouver mayors going to the premier’s chair. In a similar vein, Montreal’s regional municipal structure and its predominance in the Quebec economy have made a significant difference.

By contrast, the controversial downloading of social services, affordable housing and rapid transit on Toronto by Mike Harris’s provincial government, the unanswered question of who speaks for the entire Toronto region—the city of Toronto now accounting for less than half of the total regional population—and the impact and cost of accommodating the tide of immigrants have all combined to give Toronto a rather unique set of problems. Thus it is not surprising a disproportionate number of words in Lorinc’s book are spent on this situation. Readers, however, should not be caught unawares.

One additional factor, not captured in The New City because of publication deadline, is the recent election of Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative government. At this point, it is impossible to get an accurate gauge of the Harper government on urban issues. However, past pronouncements and his one decision on child care give considerable cause for concern.

Harper seems quite content with the division of powers as laid out under the Canadian constitution. He has indicated on more than one occasion that the Fathers of Confederation apparently got it right when they decided cities should be “creatures” of the provincial governments. This despite the fact Canada was only 10 percent urban in 1867—a ratio that has since been turned on its head. Yet, as with other areas of provincial jurisdiction, Harper seems ideologically determined not to meddle and to concentrate instead on those issues—defence, foreign policy, Arctic sovereignty, etc.—that are well within Ottawa’s domain.

This is in sharp contrast to the approach adopted by the previous federal Liberal government of Paul Martin. Reversing several decades of a basic hands-off approach, the former prime minister came to believe that Ottawa has a fundamental role to play in the development of Canada’s cities. Be it in rapid transit funding through the federal gas tax, affordable housing or child care, Martin’s Liberals forged ahead with significant new programs. During the election campaign, Harper pledged to honour most of these commitments, with the notable exception of child care.

Has our new prime minister evolved in his thinking on cities? Certainly federal voters in the cities of Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver did not think so, virtually shutting out Harper from representations in these large centres. Yet Lorinc writes: “No political party that seeks to legitimately govern Canada will ever again be able to ignore its largest cities in the name of constitutional niceties or ideological bromides that have little to do with the complexities of urban life.” Perhaps. Yet in the critical child care sector, which Lorinc aptly calls “besides affordable housing, the most distinctively urban social program,” Harper has chosen to rip up long-term agreements with most of the provinces on government-sponsored investment in childcare spaces in favour of individual tax breaks, long a bromide of the ideological right.

At this point, regrettably, the jury must remain out on whether cities are firmly established on the federal agenda. How the Harper government intends to proceed, and how Canada’s hub cities, with only a smattering of members of Parliament, deal with this new reality, is now the focus of Canada’s big city mayors. An entirely new approach may well be required. And a reteaching of many of the lessons spelled out in The New City may have to be undertaken.

Lorinc has organized his book into three separate sections: first, the city under stress; second, healthy neighbourhoods, strong cities; and third, the prescriptive section called “toward the new city.” As such, he covers a wide swath—poverty, the infrastructure gap, planning, disposal of garbage, care of seniors, accreditation of new immigrants, child care, transportation (the last of these less than expected). Of necessity, discussion is limited on each subject, yet enough detail is given to provide the necessary context and inter-connectedness.

While a longtime Toronto-based urban observer, Lorinc nonetheless brings the immigrant perspective of the son of Holocaust survivors who fled Hungary during the 1956 revolution. He writes: “In a nation of immigrants, we can only coexist in our complex urban settings if we respect one another’s ways, listen to one another’s ideas, and support our neighbours as they navigate that great distance—both geographic and emotional—between old homes and new homes.” While celebrating the many differences any successful city must encompass, he invariably returns to his theme of accommodation and respect. “The litmus test of cosmopolitanism is the peaceful coexistence of seemingly irreconcilable differences.”

As if to drive home his point, the first chapter of The New City chronicles the mounting problems new immigrants face in receiving Canadian accreditation for their skills. Almost two thirds of immigrants now coming to this country do so with skills or entrepreneurial experience. Yet recent data reveals a disturbing pattern of more and more university-trained new Canadians working in low-end or low-skilled jobs. For men, the worst cities are Toronto and Winnipeg. For women, it seems the experience is the same across the country.

The figures presented are staggering. The non-recognition of international credentials, according to the Conference Board of Canada, is costing the Canadian economy anywhere from $3.4 billion to $5 billion annually. More than 340,000 Canadians have unrecognized international degrees. Little wonder the word seems to be spreading that prospective immigrants are thinking twice before coming to Canada. For a nation that prides itself on tolerance and depends on a steady flow of skilled workers, these numbers should startle.

In a subsequent prescriptive chapter on connecting immigrants and good jobs, Lorinc sets out what little is being done and what should occur. He argues industry organizations and professional bodies should become more proactive. Similarly, federal immigration procedures and foreign service operations should be reformed so that qualified new immigrants are better prepared once they come. He also recommends educational bridging loans for new arrivals and landed immigrant status for foreign graduates of Canadian universities. All in all, worthy proposals. Yet one is left with the inescapable conclusion that unless even more dramatic steps are taken, the economic and social consequences of inaction—particularly for the biggest cities—will be severe. One option could be for the provinces to take a more forceful position with the associations of regulated professions by inducing, or even legislating them, to be more open in recognizing foreign accreditation.

At the core of Canada’s urban dilemma is the mismatch between what revenues cities garner and what tasks they are asked to perform. This problem stems back to those aforementioned Fathers of Confederation who, despite the sage advice of Lord Durham, relegated cities to the status of “creatures” of the provinces. Cities do not have the official status of an order of government. Nor do they have the requisite powers or rights to raise the necessary revenues to take care of their business. Instead they have to rely on transfers and special grants from the senior levels of government.

Much has been made, of late, of the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. Hardly mentioned in this critical dialogue is the fiscal plight of cities. When the provinces recently commissioned a report on this fiscal imbalance, Quebec and Alberta steadfastly rejected the notion that representatives from cities should have a seat at the table. This is an issue Lorinc addresses in some detail; even more would have been preferred.

It is instructive, for example, to look at Germany, which is perhaps the most recent federal state to draft a new constitution, in 1949. Under the German scheme, cities are accorded status as a recognized order of government. Furthermore, they are guaranteed access to a certain percentage of the income tax, corporate tax, real estate tax, etc. What’s more, if a senior level of government decides to download a certain responsibility to cities, it must also transfer the requisite tax revenue to pay for delivery of that responsibility. If a city feels it is being shortchanged in the process, it can appeal directly to Germany’s Constitutional Court to seek redress.

In his section on self-sufficient cities, Lorinc chronicles the ground-breaking efforts of former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray to shift the paradigm of municipal financing by replacing Manitoba’s grants to the city for a share of the province’s income tax revenue. Unfortunately, Murray’s scheme was unravelled by his successor, leaving unanswered whether this bold step brought about real change. Cities have long sought a share of income or sales tax revenues, because revenues from these taxes rise in lockstep with the economy. By contrast, property taxes and user fees—the mainstays of municipal coffers—are not automatically linked to economic performance and inflation. This has resulted in the revenue stream for cities barely keeping pace with inflation while tax revenues for both the federal and provincial governments have soared upward, 42 and 53 percent respectively during the 1990s.

What this means is that cities have been unable to keep up the necessary repairs to the country’s urban infrastructure. The Canadian Society of Civil Engineers estimates the country’s total “infrastructure gap” at about $60 billion, increasing by $2 billion a year. Back in the mid 1980s, that same gap stood at $12 billion. While both levels of government have attempted to address this problem by allocating a small share of gas tax revenues to cities, it is only a beginning, or “tinkering” in Lorinc’s words.

Mentioned only in passing in The New City is Toronto’s decision to opt out of Ontario’s municipal association in order to be able to negotiate directly with the federal government. The third element of Toronto mayor David Miller’s new deal program of power, money and respect, this move was designed not only to reflect the relative power and economic significance of Canada’s largest city, but also to improve its leverage with Ottawa. Former prime minister Martin actively sought out such direct big city links and certainly Mayor Miller believes his city benefited considerably from this direct dialogue.

This precedent-setting practice was watched very closely, if not jealously, by other big city mayors. Whether it continues with Prime Minister Harper remains entirely another question. Some provinces, most notably Quebec and Alberta, have rejected any notion that the mayors of Montreal, Calgary or Edmonton be able to deal directly with the federal government. Yet when you consider that the budgets of these cities are larger than most of the Atlantic provinces, one questions the logic of the provincial position. Toronto’s Miller often notes that Toronto’s city budget is the sixth largest governmental budget in the land.

One of The New City’s most engaging advocacy chapters is dedicated to what Lorinc calls “thinking cities.” His image of a globally renowned city is one where sustainable, environmentally sensitive planning, combined with an abundance of alternative technologies captures the imagination of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs fully engrossed in the development of new products and ideas. Pipe dream? Not according to Lorinc, who argues that lively, cosmopolitan cities, such as Vancouver, are emerging as the winners in the post-industrial global market.

Adopting the language of renowned urbanist Richard Florida, Lorinc argues those cities that attract the creative entrepreneurs of the new information economy will be the ones to flourish: “A critical mass of such individuals gives rise to the kind of frisson that emerges from local social and professional networks, the presence of leading universities and other higher-learning institutions, and even random interactions in public or semi-public spaces.” Once these creative processes are begun, they feed on themselves and eventually extend beyond urban boundaries. Another essential ingredient for this creative stew is the existence of plenty of “garage” space where artists, innovators and upstarts can set up shop easily.

As a planning model for others, Lorinc joins those who have nothing but praise for the Vancouver model, which has been relentlessly attentive to improving that city’s quality of life. A municipal design committee that is not afraid to say no to an unwanted building, complete authority for planning left in the hands of city hall and an unbridled determination to reclaim the city’s waterfront, as evidenced by the ever- lengthening Seawall, are all part of an overall planning strategy that is envied everywhere. It is worth noting that the recent proposed changes to how Toronto is governed place considerable more planning power in municipal hands. Left still unresolved, however, is the ongoing revenue gap in the city’s finances.

For those wanting to improve their understanding of the underlying trends and current thinking on the role of cities in Canada, The New City provides both hope and concern. Lorinc brings an impressive grasp of urban-related data together with an ability to inject life into abstract theories with a host of cross-country examples. Its scope is broad, which seems appropriate for what he is setting out to accomplish. Those wanting more depth on a particular issue may be left wanting. Yet, ultimately, The New City is a welcome and accomplished overview for anyone concerned about our cities.

John Honderich was the publisher of the Toronto Star, from 1995 to 2004, and a long-time champion of the Literary Review of Canada.