An Election Call-to-Action for Canadian Urbanists!

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Here in Canada, we're in the midst of a Federal election. It's an election where if you're interested in urban issues, you're likely quite frustrated. 
 
Unlike the United States and some other countries, elections can come upon us on relatively short notice (in this case, through the collapse of the minority Conservative government). Add to this that Canadian elections are relatively short (this one is from March 26 to May 2), and it can leave little time for citizens and groups to insert issues into the debate or influence party platforms.  

Like the last few elections, the political narrative this time around seems to be emphasizing rural (or at most suburban) votes, wards and issues. Voices like the Canadian Federation of Municipalities (FCM), the National Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade, Project Montréal, big-city mayors and main-stream media have made compelling cases for a national urban agenda to address the critical issues facing cities and urban communities. Unfortunately, the platforms of the parties have not meaningfully responded.

The one slight exception is the Green Party of Canada, which currently holds no seats in government, and are not expected to significantly influence government policy after the election even if they manage to win some. The FCM just recently released this comment to the media regarding the Greens:
 
"FCM applauds the Green Party of Canada's strong support of Canadian cities and communities as outlined in their election platform. Their commitment to provide longer term infrastructure funding would help municipalities address the $123 billion infrastructure deficit and build a greener economy. 

The commitments made by the Green Party of Canada would ensure that Canadian municipalities would protect core funding for community safety, affordable housing, public transit and infrastructure in the years ahead. 

By supporting Brownfield remediation and urban renewal, as well as concrete measures to address traffic congestion and investments in water and waste water infrastructure, the $6.4 billion municipal superfund would set the ground work for stronger, more competitive cities." 

Although this is laudable, it may be little comfort for urbanists, as the four parties that actually do have seats, don't have anything comparable in their platforms. 

Joining this call for a national urban policy and the addressing of urban issues is the Council for Canadian Urbanism (or CanU), a group I've profiled in past posts and am the founding president of. Although only incorporated since 2009, CanU has already engaged in federal-level urban advocacy around climate change leadership before COP15 in Copenhagen, and a call for the reinstatement of the mandatory long-form census. 

Three weeks ago, the Council wrote the major Federal political parties in Canada, calling for a 10-Point Urban Call-to-Action. The letter is included below. Copies were sent to each provincial premier, and all major city mayors. The authors were the CanU Board members from across the Country (Andy Fillmore from the Atlantic Provinces; Nancy Shoiry from Quebec; Robert Freedman, Alex Taranu, David Gordon and Dan Leeming from Ontario; Ian Wight from the Prairies; Thom Mahler from Alberta, and myself from BC). The message also had strong inspiration and input from three of our honourary Board members (and three giants of Canadian urbanism), architect Jack Diamond, urban designer Ken Greenberg, and city planner and urban mentor Paul Bedford. This call-to-action has been a truly national effort of advocacy from leading urbanists from across the country. 

Sadly though, there seems little indication that the messaging and campaign focus of the major parties has shifted toward urban issues as the campaign has moved forward. As CanU is non-partisan, our goal hasn't been to endorse any particular party, but rather to influence ALL party platforms and thinking. In this, we and our urban partner groups and other urban voices, have not been successful during the election on the surface. We can only hope that regardless of election focus and strategies, these messages have been heard and understood, such that they can influence policy and practice after the election is over, no matter how the government is formed.   

Thus it's not too late, for Canadian urbanists to influence this election dialogue, and certainly to influence the work that will come post-election. I encourage all Canadian urbanists to support the call-to-action, forward this post to your contacts across the country, contact the parties or your local MP/candidates, and get involved in the election discussions on behalf of urban issues. This election is far too important to cities and communities. As our colleague Jack Diamond puts it so passionately, as Canadian cities go, so goes Canada. 

Here is the letter. We welcome comments and debate from Canadian urbanists and from our friends across the globe. 

March 31, 2011

Open letter to the leadership of Canada's Federal political parties:

A federal election has been called, and all Canadians are discussing critical issues regarding the future of our country. The Council for Canadian Urbanism (or CanU) is very pleased to contribute to this national discussion, and submits this 10 point "call-to-action" to the major Federal political parties for consideration in your evolving platforms during this election. 

Canada is an increasingly urban country. Over 80% of Canadians live and work in urban settings, and expect the major political parties to address the pressing needs of Canadian cities in their platforms. CanU and our many partner organizations across Canada, understand well the critical role our cities and urban areas must play in addressing many of the country's largest challenges. These include challenges involving economic resiliency, climate change mitigation and adaptation, energy security and self-sufficiency, traffic congestion with few alternatives to driving, changing national demographics, and the growing costs of health care and preventable health issues. Well planned, designed and funded cities and communities are increasingly seen as the "convenient solution" to a convergence of national issues. In order for our cities to be able to meet these challenges, they require new support and tools from the Federal Government. Investing in healthy sustainable cities and regions will deliver a strong and resilient future for Canada, while keeping us globally competitive. 

Given the above, the Council for Canadian Urbanism calls for the following:

 1) A progressive and influential National Urban Policy, that recognizes the critical role of the success of cities in Canada's future.

2) A National Housing Policy that addresses the acute and growing need for affordable housing.

3) A National Transportation Policy that particularly addresses the need to expand active, cost-effective and sustainable forms of transportation, such as transit, rail, walking, and biking.

4) Effective Federal programs that will make us a world leader in combating climate change. mThere is a need to align the above three national policies in achieving this goal.

5) A national dialogue involving the Federal Government, Provinces and Cities on the development of new sustainable, long-term funding and legislative tools for urban resiliency and success.

6) Future Federal funding and stimulus programs focused on spending that supports urban resiliency and "smart growth" (i.e. complete and compact communities, expanded transit and rail, renewing aging urban infrastructure, enhancing cultural and civic amenities, etc), rather than on "shovel-ready projects". A corresponding de-prioritization of, or halt to, stimulus funding that promotes auto-dependency and urban sprawl.

7) Tax reforms that support full-cost accounting of housing choices (which would reveal the well-researched and well-understood economic advantages of compact, walkable communities and sustainable transportation modes that require less infrastructure and lower public expense).

8 ) Federal tax incentives to promote the construction of purpose-built rental housing.

9) Reinstatement of the long-form census to enable reliable planning to better understand, and meet, future needs.

10) Electoral district reform that addresses democratic and fair representation of the population in urban areas, and recognizes the increasing urbanization of Canada.

These 10 points in the call-to-action are highly interconnected, and thus require a highly integrated approach.

We urge all federal parties to address these calls in their platforms, discuss and debate these issues during their campaigns, and work to address these critical needs in their future work. 

We respectfully request a response to these calls from each party, and we commit to sharing such responses with our membership across Canada, as well as with our many partner organizations across the country. CanU intends to be part of the national dialogue during this election, promoting and advocating issues of importance to the success of Canadian cities. We would be pleased to discuss these calls with any and all parties, lending our nation-wide expertise on urban and community issues, while again stressing our non-partisan status. 

The Council for Canadian Urbanism (CanU) is a national non-profit, non-partisan, information and advocacy group incorporated in 2009, made up of many of Canada's leading urban experts, from the fields of city planning, urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, land development and related disciplines. Our National Board of Directors is comprised of key public, private and academic sector leaders from major cities across Canada. CanU's role is to actively promote more resilient, sustainable, economically vibrant and healthy Canadian cities and urban areas, and to strengthen the role and ability of cities to address Canada's critical urban challenges. 

With deepest respect to those who seek to serve the public through the democratic process;

The Board of Directors, Council for Canadian Urbanism  

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

As an addendum, my CanU Board colleague Dr. David Gordon of Queens University, has sent along this list of links to other calls and commentary on the urban issues included in CanU's 10-point call:: 

Conference Board of Canada 

Don Drummond – TD Economics and Queen's School of Policy Studies 

Roger Martin & Richard Florida, Martin Prosperity Institute

Canadian Urban Transit Association 

Canadian Institute of Planners

Enid Slack, U of Toronto

Don Drummond & D. Burleton, TD Economics, Affordable Housing in Canada: In Search of a New Paradigm 

Canada West Foundation

 
Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian

Comments

Comments

Call to action for Canadian urbanists?

If the Green Party is the only one responding to your concerns, you may not be asking the question the right way.

Looking at your list of issues, I'd focus on which parties are most likely to deliver electoral reform. I assume that by this you mean some form of proportional representation (as in NZ) or ranked choice voting (used in Australia for 80 years). This is not hard to advocate in populist terms: All we're saying is that we need to quit "electing" people who can barely win 35% of the vote.

Next month we are likely to see the "re-election" of a conservative minority that is itself constructed out of minority "victories" in 3-4 candidate local races. You really can "win" in Canada with a vote tally in the 30-40% range, and that's the fundamental reason that a rather progressive country keeps electing conservative governments. (It's also how Toronto ended up with a conservative mayor.)

It's in the nature of cities to cultivate individual expression, so it's in their nature to support multiple parties. That means that the urban agenda will always lose in a first-past-the-post voting system such as Canada's. So focus on supporting parties who will fix that, not just those that have endorsed a long list of "urban" demands.

Jarrett Walker
www.HumanTransit.org

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