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Toronto: The elephant not in the room

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on March 22, 2017

An elephant outside looking in
Countries are our most common form of representation and they usually have prominence at the table. But to develop better public policy, more room is needed at the table for our cities. The big, messy elephants that are urban agglomerations need a place at the table to trumpet loudly what is best for them.

There’s much talk lately on the pace and scale of global change. What’s driving it, who benefits, who gets short-changed, and who should be at the table to discuss it.

Countries are our most common form of representation and they usually have prominence at the table. For example, they vote for us at the United Nations, issue passports and print money. Recognizing the important role of the private sector, businesses and international corporations are usually at the table as well. Maybe closer to home the actors are provincial or state, trying to fix the price of energy or overseeing health care and education services. Local governments are key stakeholders as they provide the majority of day-to-day services like collecting garbage, plowing snow and issuing building permits.

There are hundreds of thousands of local governments (3,700 in Canada alone). Larger cities, or urban regions, are usually an amalgam of many smaller cities. For example, Sydney, Australia includes 36 local governments while the Toronto Urban Region is home to 57 diverse governments. The C40 city club that initially was to represent 40 cities actually includes more than 400 local governments.

Toronto Blue Jays or Chicago Bulls appeal to their ‘home town’ fans. People fly to places like Paris, London, and Sao Paulo even if the airports are located well away from the city centre. Visitors to big cities see one big urban expanse, yet closer to home, local residents face divisions and parochial concerns.

Of the world’s 100 largest cities, only one, Singapore, has a clearly defined urban border. Singapore is the only big city that has common and consistent service provision and geographic borders (and many argue Singapore is more a country than city). The world’s cities are sliced in ever-shifting divisions. Most have a city-centre that provides the community name, while the surrounding suburbs provide much of the economic heft and environmental impact. These large urban systems drive globalization and the global economy, and they provide most of the budgets of countries and provinces. Yet rarely does anyone speak on the behalf of these large urban regions.

Toronto is a great example of a missing elephant. First we must discern whether ‘Toronto’ is the City of Toronto (pop. 2.7 million), the Greater Toronto Area (GTA, pop. 6.4 million), or the ‘Census Metropolitan Area’ (5.9 million) – perhaps expanded to the GTHA to include Hamilton, or even further afield to the Golden Horseshoe (or Toronto Urban Region) with 9.4 million residents in 2016?

From an urban planning and systems engineering perspective, the most important entity is the larger Toronto Urban Region. This area stretches from Waterloo to Cobourg and from Barrie in the north down to Niagara Falls. It drives Ontario’s and Canada’s economies (about 80 percent and 40 percent respectively – with a growing share). Real estate prices are linked across the region. So too transportation, employment, and resilience, yet local governments, utilities, provincial ministries and federal programs almost never coincide with this large urban system. The sum, and potential, of the whole is rarely reached.

Part of today’s challenge is that few speak for globalization. The divisions at home overshadow the benefits. More room is needed at the table for other voices, and to develop better public policy. The big, messy elephant of urban agglomerations needs a place at the table. New ways need to be developed to help the collective urban region to trumpet loudly what is best for them. This is what’s best for most. Yes, it will be even more crowded and loud, but without them, the overall system is not working.

Many fear the big elephant. While some attempt to speak on their behalf. “There are too many at the table already,” others may claim. Or, “We know what’s in their best interests.”

Make no mistake; we have a mammoth task to reach any semblance of global sustainability. The world’s big cities must be better coordinated and must pull together. Room at the table must be made for them.

Filed under: Sustainability 101