Published on Sustainable Cities

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

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In 1967 Montreal hosted the World Expo in a massive 100-year old birthday party for Canada. Festivities were grand and the future seemed bright, but a slow decline had already set in. The Montreal Olympics of 1976 were also not enough to offset the forces of Quebec separatism. From a full third of Canada’s population in 1951 to less than one-quarter in 2011, Quebec’s separatist aspirations have had an economic cost on the Province, especially on the city of Montreal. Montreal is certainly still a great city, but the odds of it ever again becoming Canada’s financial center or largest city are remote, especially after last month’s election victory by the Quebec Sovereigntist party.

The relatively high cost that cities bear for talk of regional separation was on my mind last week when I was in Barcelona. Barcelona is truly a wonderful city: comparably low GHG emissions; a great mix of historic and modern; perfect climate and a beach in the city; walkability; and leaders that are eager to embrace the future. And yet, despite all the passion and enthusiasm for a separate Catalonia – much of it based in Barcelona – the City will pay a heavy economic price if the region separates from Spain. From an economic perspective, neither ‘side’ will benefit. Even if the region remains in Spain, but uncertainty lingers, the City’s economy will be impacted.

Brussels and Edinburgh, along with Montreal and possibly soon-to-be Barcelona, are great examples of why cities need to be kept front and center by all states – men and women. We need as much passion for the strength of our cities as we seem to be able to rally for separate homelands. Cities should be our paramount source of optimism.

Of course there are times when repression and inequality need to be countered, but the cost of our dreams should not come at the expense of life in our cities. Today’s pragmatism, day-to-day public service, and the need to focus on resilience and disaster preparedness, that are the hallmarks of well-run cities, also need to be part of tomorrow’s desires.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is important. Those methodical, sometimes plodding and often faceless bureaucrats that bring regions and countries together are even more important as we focus on urban resilience and the need to build cities for an additional 3 billion people by 2050. Let’s hope a Peace Prize goes to a few practical cities before 2050 as they assert their voices on the need for collective action at home and abroad. We – especially cities – are all in this together.

Photo: Skyscrapers in Diagonal Mar, Barcelona. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Wjh31.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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