Published on Sustainable Cities

Our Cities Will Define Our Future

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After the post was vacant for more than a year, Jennifer Keesmaat started this month as the Chief Planner for the City of Toronto. One of the first things she did was write an excellent article in the local newspaper arguing ‘our cities will define our future’. She makes the case for Toronto – but the same argument can be made globally and even more strongly for cities like Jakarta, Lagos, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Nanjing and Kunming. We are truly in the thick of the Urban Century; we are building cities at a faster rate than ever before, and increasingly these cities are defining our and our children’s future.

Canada’s future lies in its urban areas like Metropolitan Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal, much more than it does in its resources or agriculture. More than eighty percent of the food grown and resources mined and extracted in Canada is destined for city-customers. Urbanization is driving the wealth creation needed to pay for these materials. Urbanization is also driving most of our big planetary challenges like climate change, loss of biodiversity and soil degradation.

A few things Ms. Keesmaat calls for: greater cooperation between national and local governments (and a better appreciation at the national level on the importance of well-functioning cities); the need for good data and evidence-based decision making; addressing income disparities; the imperative of public transit and affordable housing; job creation; and better provision and use of infrastructure in suburbs.

A few other things likely to follow: major cities will be reluctant to leave critical positions vacant for more than a year (‘city-years’ are becoming ever more compressed – now closer to ‘dog-years’); city officials across cities and across the world are going to work ever more closely together – international agencies and national governments should encourage this; residents need to be much more integrated in the planning and management of local services; the premium placed on good governance and professionalism at the local level will increase dramatically.

Ms. Keesmaat ends her article with an urgent call: “all hands on deck”. City building is now the most important task we face. The task is daunting - local, national and international cooperation is needed. In just a decade or two, our compressed ‘city-years’ will leave us with new cities for an additional two billion people, plus re-building cities for another billion or so people. Every day we build and manage the cities that define our future. We can still build a future we are proud of – let’s hope we do.

Photo source: Johannes Akkach, Wikimedia Commons


Dan Hoornweg

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

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