Friday, December 17, 2010

Bus ride reading: Urban Nation

While browsing through the Ottawa Public Library collection, my interest was piqued by Alan Broadbent's Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong. Broadbent's premise is that Canada is becoming an increasingly urbanized nation, and the powers currently reserved for provinces need to be given to certain cities so that they've got the capacity and flexibility to respond to unique obstacles.

Although Broadbent mentions Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver as the cities which in particular deserve (and, in his opinion, need) this authority, his focus is undoubtedly on Toronto. Only a few passing examples show a concern for Vancouver, and Montreal is only mentioned a handful of times. The book is very much focussed on how a possible re-organization of government would benefit Toronto.

I was somewhat disappointed in Broadbent's dismissal of the City of Ottawa; although not nearly as large as the cities he focuses on, the Ottawa census metropolitan area is in the unique position of being affected by five levels of government as well as numerous different government agencies (the National Capital Commission and Parks Canada, to name a couple). If the idea is to build a more efficient and specifically capable municipal body, few Canadian cities would benefit from the change more than Ottawa would. But that wasn't a focus Broadbent dealt with, although I think the book would have benefited from it.

Much of the book is focussed on taxes: How taxes could shift towards urban uses, different taxation mechanisms that would open up to cities with province-like authorities, tax credits, and financing infrastructure projects through taxes. Which is rather interesting, if somewhat dry at times to read. Still, Broadbent brings up some very good points about the benefits that could come about.

Peculiarly, however, are the significant jurisdictional modifications Broadbent suggests towards the end of the book. Noting a disparity between representatives in the federal government and population between rural and urban populations, he not only proposes more representatives for urban areas, but also proposes a provincial reorganization for less populous provinces. The Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick would be united as "The Maritimes" (a label which I'm sure residents of Newfoundland and Labrador wouldn't appreciate, given that that province isn't a maritime province), while Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba would be united as "The Prairies". It seemed to come out of nowhere, but I suppose the point is that if cities are to gain powers, it's likely that someone else would have to give them up. In Broadbent's vision, that would be the lower-populated provinces across Canada.

Putting aside his vision for a "New Canada", Broadbent's point about a lack of sufficient powers setting cities back is very apropos. He uses more examples that I can recount here, but his bottom line is that Canadians are flocking to cities, and our governance structure--established almost 150 years ago--has failed to adjust to reflect changing realities. As it is, cities are subject to the whims of provincial and federal funding partners, virtually relegated to beggars coming hat-in-hand to other levels of government to seek funding for significant projects.

For readers interested in urban issues in Canada or the relationship between different levels of government would likely enjoy reading Urban Nation. But don't go into it expecting much of an Ottawa perspective.