External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities

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A report prepared for the

External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities

Enid Slack, University of Toronto

Larry S. Bourne, University of Toronto


Heath Priston

March 3, 2006

The views expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities or the University of Toronto.

Executive Summary

Canada’s future is increasingly linked to the fortunes of its largest cities and emerging city regions. These cities are under stress. This report focuses on the changing role and character of large cities and city regions in Canada and their importance to the future of the country. It reviews alternative definitions of what a large city is, constructs a hierarchy of Canadian cities and then illustrates how the characteristics of the largest cities differ from those of smaller places. It then identifies the key trends, challenges and opportunities of large cities, compares the performance rankings of Canadian cities with those of cities abroad, and suggests what is needed for those cities to be successful. The final section reviews and evaluates alternative models of governance for large city regions.

Growth is increasingly concentrated: Large cities and city regions are important.

As much as 80 percent of the country’s economic and population growth over the next few decades will occur in only six broadly-defined city regions: the Greater Toronto Area, Vancouver and the lower mainland, Montreal and its environs, Ottawa-Gatineau, and the Calgary and Edmonton regions. What happens in these six urban regions will define the country’s future, both positively and negatively. If our large cities succeed, the country will prosper; if they fail, the consequences will be severe for everyone and every region of the country.

City size matters: Large cities are different.

It is clear that large cities are different from their smaller counterparts. This is particularly the case for urban regions with populations over 500,000. They are powerful magnets for the young and highly educated, as well as the disadvantaged, they are the dominant gateways for new immigrants, the command and information centres for the economy, and the focal points of global connections. They offer more diverse employment opportunities and higher incomes than smaller places; and they provide the critical mass of talent, productive capacity and specialized services that underlie innovation and continued urban growth in the new economy. They are more socially and ethnically diverse, and at the same time are more expensive as places to live (notably for housing). They also exhibit, on average, higher levels of traffic congestion, environmental pollution, social segregation, income inequalities and cultural alienation. In short, big cities offer both opportunities and policy challenges that are often distinct from those of smaller cities.

Although the focus of this study is on the challenges facing the country’s largest cities, it also acknowledges that our large cities and the rest of the country are intensely integrated and becoming more so. The variety and intensity of the flows, linkages, and exchanges between the large cities and smaller cities and rural areas suggests that their futures are increasingly interdependent.

Large cities are under stress.

All cities in Canada face challenges with respect to their economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability, but the pressures are felt more intensely in the larger cities. Large cities and urban regions face both continued population growth and an increase in their share of national growth, bringing associated benefits and costs. Large cities are the main destinations of immigrants and therefore bear a substantial portion of the costs of settlement assistance and social integration. The under-funding of infrastructure is also particularly evident in large cities. Higher operating costs are another characteristic of large cities, not because they are inefficient, but because their size, density and diversity pose additional costs for everything from transit to social housing, welfare, education, policing, fire protection, and building inspection. Large cities also suffer from higher levels of air pollution and their growth imposes negative impacts on natural ecological systems.

On the international scale, Canadian cities perform better on measures of social and cultural sustainability than on measures of economic and environmental sustainability.

A review of the international literature suggests that large Canadian cities are meeting the sustainability challenges (economic, social, cultural and environmental) faced by large cities with mixed success. Compared to other cities around the world, Canada’s large urban regions rank relatively high on a number of social and cultural indicators (for example, immigration, cultural diversity, the breadth of cultural activities and quality of life), but are confronted by serious challenges on the economic front (in terms of measures such as revenues, wages and income). With respect to environmental sustainability indices, the ranking on air quality, for example, varies across cities.

Despite the absence of longitudinal data on most indices of sustainability, cities in Canada still rank fairly high on many indicators, but they may be slipping. Furthermore, to the extent that social and cultural sustainability depend on economic sustainability, these rankings could deteriorate further in the future. The considerable variation among large Canadian cities in terms of their ranking on most of these indicators means that the challenges they face and the policy solutions to address those challenges will have to be different for different cities.

Effective region-wide governance is needed to meet the complex challenges facing large cities.

The sustainability challenges that metropolitan areas face are characterized by both strong inter-dependencies and by externalities among local jurisdictions and thus need to be tackled on a coordinated and region-wide basis. A regional structure is needed to resolve issues of transportation and land use coordination, as well as to ensure continued economic competitiveness, social cohesion, environmental sustainability, and the fiscal viability of city regions. Although the need for a regional structure is clear, the precise form it should take will vary with local circumstances. Different models (e.g. one-tier or two-tier governments, voluntary cooperation, special districts, provincial role) have worked successfully, to varying degrees, in different cities. More important than the precise model of governance chosen for a city region is that some form of effective regional governance is in place.

Many factors determine the success and sustainability of large cities.

No one has the answer to the question of what specific conditions, attributes and factors determine whether or not a city is successful. Nor it is clear what success means and how it should be measured. Nevertheless, a number of factors seem to resonate with assessments of the relative success of cities. One is the ability to adapt to change; to minimize the negative consequences and to take advantage of the opportunities that change provides. A second consideration is the ability of a city or city region to attract inward investment and to attract and retain talented people. A third consideration is effective local and regional governance, as set out above.

These responses require, among other things, effective leadership, sound government, sufficient fiscal capacity, coordinated public policies, high quality social services, enhanced cultural facilities and physical infrastructure, and an attractive natural environment. It also helps if cities have a mixed or diverse economy, proactive local agents of change and lower levels of income inequality and environmental pollution. These goals will not be met without concerted actions by all three levels of government.






1.1 Alternative Definitions 12

1.2 Criteria for Defining Large Cities 14

1.3 Canadian Cities: Attributes and the Size Distribution 19

1.4 Differences Between Canadian Cities: Large and Small 20

1.5 Conclusions 22


2.1 Key Factors: A Summary 25

2.2 Key Factors in the Success of Cities: A Summary 36


3.1 Economic Sustainability 42

3.2 Social Sustainability 48

3.3 Cultural Sustainability 56

3.4 Environmental Sustainability 60

3.5 Conclusions 62


4.1 Perspectives on the Role of Local/Regional Government 67

4.2 Criteria for Designing a Governance Structure 69

4.3 Governance Models 73

4.3.1 One-Tier Government Model 73

4.3.2 Two-Tier Government Model 77

4.3.3 Voluntary Cooperation 80

4.3.4 Special Purpose Districts 84

4.3.5 The Provincial Government as Regional Government 85

4.4 Conclusions on Governance Models 87

References 90

Data Sources 96

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