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ARCHIVE: PRESIDENT'S MESSAGE

The Role of Cities in Contributing to National Prosperity: Making Sense of the Debate

Anne Golden, President and CEO, The Conference Board of Canada
May 1, 2009

I have always been fascinated by cities: what makes a city interesting; what makes it thrive; and how and why people settle where they do. Despite mounting evidence from economists, political scientists, and urban policy experts, the critical contribution that our cities make to national prosperity has not been properly acknowledged. Today’s urban theorists, so many of whom were inspired by the revolutionary insights of Jane Jacobs, stress the importance of livable cities, but opinions vary on the economic and demographic drivers of a successful global city. We have a smorgasbord of ideas to choose from.

Given the shifts in the economy and uncertainties about some of our key industries, it is an opportune time to put the spotlight on cities and to try to make sense of some of the most popular theories on how and why cities grow and prosper.

The critical contribution that our cities make to national prosperity has not been properly acknowledged.

Richard Florida’s theories on the creative class—which have, by now, achieved iconic status—essentially reversed the paradigm from “if you build it, they will come” to “if they come, they will build it.” This philosophy has prompted city builders to create urban strategies to attract talent, support technology, and foster tolerance. According to these theories, culturally rich and socially diverse cities with a strong knowledge-based economy will be the most successful. In a similar vein, Neil Bradford tells us that “place matters,” notwithstanding the ease of virtual networking.

Variations on Michael Porter’scluster theory” are also applied to cities. We hear a lot about the benefits of spatially clustering similar industries to enable a city to brand itself as a “technopole” or “centre of excellence.” Silicon Valley has become the poster child for cluster theory, but around the world, urban regions have been scrambling to carve out unique niches to remain competitive.

Thrown into the mix are various expert opinions on urban governance, prompting us to consider whether bigger is better; whether city-regions matter more than individual cities; and whether amalgamated “mega-cities” are efficient or dysfunctional. Are we moving to a world of urban mega-regions where new governance models are needed? In the Report of the GTA Task Force (1996), I argued in favour of replacing five regional governments with a single Greater Toronto government with the capacity to address the issues undermining the city-region’s competitiveness and impeding its success. In turn, local municipalities would continue to handle local issues, with fewer restrictions from the province.

Canadian political scientist Andrew Sancton disagrees that mergers are the right approach, arguing that city-regions, whose boundaries continuously move outward, cannot be self-governing. He also argues that amalgamation experiments have, by and large, failed to achieve economies of scale and, worse, have impeded progress by undermining local democracy.

Economist Tom Courchene argues in favour of creating formal city-regions in places where the concentration of economic power may eclipse that of some provinces. Alan Broadbent has gone even further, suggesting that Canada’s three great city-regions—Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver—be given the powers and status of provinces.

Ensuring our cities are attractive to a highly mobile labour force is vital in order to overcome the demographic tsunami of an aging population.

During the past several years the Conference Board has sought to explore some of these ideas through our work on The Canada Project—Mission Possible: Successful Canadian Cities, Canada’s Hub Cities: A Driving Force of the National Economy, and City Magnets: Benchmarking the Attractiveness of Canada’s CMAs. We set the stage in Mission Possible: Successful Canadian Cities, highlighting the importance of cities to Canada’s future prosperity. We argued that since cities today are the principal crucibles of innovation and production centres of knowledge-intensive goods and services, they must have the resources to fulfill this mandate. Ensuring our cities are attractive to a highly mobile labour force is vital in order to overcome the demographic tsunami of an aging population. In Canada’s Hub Cities: A Driving Force of the National Economy, we looked at eight of Canada’s largest cities and found that they function as the economic drivers of their respective provinces; Halifax is the economic driver of the whole Atlantic region. When hub cities grow and prosper, they boost the economic performance of smaller communities in their region.

In 2007, the Conference Board set out to assess the attractiveness of Canada’s 27 census metropolitan areas (CMAs), seeking to answer the question: Do our cities have what it takes to attract increasingly mobile skilled workers? In City Magnets: Benchmarking the Attractiveness of Canada’s CMAs, we ranked each and every one of our CMAs on indicators linked to one of seven key “attractiveness” domains (such as economy, environment, society, and education). We learned two important lessons: first, places with the highest rankings are also places with high levels of in-migration; and second, size matters—five of the top six CMAs are big cities.

The debate on cities will surely continue long into this century. The Conference Board’s third CIBC Scholar-in-Residence lecture will feature University of Toronto Professor David A. Wolfe, who will present his findings on 21st-Century Cities: The Geography of Innovation. Professor Wolfe will explore the underlying social dynamics of city-regions that drive innovation performance and economic outcomes. A distinguished panel—Judith Wolfson, Carl Zehr, and David Pecaut—moderated by John Honderich, the incoming Chair of Torstar Corporation, will respond. This complimentary event will be held on Tuesday, May 19, at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto. Seating is limited, and you are invited to register on our website.


Anne Golden Anne Golden
President and CEO
The Conference Board of Canada

Related Events
Third CIBC Scholar-in-Residence Lecture—21st Century Cities: The Geography of Innovation (complimentary event)

Related Publications
Mission Possible: Successful Canadian Cities
Canada’s Hub Cities: A Driving Force of the National Economy
City Magnets: Benchmarking the Attractiveness of Canada’s CMAs