February 8, 2013 - MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley writes about the pattern of urban growth in Canada and the future of our cities. Read his latest Postmedia column below, also published in the Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette, Edmonton Journal, Saskatoon's StarPhoenix, Regina's Leader-Post, Windsor Star, The Province, and Canada.com.


The future of global cities

By Brian Lee Crowley, Ottawa Citizen, February 8, 2013

We all know how valuable our telephone is. In fact, based on what object spends the most time in their hands, young people prize their phone above all else.

So here is a thought experiment: if you owned the only phone in the world, would it still be valuable? No. You couldn't talk to anyone. What if you had one of only two phones in the world? Great — if you wanted to talk to the person with the other phone. Even a communications system that connects you with a few thousand people only matters if you want to talk to those specific people.

This is an object lesson in the value of networks. Generally speaking, the value of a network rises in proportion to the number of users squared. For the non-mathematically minded, that's simply a fancy way of saying the more the merrier. The phone and the Internet are so valuable because practically everybody is connected.

Cities form another kind of network. In the late 20th century there was a network of cities, deeply connected with each other, that ran much of the world, cities like London, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles. They enjoyed wealth and growth because they were deeply interconnected and wealth radiated out from them to surrounding regions. Other lesser cities often mattered chiefly because they lived at the intersection of the routes between great cities. Singapore, for example, stands athwart the great trade routes linking Asia and Europe.

The rise of the developing world is reconfiguring the network of the world's great cities, and this has powerful implications for Canada and our cities.

According to Paul Romer, one of the world's leading economists, roughly two billion people will be added to the world's population by 2050, and all of them will live in cities, chiefly in Asia. And because cities are engines of prosperity, magnifying the productivity of every one of their residents, the network of cities that matter in the world is being redrawn at lightning speed.

According to Romer, in a few short years, any city of less than 10 million people will be relegated to the junior leagues. Emblematic of Europe's fall from influence is the fact that perhaps only a couple of cities on that continent will make it into the new network of cities where the big decisions are made and the people who matter live. We will see the rise to world prominence of the Shanghais, Manilas, Mumbais, Mexico Cities and Sao Paulos, and with them whole new technologies, industries and global brands.

Make no mistake, cities are networked. It is said, for example, that many venture capitalists will only invest in companies that are within a two-hour direct flight of their home city. If they have to change planes to get to you, you are off their network. I recently travelled from Ottawa to a Central American city and had to take four different planes to get there. Those cities are in different networks that hardly touch.

In this global urban network, size matters. Will Canada be on the network?

Only if we become more clever and honest in thinking about our own cities.

In common with all the great cities, the pattern of urban growth in Canada is heavily weighted to the suburbs and exurbs, observes Wendell Cox, a prominent urban demographer. Yet, we are fixated on what is happening in the city centres. News reports abound about growth in the downtown cores of, say, Vancouver and Toronto, but are virtually silent on the hugely more important growth happening well outside the core, in places like Surrey, Coquitlam and the 905 area code. Municipalities try ever more energetically to shoehorn growth into the centre, and people ever more energetically resist, moving where they have more space, competitive taxes and better access to services and widely dispersed jobs. In Ottawa-Gatineau, 94 per cent of the region's population growth between 2006 and 2011 was outside the central core.

Fixed-line rapid transit, incredibly expensive and ill-suited to the way people move around cities now, is inexplicably all the rage, including in mid-sized cities like Ottawa and Calgary. When people lived in the suburbs and worked in the centre, heavy investment in moving people between the core and suburbs made sense. Telecommuters will soon overtake users of urban transit (they're already there in many U.S. cities), and jobs are widely dispersed, not concentrated exclusively downtown.

Road-pricing, and to a much lesser extent buses, are examples of much more flexible and effective tools than costly fixed transit networks that only serve the needs of a fraction of tomorrow's city dwellers but please fashionable urban planners who understand little about how cities will work in the future.

Canada is the fastest-growing G7 country. That growth will happen chiefly around vast cities. We must stop kidding ourselves about what working cities look like. Get it wrong and we risk falling off the network. Then, no one will answer our calls.

Brian Lee Crowley is managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen


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