Sevaun Palvetzian
CEO - CivicAction
Part of the Spotlight on Future Cities

Canadian Cities: First responders on our urban frontlines

Takeaways

  1. Top decision makers in government, academia and business should reflect Canada’s diversity to strengthen economic and decision-making representation, and attract foreign investment and expertise.
  2. Instead of relying on provincial governments to make top-down decisions, Canadian cities should have more independence in designing and implementing policies and programs that best fit their priority needs relating to key issues such as infrastructure, housing, climate change and more.
  3. Affordable housing is more than a social net for Canadians—it’s also part of an economic strategy. If we let it crumble, we discourage companies from setting up offices in our cities due to the lack of housing options available for their employees.

Action

I would call on all Canadians and ask them: “What is the issue you are most passionate about as an individual? How far are you willing to go to make that issue something that generates real momentum here in Canada?” I urge Canadians to think about that; and in particular, those who have particular privilege to do something about issues to stand up and take action. Nothing meaningful gets achieved by accident or through status quo thinking.


How would you define or describe the ideal future city, and how do Canadian cities compare to this ideal?

For me, the future ideal city is one that thrives with diversity, is powered by inclusive civic engagement, provides equal opportunities for its people, and seeks to harness the collective energy, leadership and big thinking of its leaders across all neighbourhoods and sectors.

Cities are living organisms that draw their shape and energy from the people who live and work within them, but also from the organizations, businesses and communities that call them home. When we put these diverse ingredients together, we see cities that collaborate and work together more successfully.

“I don’t think we can pat ourselves on the back for being progressive on diversity if we don’t have the same representation at the top levels of government, business, labour and academia as we see on the front lines and the realities in the streets below.”

When I look at Canadian cities, I see more and more working towards this ideal—from Edmonton to Hamilton, to here in Toronto. But there’s still a long way to go, especially when it comes to harnessing the diversity of people.

Canada has made diversity part of its national calling—but is it authentic?I don’t think we can pat ourselves on the back for being progressive on diversity if we don’t have the same representation at the top levels of government, business, labour and academiaas we see on the front lines and the realities in the streets below.This is a topic area CivicAction will continue to work on.

I worked in the provincial government among senior executives for 10 years. When I think about all the decisions that were made in policy and programming, I think about the small group of similar people who designed and implemented them for nearly 13 million Ontarians.

“It’s 2019—we’ve run out of excuses as to why our leadership positions from city council chambers, business hallways, executive boardrooms are not reflective of the diverse populations in our cities.”

It’s 2019—we’ve run out of excuses as to why our leadership positions from city council chambers, business hallways, executive boardrooms are not reflective of the diverse populations in our cities.If policies are not being dreamed up by a diverse set of thinkers, then how they end up being implemented will differ from what we expect.

To continue to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) and companies to open offices here, our decision makers need to reflect new entrants that come from different communities all over the world. Economic activity in Canadian cities will take root if new entrants and businesses enjoy a competitive advantage—in our case, diversity—that is hard to replicate elsewhere. We are sitting on a goldmine of expertise and talent, and it’s time we invest in and nurture diversity programs to improve hiring practices and address systematic biases in hiring and retention.


What are the top issues facing Canadian urban centres today? Who would you like to see tackling them and how?

One of the top issues is that the way orders of Canadian government are organized, and how they receive their requisite authorities and powers, is broken.At the apex of our government structure is the federal government. That, in turn, gives certain powers to the provincial governments and territories; including healthcare, education, and transportation. Cities, however, are almost an overthought in this 150-year-old structure.Back in 1867, only about 16% of Canadians lived in cities.

Today, however, 86% of Canadians live in cities. Because cities are still the creatures of the province, this creates a huge power imbalance that holds our municipalities back from deciding their priority needs on their own. This leaves them in profound and longstanding shortages in infrastructure development, affordable housing, a gap in social services—the list goes on and on.

“The way orders of Canadian government are organized, and how they receive their requisite authorities and powers, is broken.”

For example, municipal governments are responsible for about 60% of our nation’s public infrastructure but they only receive about 12 cents of every tax dollar paid in Canada. How are cities supposed to build adequate and efficient infrastructure for public transportation, bike lanes, sewage and so on, with so little funding?

We are an urban nation and that reality will only continue to grow.  We need our governance structures to catch up and reflect that so cities can manage the realities of the complex problems they face on the front lines with residents, and do so with the right balance of powers and authorities.


Housing affordability is one of the most publicized areas of economic disparity in urban centres. What measures can be taken—and by who—to improve on this point?

Most of us are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which shows physiological needs—such as shelter—as the first level of the five stage model. Our need for shelter hasn’t changed, but our availability to meet that need definitely has.

From West to East, Canadians face extraordinarily high housing rates. In the GTA, homes are being sold at a starting price of $775,000, which is completely out of reach for many people. Our vacancy rates for rentals are at an all-time low, hovering around 1%. In addition, there are waitlists of people in the tens of thousands trying to get into social housing.

“Social housing needs to be interwoven in a coherent economic strategy as it plays a critical role in meeting human needs and a thriving city.”

Social housing needs to be interwoven in a coherent economic strategy as it plays a critical role in meeting human needs and a thriving city. Young adults and families seek to live in densely packed, mixed communities that don’t require cars—that is, cities in which residences, schools, parks and other amenities exist close together.

Density doesn’t have to be a dirty word for our neighbourhoods. Whether its laneway suites or rezoning measures that promote gentle density, we can collectively find innovative ways to broaden available housing options in existing neighbourhoods—and we can do it in a way that shifts attitudes away from a “not-in-my-backyard” mentality.

The issues facing housing affordability and availability also affects our ability to prepare and greet sometimes unexpected influxes of new entrants that arrive in Canada. It’s estimated that the cost for housing and resources for refugees and new entrants was $65 million in 2018—but paying for this required the City of Toronto to reach out to the federal government for help.

And on the economic front, companies will not move to the Toronto region if we can’t provide access to affordable housing options for their employees.

Toronto has prospered in part because it was renowned as a place where people could find a home and live. If our affordable housing system crumbles, we will have a much harder time creating a thriving city.


What actions must be taken to build climate change resilience into every facet of Canada’s current urban lifestyle?

There are two sides to climate change that require simultaneous action.

The first side concerns changing our behaviours to better take care of our planet: by reducing our collective carbon footprint; increasing the number of recycling facilities; reducing food waste and so on. These are actions we have control and influence over.

“We have to empower cities to activate their resilience to climate change as they know what their priorities are and can find relevant answers faster.”

The second side to climate change is getting ready for what is coming and adapting to new realities we haven’t faced before. When the federal government signed on to the Paris Agreement, we saw provincial governments set some pollution reduction targets through a carbon tax. The Paris Agreement is a global strategy, but municipal leaders and cities are on the front lines, and they are experiencing priority issues first.

“There are opportunities to engage both the private sector in climate change adaptation, especially related to our infrastructure, and the non-profit sector in choosing smart housing ownership models.”

For example, the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events, such as flooding, is next to normal now. In response, the federal government stated in its new construction policy that as of 2020, all new homes will need to be built with different levels of resilience. But what do we do with all the homes that were built prior to 2020? Homes that were built over a hundred years ago will also need to install backflow valves in their basements and we need to support these upgrades with funding. We have to empower cities to activate their resilience to climate change as they know what their priorities are and can find relevant answers faster.


How can different stakeholder groups collaborate to carry out infrastructure development and affordable housing?

There is a general understanding that to ensure our cities thrive with adequate infrastructure, and affordable and resilient housing solutions, it will require large amounts of capital and significant alignment in goals. Fortunately, collaboration among different stakeholders is much more present than it used to be.  We are witnessing a revitalization of sectors blurring.

We see a lot more input from the private sector to contribute to a city’s economic development and equity efforts. As for governments, they don’t assume that they have all the answers and that fixing cities is solely their responsibility. Even if it was, they don’t have the capital and we can’t rely on our governments to single-handedly address the problems cities face. There are opportunities to engage both the private sector in climate change adaptation, especially related to our infrastructure, and the non-profit sector in choosing smart housing ownership models. Put together, this mean we have a better chance of creating thriving and diverse cities.

“We have never been better off in terms of the high levels of civic engagement we are seeing. People want to plug in, be part of community building, be part of finding housing solutions, and put their passion to action.”

It’s also important to include more individual and grassroots level solutions. We see that civic engagement is more vibrant and widespread than ever. We have an Emerging Leaders Network at CivicAction that now comprises 2,000 rising leaders. Four years ago, it had 1,000 members. We have never been better off in terms of the high levels of civic engagement we are seeing. People want to plug in, be part of community building, be part of finding housing solutions, and put their passion to action.

Without question, the wisdom of crowds always delivers a better answer. I urge decision-makers in Canada to take the process by which they look at an issue as seriously as the issue itself.  Don’t just rely on internal policy advice or partisan ideology as a rudder. Rather, complement the evidence with insights from a  cross-section of players—that include individuals with lived experience—to consider new approaches to the ever-growing list of urban issues we collectively face.