“It is always easy to create an ordinary city; what is difficult is to create an extraordinary one, peaceful and restful one, smart and tidy, artful and cultivated one.  In short, a livable one,” wrote Mehmet Murat ildan.

It makes sense, seems perfectly plausible, and for committed citizens and good politicians should be doable.  Yet many Canadian cities are having trouble achieving it.  Those that struggle inevitably compare themselves to other municipalities elsewhere that seem to have their act together and lament that we lack the resources, leadership or innovation to replicate such success.  There’s a lot of that going around these days in this country, especially among mid-sized cities.

Since my time as a member of parliament in Ottawa a number of years ago I have wondered if a huge part of the difficulty for Canadian cities is that they don’t really factor that much in our form of federalism.  They can’t really raise taxes the way the province or the feds can.  They are constantly encumbered by rules established by senior jurisdictions.  Even though 80% of Canadians now live in cities, they still have to humble themselves before their senior political cousins to beg for the right to be what they believe they can be.

In short, cities are distant participants in our federalism and in our constitutional arrangements.  When Canada’s founding BNA Act was drafted and implemented, only 1 in 10 citizens lived in urban settings.  Since cities and towns weren’t prevalent, their care was assigned to the provinces by the federal government.  Cities only received a brief nod by our founding fathers.  Modern Canada no longer looks anything like that, yet when it comes to those places where most citizens now live the old rules still apply, leaving our cities incapable to taking full advantage of the innovation and creativity available to cities in other lands.

Sure, for over a century the structure of our jurisdictional authority worked fairly well in Canada.  But that was before the world turned upside down through immigration, globalization, the free movement of capital and goods, and the incessant movement of people to cities.  Now it is our larger communities, in which are housed most of the talent and creativity, institutional strength and ability to generate economy and collective compassion, that have the capacity to lead Canada into this new, more complex world.  Call it the culture of indifference.  True, provinces and Ottawa and waking up to the advantages, power, creativity and diversity, but it’s not enough.

All of this puts Canada troublingly out of step with the rest of the advancing world, without a solid federal urban strategy, and with provincial governments freely playing communities against one another in pursuit of their own purposes, especially the concentric circles that gather around places like Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.

We are long past the time when we must configure new arrangements of power – ones that prepare us to better face a fast-paced world but which also bring out the best in human, institutional and technological resources residing in each city.  Perhaps then cities can be resourced enough to create their own future instead of just envying others.  Without such shifts in power, cities will always remain caged within a bureaucracy long past its due date.