The quote holds out hope for what a mid-sized city can become: “These cities have the potential to become leaders of sustainable and inclusive city-building initiatives across Canada.”
It’s posted on the website of Evergreen Canada, a group coming to London on May 15-16 to see if we can make the cut as a municipality dynamic enough to carve out a more prosperous and meaningful future for itself.
That Evergreen is coming to London at all, in co-operation with numerous local organizations, might be a sign that it values our potential, but it could just as well be a recognition that we are floundering enough as a community that we could use some outside help.
It’s tough in a country as spread out as our own to compete with the likes of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and their ability to generate economies, attract diverse workforces and display world-class amenities. Yet, compete we must, for — as Evergreen states — we run the risk of becoming backwater communities if we don’t.
London already knows what this feels like. Far from the confident claims we were making three decades ago, before the collapse of our major manufacturing base, we now spend a great deal of our time wondering how to recapture our edge.
There are those who feel the way ahead is to flaunt our advantages, yet their voice is easily matched by others who sense our best days of momentum are behind us.
We are a modern community that can house both viewpoints, but the longer we take to get our act together, the more a collective sense of unease sets in.
We are not alone in such a predicament. Most mid-sized cities face uncertain futures. But London is settling into a precarious period, where major initiatives potentially create significant divisions that can drown out other positive developments. At times, our politics get divisive, running the dangerous risk of local citizens turning off key policy initiatives and walking away from engagement. Some seeking office find it easier to declare what they are against instead of what they’re for. It gets discouraging after a time.
We continually find ourselves in predicaments where negative voices seek to derail initiatives that have been in the works for years: BRT, the London Plan and a supervised drug use site being the most high-profile examples. Whichever side one chooses in such cases, the nagging reality remains that most cities our size — Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo, being the closest examples — moved ahead on these amenities years ago and benefited as a result.
Where London once used to lead, we now hover, afraid of risk and stubborn in our intransigence. We are fearful of whispering our dysfunction, lest it turn out to be true. In the process we have permitted a generational divide to carve our city into warring entities that sap our collective spirit.
These are neither fabrications nor permanent realities, but they are serious and, for now, debilitating.
Bill Barber, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, cogently noted: “It used to be that people were born as part of a community and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals and have to find their community.”
Finding that community is turning out to be a complex and protracted exercise. A globalized world has left us constantly adjusting in an effort to discover our place in all the confusion. If London is to find its groove, it can only be as a collective citizenry instead of merely self-directed individuals or a melee of activist groups.
We have to ask ourselves how cities like Hamilton, Halifax, Saskatoon and Kitchener-Waterloo managed to collectively find that sweet spot of learning to journey together into the future as opposed to striking off in all directions or enduring a citizenry facing off against one another.
And how can it be that, in a city in Southwestern Ontario possessed of powerful amenities (post-secondary institutions, medical centres, tech hubs, civil society organizations, and a talented human resource base), we remain disenchanted and mired in our own limitations?
It’s not all about politics or leadership. It’s about a people of spirit, dedicated to each other’s welfare and a collective future.
More columns are coming on mid-sized cities and their potential. In the meantime, go to evergreen.ca to learn about the upcoming events in London.
This post can be found in its original London Free Press format here