Viewpoint (July 01, 2006)

Last month in Vancouver, I participated in a marathon of conferences and seminars arranged by the professions of architecture, planning and landscape architecture that reminded me of the high calibre of professional expertise in this country. Yet how much are we truly aware of the global challenges relating to housing and community that affect our own preconceived notions about the future growth of cities in Canada?

As the various conferences came to a close, an even larger conference began. From June 19-23, Vancouver hosted the third World Urban Forum (WUF) organized by the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT). Over 10,000 people from the around the world– including architects, planners and political leaders–gathered to focus their attention on the issues relating to sustainable cities. WUF’s mandate set out to consider three major sub-themes: urban growth and the environment, partnership and finance, and finally, social inclusion and cohesion. Clearly, the various sessions at WUF were designed to effectively move our cities–both rich and poor–towards better solutions through the sharing of knowledge and expertise.

An opening speech at WUF by Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested that our leaders need to be better informed of the importance of Canadian cities and that we must make a greater effort to learn from the problems of the world. Harper addressed the audience with a dismissive comment on how “academic theorists have spilled oceans of ink asserting formulas for sustainable urbanization,” adding that “the foundations of healthy neighbourhoods are healthy families… service clubs and faith- and school-based volunteer organizations who perform similar functions.” As representatives from the world listened, we should ask ourselves why must the value of community and social capital depend upon the structure of a conventional and perhaps outdated notion of family, where attending parent-teacher meetings and organizing church dinners is essential. Our cosmopolitan cities are far more diverse and sophisticated than Harper’s nostalgic and traditional vision of society.

As cities continue to lobby for more power, Harper expressed a more limited role for municipalities where “men and women will serve as mayors and councillors, build the streets and sidewalks, provide potable water and public transit,” presumably leaving the role of social inclusion or affordable housing to faith-based organizations. It is embarrassing for Harper to gloat about Canada’s urban achievements when he cannot even provide adequate housing and drinking water for our own Kashechewan First Nations people.

What ever happened to the value of competent and ideologically clear good governance? As explained in a United Nations background paper, the power of good planning and effective management of strong, empowered city governments is critical in making our cities sustainable, and “when the power to pursue planning decisions is weak or non-existent, or based in bodies not directly accountable to urban residents, then goals aimed at sustainable cities are unreachable.”

Discussing the problems of the world’s cities clarifies the perils of our own urban conditions at home such as the rapid consumption of land, accelerated destruction of farmland or the unabated growth in automobile dependency–common themes the world over. On the ever important subject of housing, if we substitute “gated community” or “tract housing suburb” with “slum,” we will find ourselves in similar circumstances to cities like Mumbai or Jakarta. Alternatively, the problems of limited control associated with “self-organizing” housing developments in the Third World–a condition inhibiting a municipality’s ability to provide essential infrastructure such as sewerage and electrification–can be roughly translated to the challenges associated with privately financed developer housing in Canada. To ensure that government decision-makers are better able to manage the physical growth of our cities, we need new forms of leadership amongst not only politicians, but architects and planners as well. It is events like WUF that help raise the issues to facilitate working towards solutions.