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Gérald Tremblay: Take care of the cities and you take care of the people

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“Take care of the cities and
you take care of the people”

By Christopher Hume, Toronto Star

27 June 2006: As delegates to the 2006 United Nations' World Urban Forum have heard over and over again, cities around the world are overburdened and underfunded. Rich and poor, large and small, the situation is the same: national and state governments starve cities so they can keep valuable tax revenues for their purposes.

The trouble is that more than half the world's population now lives in cities, and one billion of those people inhabit slums. That will double to two billion in 10 years, which means the problems are going from bad to worse. Civic infrastructures everywhere are deteriorating; even getting access to clean water, fresh air and basic safety can no longer be taken for granted.

That's why many sessions at the gathering, held in Vancouver from 19 to 23 June, were devoted to topics related to municipal finance. From around the globe, mayors, ministers, bankers and bureaucrats came to share their stories about raising cash. Though their experiences are wildly different, one theme seemed central to every tale — the future lies in partnering with the private sector. Though this isn't a message Canadians want to hear, they'd better get used to it.

Speaker after speaker, many from places like India, Afghanistan and South America, talked about the need for cities to become credit-worthy and more corporate in their governance.

One Canadian presenter, Pat Jacobsen of the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority, spoke about a $5 million railway that involved no less than five partners, public and private.

"It's quite a shift," Jacobsen said. "No longer can one urban area fund the transportation structure it needs. Partnerships are no longer an option; they are necessary to the development of cities. It's important to focus on moving away from traditional sources of funding. And more and more of our funding now comes from users."

In Toronto this is old news; TTC users already pay some the highest fares in North America and service has not kept pace with the city's growing needs.

But then delegates heard the Afghan minister of urban affairs, Yousaf Pashtun, who put things in perspective. Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, which had a population of 1.8 million in 1999, has now increased to 4 million. Most of those new residents, 65 per cent, live in "informal communities" around the city, where they have virtually no services. "There has been a serious failure to invest in the urban infrastructure," Pashtun declared. "I am disappointed by the neglect of the urban sector." According to Pashtun, rebuilding Afghanistan's war-ravaged cities would cost more than $27 billion.

Though cities as disparate as Bangalore and Belize have managed to raise the capital funds they need to build basic services, that doesn't help cover the costs of maintenance and operations. This is another issue that will be familiar to residents of Toronto, where the streets and sidewalks are not as well looked after as many would like.

As one speaker pointed out, in Canada 75 per cent of services are provided by cities, but they receive only 25 per cent of tax revenues. While Ottawa racks up huge surpluses, Canada's cities find themselves unable to fill potholes. Such disparity leads inevitably to civic deterioration, which has been the subtext of political debate in this country for more than a decade.

Regardless, when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the forum, he failed to deal with the plight of Canadian cities with anything more than piety and platitudes. Instead, he concentrated on the need for security, which, he said, in this post-9/11 world was our new national priority.

But as Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay pointed out yesterday, terrorism is itself caused by larger forces, many of them directly related to the collapse of the civic realm. Keep in mind that the world adds the equivalent of a city of one million every week and the extent of the problems comes clear.

Take care of the cities, Tremblay said, and you take care of the people. That's where they live; that's where the need is. "All cities have similar problems," he told reporters. "We are the true representative of the people. But still we have to convince national governments and institutions that we exist."

Not only do cities exist, they are where the future will unfold.

World Mayor 2023