Canada: Smart Cities, tough choices

Canadian cities are regularly cited in various global “smart city” indices. Yet a growing number of complex social and environmental ills have been left largely unaddressed over the past 3 decades.  The new Federal Government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is seeking to tackle these, and has set itself some very ambitious targets. Success will depend not only on the amount of money spent, but on how choices are made. 

“Brand Canada” has for decades been defined by its millions of lakes, towering Rockies, forbidding north and quaint coastal communities. And for good reason, as its first settlements were first established by its Aboriginal peoples nestled into geography to facilitate trade, protection and travel. European colonisation relied heavily upon these networks to establish its first towns and cities in the East, which stretched westwards with the arrival of the locomotive in the late 1800s. Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver have been transformed from their fur-trading past, evidence to this is Toronto making an appearance in Star Trek featuring Viljo Revell‘s city hall design known as Nathan Phillips Square, or Moshe Safdie Habitat model community in Montreal build for Expo ‘67. 


Backdrop: Canada does not have a national urban policy and housing continues to become more unaffordable


These otherworldly spans of concrete were juxtaposed against the sidewalk thinking of Jane Jacob who made Toronto her home for 35 years. She reminded technicians and politicians alike of the inherent complexity of cities and their need for bottom-up design and mixed-use neighbourhoods to realize safer, more desirable and economically prosperous nations. Her influence is readily apparent in neighbourhoods like the celebrated St-Lawrence Market which in the early 70’s was a brownfield site carpeted with parking lots and car dealerships, transformed today into thriving a neighbourhood with integrated social and market-based housing, businesses, restaurants, entertainment venues, transportation hubs and park space. 

Unfortunately, many of these valuable lessons have been lost. Despite Toronto and Vancouver leading North America high-rise construction for close to a decade, housing continues to become more unaffordable. Many also question the value of what is being built. All too often new developments do not focus enough on what will take-place at the street-level where life occurs. Without affordable spaces for entrepreneurs, artists and social enterprises there is no diversity and the neighbourhood is starved of vital life force. Despite being located in relatively central locations, no one except for its residents have a reason to venture in. They are in effect re-creating suburbs. While they may be vertical, they are equally burdened by the ensuing higher costs and inefficiencies associated with their older siblings that have been the bane of cities around the world. 

Its vast wilderness may shape Canadian identity, but with more than 80% of Canadians living in urban areas, cities are increasing defining its destiny. Yet despite their importance, many are surprised to learn that Canada does not have a national urban policy. This is as a result of Canada’s approach to federalism in which Towns and Cities are governed by its 10 provinces and three territories.  Previous governments have been loath to be seen as “interfering” and have left cities to govern themselves within a hodgepodge of often conflicting provincial standards and norms. Not surprisingly this lack of strategic integration has not worked very well, particularly as cities lack the funds necessary to cover more than basic 20th century core services (roads, waste, water, parks and recreation), leaving out critical areas such as 21st century concerns, including: social services, housing, mass transit, transportation and a whole host of economic innovation initiatives. This is understandable with property taxes making-up only 10 per cent of the total tax bill for a resident while the other 90 per cent are being sent to provincial and national governments. The current crisis in housing affordability is one example, with alumni of the St-Lawrence Neighbourhood regeneration admitting that it would never have happened without the involvement of the national government to fund key aspects of the vision.  


Not every problem can be solved by an app, real construction is required


Yet another is on the environmental front. Canada in previous years has the dubious distinction of having won the Fossil of the Day, Fossil of the Year, and the Lifetime Unachievement Fossil Award from the Climate Action Network, an NGO involving some 110 countries working to promote action on climate change. And it has been well deserved, if one looks at Canada’s annual per capita production-based Green House Gas (GHG) emissions have been 22.65 tonnes of carbon dioxide, among the highest in the world and a 26 per cent increase since 1990, rather than the 6 per cent reduction which had been agreed to in the Kyoto protocol. Yet behind this stark national figure is an enormous range of GHG emissions attributed to cities & neighbourhood levels. Cities are undeniably the most effective level in which a whole host of policy instruments can be deployed to limited GHG emissions, but a national framework is required to actively measure these and assess their impact when making infrastructure, economic and urban planning decisions.  

 Against this backdrop, what are some of the Smart City initiatives that are being brought to bear and to create more sustainable, equitable and prosperous cities in Canada?   




Networks – Partnerships – Impact 

Many Canadian cities have been quick to recognize that digital and big data that are shaping how they evolve and public services are used. Toronto’s Open Data initiative currently involves 222 data sets and being used by over 70 applications created by independent developers. Indeed many of the world’s largest tech giants —IBM, Cisco, Siemens are spending millions of dollars promoting smart city technology across Canada. Why is this? While they may be loath to admit it, the reality is that many politicians are ill equipped to tackle the complex realities facing today, particularly when they insist on viewing any proposal through exclusive tax reduction or union preservation lenses. Without a doubt, big data and smart technologies allow us unparalleled insight into what is happening, but Rob Ford stands as a stark reminder that many do not want to look. During his era, one of his many pet peeves was bicycle lanes which he perceived as a “war on car drivers”. He was in good company with a majority of Torontonians agreeing with him. But slowly but surely bike lanes have been slowing expanding across Toronto and with this has been a dramatic shift in public attitudes. Maybe roads are like houses, with “fences” making for better neighbours?  Cities need strong leaders to make this work, but there is no substitute to real life experience. Part of being smart, agile and nimble, requires all levels of government being able to show us what works at the street level. When in doubt, pilot, pilot, pilot it would seem.

So not every problem can be solved by an app, real construction is required. A perennial problem facing many of Toronto’s older neighbourhoods, internet speeds are limited to legacy copper phone cables, creating nightly digital gridlock as Netflix uses go online. For the fortunate people live and work in one of Toronto’s fastest growing neighbourhoods thanks to a new partnership with Waterfront Toronto, a public organization all three spheres of government, builders -chosen on the basis of their design and environmental credentials- and two-tech firms: Beanfield a fiber-only internet provider and IBM. Through this commercial initiative, this rapidly growing neighbourhood is being wired with residences having access to an asynchronous 1 GB service on an open-access basis. Waterfront Toronto is quick to emphasise that this smart city initiative is much more than a stress-free internet streaming initiative. At its heart will be a 33,000 innovation centre targeting the creative industries that will require a state-of the–art network for data-intensive applications. The scope of this ambitious revitalization project is targeting 110,000 mixed income residential units and room for roughly 40,000 employees, with the right kind of infrastructure built as a prerequisite, not as an afterthought. 


With more than 80% of Canadians living in urban areas, cities are increasing defining its destiny


Certainly Waterfront Toronto and the St Lawrence neighbourhood hold many important lessons for the Federal Liberal government as they move to launch a National Housing Strategy, implement a $60 Billion dollar Infrastructure Programme that lowers greenhouse gases, and commits $2.6 million dollars to countries around the world to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Smart technologies and high-powered simulation models may not be able to interpret our individual often contradictory beliefs, hopes and anxieties but we have, can and must build better cities. We live in era where unprecedented technologies hold the promise of making smarter decisions. The challenge before us all is to ask the right question and be willing to listen and understand the answer.


John Hogan, Independent Consultant based in Toronto, Canada


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