Building Resilient Cities in Canada

On March 13th and 14th 2015, students from the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance joined the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan for the sixth annual Ford+SPPG Conference. The event brings together students from both schools in a team-based learning environment where they are challenged to analyze, evaluate, and present key findings related to a current policy issue facing both sides of the border. This year’s conference theme was “Building Resilient Cities: Addressing Crisis & Ongoing Stress.”

Jason Apostolopoulos

People often talk about “resilience” as a personal trait. A resilient individual has the ability to adapt to and withstand ongoing stress. They also have the capacity to effectively deal with, and bounce back from, a serious crisis.

However, resilience is also important for Canada’s cities, which also face stress and crises. For example, Canadian cities are experiencing growing income inequality, a reality that is associated with poorer health outcomes and higher rates of social unrest. Moreover, crises can hit cities at any time with little to no warning, be it an ice storm, a flood, or a gas plant explosion. And with a changing climate, the threat of extreme weather events will increase.

If we want to build resilient cities, it is crucial that we improve the capacity of the economy, communities, business, institutions, and governments that make up a city, so that all can withstand ongoing stress and bounce back when a crisis hits.

Fortunately, Canadian cities have a lot to be proud about when it comes to resilience. In April 2014, a study by the Grosvenor Group ranked Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary as the three most resilient cities in the world. These cities were found to have effective emergency planning in place, sufficient access to funding, and a high quality of governance and institutions compared with the cities all across the world.

Despite these high rankings, the reality is that Canadian cities still face serious challenges. Numerous researchers have noted that Canada suffers from a severe municipal infrastructure deficit, estimated at $123 billion and growing by almost $2 billion each year. And the problem is not just a physical one: in Toronto, a study by the United Way released just last month ranked the city as the income inequality capital of Canada.

It clear that there is still a lot that Canadian cities can do to build resilience. A few ways that cities could do just that include:

1) Designate a Chief Resiliency Officer (CRO) in each city

In April 2014, San Francisco became the first city in the world to hire a Chief Resiliency Officer (CRO). Other cities have followed since, including Oakland (California), Norfolk (Virginia), Porto Alegre (Brazil), and Medellín (Colombia). The job of a CRO is to work across departments and levels of government in order to ensure that a city is able to to deal with various environmental, social and economic challenges. No Canadians city currently has a CRO. Resilience must be a priority, and the leadership and system-wide thinking a Chief Resiliency Officer can bring to a city government is crucial.

2) Promote cross-sectoral partnerships within cities

Canada needs to leverage the resources it has in order to build economic resilience in the face of global economic changes and economic shocks. Cities are a perfect locus to bring people, communities, and sectors together to build new opportunities and diversify the economy. Federal, provincial, and local governments should work to increase partnerships between universities, community organizations, and local businesses. In addition to building capacity, these partnerships provide the necessary links and relationships to increase the flow of information and resources in a crisis.

3) Foster community engagement

Increasing resilience at the community level is crucial to building resilient cities. Communities need to be able to take stock of the resources available to them when crisis hits, and build plans to respond effectively. A report by RAND identified key building blocks as: building partnerships between community members and local organizations; educating community members; and building neighbour-to-neighbour ties.

Moreover, there needs to be an increased level of public engagement in policy development and implementation by city governments. Current initiatives geared towards involving the public must extend beyond poorly-advertised consultations and town-hall meetings.

4) Address the municipal infrastructure deficit

Canada needs to address its infrastructure deficit in order to ensure that cities’ physical systems are resilient. As mentioned above, this deficit is currently valued at $123 billion and growing by almost $2 billion per year. Various strategies to combat this problem have been proposed, including:

  • the creation of a national infrastructure strategy that pools resources across the country and identifies project priorities
  • increased funding from the federal government, and
  • the use of innovative funding arrangements at the municipal level, such as municipal revenue tools, and increased regional collaboration between municipalities

In order to mitigate and respond to the twenty-first century stresses and crises, all Canadians, from the government to community level, need to play in part in building resilient cities.

Jason Apostolopoulos is the Co-Chair of the 2015 Ford+SPPG Conference, and is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Their research interests include resilient cities, population health, and arts and culture policy.

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