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Even Michael Bloomberg thinks Saskatoon is doing it wrong

As Richard Florida points out

As Michael Bloomberg recently wrote in the Financial Times, great urban centres, like New York, London and Toronto, can’t outpace the rapidly growing cities of Asia or Latin America simply by offering lower costs, tax breaks or other subsidies. “For cities to have sustained success, they must compete for the grand prize: intellectual capital and talent,” he said. “I have long believed that talent attracts capital far more than capital attracts talent. The most creative individuals want to live in places that protect personal freedoms, prize diversity and offer an abundance of cultural opportunities.”

Florida also asks the bigger question of why the best and brightest are not thinking about running in municipal politics in some cities.

A while back, at a dinner party, a friend who occupies a vaunted position in Toronto’s entertainment industry asked me: why is it that Toronto can’t attract the best and brightest to local office? World-class global cities face thorny problems that require top-flight leadership. In Boris Johnson, London has a media-savvy, Oxford-educated conservative mayor who cares deeply about the quality and diversity of his city. Rahm Emanuel in Chicago is an immensely experienced, extraordinarily capable former U.S. congressman and chief of staff to Barack Obama who is governing effectively from the left of the political spectrum. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman, is a pragmatic moderate who calls on the best minds from all sectors and strata. Even Newark, the city of my birth, one of the most economically disadvantaged cities in America, now has the dynamic Cory Booker, a Stanford grad and Rhodes scholar with a law degree from Yale University, as its mayor. Here in Canada, Vancouver has Gregor Robertson, a former organic farmer and businessman who’s delivering on a green agenda and actively addressing homelessness, public health and affordable housing. And Calgary—to which Torontonians love to feel superior—has in Mayor Naheed Nenshi a young, Harvard-educated Muslim who’s intent on reforming council and growing his prosperous city in a fair and sustainable way.

While other cities are attracting effective mayors from across the political spectrum, our mayor has become a symbol of Toronto’s plight. Yet that plight is not of his making. Municipal governments across Canada have limited powers. Times are lean, which leads to shrill debate about how best to achieve these goals. Battles about bike lanes and library hours and plastic bags fill the daily media, but they distract us from the reality that the city’s future is being shaped by global forces we ignore at our peril.

Of course he ignores, that many did run but could not beat Ford but he does get around to the answer.

To start, Toronto requires the rudimentary governance tools needed to chart its future course. It makes little sense that this nation’s largest city can’t govern itself and plan its future. The mayors of U.S. cities have considerably more power, which is one reason the Bloombergs and Emanuels are attracted to the job. The political theorist Benjamin Barber has charted the highly innovative, pragmatic solutions on everything from fighting crime and improving schools to economic growth and climate change developed by this new breed of mayoral talent, and argues that much of economic and social life would be better “if mayors ruled the world.” Canada’s mayors cannot even rule their own cities.

Over the years, the federal government and provinces have downloaded many costs and obligations to the cities, but little authority. As the philanthropist and Maytree Foundation chair Alan Broadbent has pointed out, Canada’s cities essentially “rely on the kindness of strangers,” notably the provincial and federal governments. This, he suggests, leaves cities with essentially no control over their destinies. Canada’s cities need to become more like provinces—with real power and real revenue to solve their problems and build their economies.

Toronto has a wealth of city builders and city-building organizations. What it needs is more effective leadership vehicles that can braid their myriad efforts together as a real force for change. Richard Daley Jr., the Democratic mayor who spearheaded Chicago’s global rise for more than two decades, told me recently that the key to much of the success he had was progressive business leadership. In Chicago, that type of leadership goes back more than a century. The 1909 Burnham Plan, which envisioned a revitalized city centre, was supported by the Commercial Club of Chicago, a group of businessmen who responded to the need to make improvements to their fast-growing city. Today, a group of private sector leaders called World Business Chicago, whose mission is to build a “global economic powerhouse,” is focused on attracting new corporations to the city.

He also talks about the need for regional planning

One illustrative example comes from Silicon Valley. Not too long ago, this area south of San Francisco had little long-term strategy or vision, just a welter of competitive entrepreneurs intent on developing the next big thing. After the recession in the early 1990s, the entrepreneurs came together to form an organization called Joint Venture: Silicon Valley. As its name implies, it was formed as an inclusive network of business, political, labour and civic leaders, and organizations from multiple cities and jurisdictions—a stark contrast to the top-down organizations and old boys’ clubs found in older cities. It based its deliberation on data-driven analyses of the local economy, measuring variables that shape the region’s prosperity. Armed with such facts, and backed by many of the major institutions and players in Silicon Valley, Joint Venture became a highly effective agent of change, identifying key issues the region faced, and bringing state and federal attention to problems and opportunities it identified. It focuses on issues like unaffordable housing, transit, growing inequality and a burgeoning class divide. Sound familiar?

Toronto needs to act in harmony as one region, not a city versus its suburbs. Joint economic development would enable municipalities to grow together. It makes no sense for separate towns to compete for businesses that are going to locate in a shared region. Daley organized the mayors of greater Chicago’s municipalities and would actively help them land new business prospects rather than compete against them. By working together as a single region, we can stretch our boundaries, leveraging the broader capabilities that can enable greater Toronto to compete with much larger cities around the world.

There is a path to greater prosperity in Saskatoon but we just don’t want to take it.  Instead we hang on the mantra of lower and lower spending and taxes.  We are the Walmart of North American cities.

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