New research says Canada is falling behind on how it collects and shares critical information on cities

Two of the country’s leading experts on urban policy say that Canada is falling behind the rest of the world in its ability for policy makers to access information on Canadian cities, a call that has become even more urgent in the face of COVID-19.

In a newly released report by the Canadian Urban Institute, Gabriel Eidelman, director of the Urban Policy Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and Neil Bradford, chair of political science at Huron University College at Western, argue that Canada needs to create a new national entity that houses the best available quantitative and qualitative data on cities, what they’re calling a Canadian urban policy observatory.

The observatory, if developed, would allow policy makers to easily compare data and policy approaches across Canadian cities and quickly adopt solutions already working in various parts of the country, the two argue in the report, something they say is essential as cities look towards COVID-19 recovery.

“As the federal and provincial governments turn their attention to post-COVID policy frameworks, they must learn from the frontline experiences of cities from across the country,” Eidelman and Bradford say. “Now is the time to bring all the available data we have on cities, all the different urban policy frameworks being tried in different jurisdictions, into a single place so policy makers can get a full picture of what’s working and what’s not across the country.”

The UN-Habitat and the OECD recently called on all countries to implement a “national urban policy” which they term an “essential instrument” in achieving sustainable development goals.

But the reality is that Canada has no national urban policy or the “one-stop-shop” entity that Bradford and Eidelman are calling for, unlike many other countries around the world.

“We need a coordinated and comprehensive platform that allows an urban policy maker, in say, Surrey, B.C., to easily find data and policy approaches being tried in St. John’s, N.L,” the researchers argue. “Without something like an urban policy observatory, we’re flying blind.”

The observatory, the two researchers propose, would be part repository, aggregator, clearing house and knowledge broker, and would collect, standardize, analyze, and publish qualitative and quantitative data on Canadian cities and, crucially, the political systems and policy frameworks that govern them.

Most importantly, the observatory would serve as a building block toward greater intergovernmental dialogue on urban priorities, bringing local challenges to the attention of upper-level governments, and highlighting opportunities for shared problem solving.

“COVID-19 has shown that people working at the local level are the wells of knowledge, with invaluable evidence that support appropriate interventions and policy,” said Mary W. Rowe, CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, the national non-profit that released the report. “To support these efforts, we must ensure that decision makers and community leaders have timely access to the information required to lead our cities through this crisis and prepare for recovery and renewal.”

5 Key Takeaways

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. Transportation is an essential service

Within a short time frame, transportation services across Canada have transformed in order to meet the continued demand during COVID-19. Most importantly, public transportation ensures that Canada’s front-line workers find their way to work each and every day. Will COVID-19 change the way we value public transportation in the long-term?

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

2. Transit is an equity issue, now more than ever

Not all Canadians have the luxury of owning a car and as such, there are many Canadians who continue to rely on public transportation. Not all demographics use public transportation at the same rate and this remains true during COVID-19. How can we ensure that public transportation is providing the best service possible for those who need it most?

3. We need to reevaluate the cost of transportation

With reduced ridership and the implementation of free transit across many Canadian cities in response to COVID-19, there are serious concerns about how municipal governments will continue to fund these services. While the costs of public transit are tangible, it would be valuable to gain a better understanding of the costs of empty roads. Have we been over-subsidizing the private car ownership model?

4. Window of opportunity for active modes of transportation

With the increased uptake of cycling and other outdoor pursuits, COVID-19 presents a unique window of opportunity for the promotion of active modes of transportation. Perhaps behaviours adopted during this time will continue after social distancing restrictions are lifted.

5. The time for bold ideas is now

As we transition out of this pandemic, there is an incredible opportunity for Canadian cities to pursue new and innovative ideas when it comes to both the use of public space and the provision of public transportation. The time for bold ideas is now.

Panel Transcript

Note to readers: This video session was transcribed using auto-transcribing software. Manual editing was undertaken in an effort to improve readability and clarity. Questions or concerns with the transcription can be directed to events@canurb.org with “transcription” in the subject line.

MARY ROWE: [00:00:55] Hi, everybody, it’s Mary Rowe with the second instalment of CUI City Talk. Very pleased to have another gathering today. And we’re learning as we go with these sessions and we have another group today that are willing to step in with us and experiment on how we can create different kinds and ways of communicating with one another.

MARY ROWE: [00:01:16] And of course, their topic is exactly that: civic engagement and public engagement and how we’re actually going to imagine ourselves in the shorter term and in the immediate term, finding ways to enliven our democracy and so have access to the kinds of opportunities, input on development decisions and all sorts of things that are obviously need to be talked about and discussed and negotiated. [And what are the right mechanisms to do that? I just want to acknowledge that we are we participate on these across the country. And so I’m going to offer land acknowledgement here for Toronto. But everyone is participating with their own context. But here we’re speaking to Toronto, which is people knows the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Annishnabec, the Chippewa, the Haudenasaunee and the Wendat peoples and are now home here in Toronto to many diverse First Nations. We acknowledge that we are also subject to Treaty 13 signed with the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Williams Treaty signed with multiple Annishnabec Nations And we are anticipating having more participation from indigenous communities who are extraordinarily challenged by this. And we’re in the works trying to plan those sessions and make sure that we have as many topics that are relevant to the First Nations communities covered in these sessions and then focus on that and these forums. Just a caveat that I offered at the last one. You know, like we’ve been really careful to make sure that we are not supplanting emergency services and we recognize that there are many, many, many thousands and thousands of Canadians across the country who are dealing with emergency situations. They are facing life and death decisions and all sorts of challenge and that these conversations are happening in parallel. But we want to be cognizant of that, that there’s much suffering and challenge that people are facing. We are trying to make sure these discussions are practical, that they’re focusing on specifics, that they’re dealing with these three timeframes, immediate, medium term and then longer term. And we are focusing on what’s working, what’s not and what’s next. We’re trying to steal ourselves to not engage in sort of superfluous prognosticating or big, big generalizations. We’re really trying to ground ourselves in what people are actually seeing. Observing is happening in the fields. Everyone here on this session and on every session, we have is participating as individual. They may work for a public sector agency. They may have clients in the public sector or in the private sector. But everybody here is participating as an individual.

MARY ROWE: [00:03:51] And we also acknowledge that we are not fully representative.

MARY ROWE: [00:03:55] We’ve got four slots. We’re never going to get everybody represented. And we’ve had some major calling out about us not being as diverse as we need to be. And we’re taking that very seriously and trying to find a way to make sure that we cover the whole country as best we can and that we make sure that we’re representing a diversity of communities. If you have input to us about how you’d like us to be putting these sessions together, and if you’ve got suggestions about ones that you’d like to see happen, you can e-mail us at covidresponse@canurb.org. And you can also tweet at us and do various things to just express to us suggestions on how we can make these sessions better. We also continue to need volunteers to help populate city watch Canada.ca and city share Canada.ca. It’s extraordinary all the partners that we have across the country, organizational partners and then many, many, many individuals who take an hour a day and watch or track for us and then input onto those platforms. So we’re keen to have as many volunteers that want to step in. We’d love to have you. We’re using a Twitter hashtag, as I suggested, which is hashtag city talk. You can carry on and communicate that way.

MARY ROWE: [00:05:10] We’re as I said, we’re learning on these things. And last time we realized the chat function is extraordinarily important. And so not all the panelists are looking at the chat. Sometimes it’s more difficult to do that. But we have staff and colleagues who were tracking the chat. And you can, by all means send a comment or a question to us and we will feed it in. You also last time what we found is people are having their own conversations on chat, which we’re really rich, kind of a parallel channel, which was great. And one of the participants who was watching keenly said to me, why don’t you keep that chat open for 30 minutes afterward? So we took her up on that and we’re doing that. So this chat will stay live for half an hour after the formal session stops. You can feel free to use that. And as I said, you can also use Twitter and other. Media, but stay on that chat. And I don’t know whether any of us can join you, but people you will all have a chance to chat with each other on that. And we’re recording this session, as you can see. Someone said this morning that to remember both in the chat and in terms of the conversation, we’re going to have that something that go. It’s not like Las Vegas, folks. If you put something up on that chat, it stays in that chat. So think carefully before you post something, because it’s up there for posterity. We are taking the content here and we are going to continue to harvest the best ideas, repurpose them, put them into some blogs, see if we can get some good audio files coming out of it. So the idea is that not just the groups that are on the call now, but others will continue to look at this as a resource.

Chat Room Transcript

Note to reader: Chat comments have been edited for ease of readability. The text has not been edited for spelling or grammar. For questions or concerns, please contact events@canurb.org with “Chat Comments” in the subject line.

12:00:55 From Abigail Slater to All panelists: Hi!

12:01:24 From Sue Hallatt, CUI Staff to All panelists: Welcome! Sit tight – we’re waiting for folks to log on and we’ll start in a minute

12:01:33 From Canadian Urban Institute to All panelists: participants are still rising

12:05:07 From Sue Hallatt, CUI Staff to All panelists: covidresponse@canurb.org

12:05:37 From Canadian Urban Institute: covidresponse@canurb.org 12:05:46 From Sue Hallatt, CUI Staff to All panelists: #citytalk 12:05:57 From Lisa Cavicchia: please chat here!

12:06:07 From Danielle Wiess to All panelists: Are we all on mute as attendees?

12:06:13 From Canadian Urban Institute: #citytalk 12:06:16 From Sue Hallatt, CUI Staff to All panelists: YES!

12:06:21 From Anna Procopio to All panelists: Hi everyone, thanks for setting this up.

12:06:23 From Canadian Urban Institute: yes, Danielle, you are muted 12:06:27 From Abigail Slater to All panelists: Great idea!

12:07:29 From Neil Chadda to All panelists: Hello 12:08:10 From Michael Redhead Champagne to All panelists: oh Toronto lol 12:08:33 From Canadian Urban Institute: Hi, All. If you have questions or comments, please chat with panelists AND attendees. Thank you!

12:11:08 From Carolyn DeLoyde to All panelists: I have a question about statutory requirements like adequate notice for development applications?

12:11:32 From Michael Redhead Champagne to All panelists: yes, what about basic things like bathrooms? From a design perspective people can’t live well enough to engage in community proccesses if they dont even have a spot to go to the bathroom — especially right now during covid-19 12:11:41 From ajeev bhatia: Planners need to develop community development skills – I love that Amanda! Would be nice to tease that out a bit more – it can be nuanced and often conflated.

12:14:06 From Mary Pickering to All panelists: Give us that book title again please!

12:14:14 From Michal Kuzniar to All panelists: Can we get the title and author of the book in chat?

12:14:14 From Dawn Green to All panelists: What is the name of the book Jane mentioned/ 12:14:16 From Dawn Green to All panelists: ?

12:14:20 From Steve Krysak to All panelists: Could you share that book title again?

12:15:02 From Mary Rowe: Paradise Built in Hell Rebecca Solnit