Last Thursday, Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi spoke to a full house in the Grand Banking Hall of 1 King West about the state of urban governance and city-building in Canada. Notwithstanding a few harmless jabs at Toronto’s less than ideal image in the media, Nenshi’s address took aim at the inequitable balance of power among federal, provincial and local levels of government. He had no qualms about questioning and diminishing the role of the federal government as he called for a renewed focus on the level of government nearest and dearest to citizens’ hearts. He mused that if the federal government disappeared no one would notice (or at least not for some time), but if municipal governments fell prey to some unfortunate fate resulting in their dissolution, the impact would be immediate and visceral.
According to Nenshi, “happy, healthy and safe” cities cannot emerge, much less flourish, when their governance institutions are trapped in a political game of Simon Says. As I looked around at nodding heads and sentimental smiles, it was refreshing to see a political figure as a unifying, rather than a polarizing, force. A room full of entrepreneurs, policy wonks and advocates were seemingly on the same page about the need to remodel our urban governance institutions in order to revive and strengthen our communities. Let me rephrase: a room full of Torontonian entrepreneurs, policy wonks and advocates were on the same page…you get the point. In a city blessed with an abundance of urban policy experts of the highest calibre, we have become so accustomed to fighting for a voice in municipal affairs that we don’t often recognize the sound of consensus. So now that we’re flying high on the Calgarian express to participatory governance, or at the very least a meaningful exchange of ideas, let’s push past the rhetoric and buzz words to shine a light on what is truly at stake if we fail to support our neighbourhoods: our health and well-being.
So why should residents of urban centres care about funding formulas, policy reform and investment commitments? Because research shows that the built environment, which includes land development, transportation and urban design, has a profound and lasting impact on population health. Our interactions with elements of the built environment shape our psychological and social health as well as our physical health, thus warranting a departure from compartmentalized conversations about taxes, service provision and quality of life. As much as I admire and agree with Mr. Nenshi’s belief that “prosperity lives in cities”, we would be shortchanging the citizens of this urban nation if we neglected to add that prosperity cannot be achieved or sustained without attention to advancing population health.
As cities leverage their political capital and economic potential to secure federal commitments to the transit and housing needs of their residents, let’s not lose sight of the underlying motivation for this urban revolution. Our advocacy efforts must explicitly name population health as a priority for city-building and an indispensable component of thriving urban spaces.
Let’s not lose sight of the palpable connection between good governance and good health.