World Urban Forum provides insights into Northumberland's future

First published: June 29, 2006

In the next 50 years, two-thirds of the people on this planet will live in cities, according to experts who gathered in Vancouver last week to talk about the future of cities. That may seem a bit abstract for residents in Northumberland, yet much of what was discussed are issues we are facing or will face in the very near future.

The United Nations Human Settlement Program and the Government of Canada under the broad theme of “Sustainable Cities – Turning Ideas into Action” ran the event. The weeklong program brought together 10,000 participants from over 100 countries, representing governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, urban professionals, local authorities, the private sector and academia. Throughout the week, participants met in plenary, dialogue and special sessions, and attended 13 roundtables and over 160 networking events, exploring various aspects of sustainable urban development.

It is hard to imagine politicians in Cobourg, Port Hope, Campbellford or Brighton attending an event of this scale; and, yet it is very relevant.

Hank Dittmar, an American transport expert and head of the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment (set up by Prince Charles to promote traditional building design) said the use of local building materials in construction and the adherence of traditional architectural style is very important in the future.

“We should be moving toward cities that are based around walking than around the motor car, and around living in a way that relies on the sort of energy budget and food budget that’s available to us close by.”

He also advocates for the creation of localized jobs, not ones where people need to commute.

When one looks at the types of development going on around the edges of our towns and the resulting sprawl that is occurring, it certainly gives pause for thought. Also, Northumberland’s economy is not self-sustaining. One only needs to watch Highway 401 on any given morning or sit in the train stations to see the number of people who leave the area to work.

Another speaker, Michael Dear, a professor of geography at the University of Southern California, is concerned about the incredible polarization within cities, saying at one end of the spectrum are the poor, while on the other, there are what he calls “cities of gold”.

This trend is already here, as we watch the Ontario government provide unbalanced funding for things like infrastructure. Cobourg was unable to get grants while surrounding municipalities did. And, there is a preoccupation with handing over a lot of money to large metropolitan urban centres like Toronto, Mississauga and others and a lot less to rural-based urban centres like Peterborough, Belleville or Cobourg and Port Hope.

He also joins the chorus of speakers who worry about sprawl, but he is concerned that there are no clear, centralized urban places. He gives the example of Los Angels, where there are 20 or 30 downtowns. While not as large, it is interesting that places like Cobourg and Port Hope are developing economic centres on the edge of their towns to compete with the downtown. Certainly, it is offers economic choices, but it also means a certain level of fragmentation, which can eventually lead to problems.

Others talked about environmental impact of global climate change and the impact of technologies like the Internet and wireless that mean people don’t have to meet face-to-face anymore. Besides separating people, it is also leading to incredible, and even radical, democratization, as people network online as a means of organizing protest or getting the attention of government.

Philippino sociologist Walden Bello, executive director of the Bangkok-based research and policy institute Focus on the Global South, predicted an urban nightmare, if current trends continue. He warns of the lack of attention to farmers – a message that would ring true for many Northumberland farmers.

The lack of agrarian reform, the dumping of cheap subsidized agricultural products on the markets and decades of cit-biased and industry-first economic development policies are about to cause massive problems. While local farmers have made the same points countless times to politicians at every level of government, Bello sees this taking place all over the world.

In the poorest countries, subsistent farmers are leaving to find a better life in urban centres, creating massive problem because there is insufficient jobs, housing and social safety nets. The results are slums where there are high rates of squalor and crime, costing the rest of the economy a great deal of money. The disparity also creates tension and violence. And, don’t think this is just a problem with developing countries. The recent outbreak of violence in Toronto could be traced to these inequities.

This directly affects Northumberland County. Demographic studies done in the past few years show families with teenage children are migrating to our area in an effort to get away from the social strife in the big city. In the process, some of those issues around youth are transferred here and municipal leaders will need to have plans to manage this other than run athletic and recreational programs.

A key term mentioned again and again was sustainability. The sense of endless progress, where there was always a need to move forward – bigger and better – can no longer exist. For municipal leaders this is counterintuitive. If there are no more subdivisions, no more stores opening or no more increases in population, and then it is a bad thing. It may be time to carefully reconsider all of these assumptions. Growth may only be able to occur if there are enough doctors, as an example. Or no more subdivisions until the province can generate sufficient electricity to serve it.

There is no better time to debate all these ideas than the upcoming municipal elections. Politicians seeking office must demonstrate they are aware of these global trends and how they are affecting Northumberland. Citizens must also ensure candidates do not hide from addressing these key issues. Yes, the forum was about cities, but what it was really about was everyone’s future.

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