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Urban myths
January 31, 2009 | Christopher Hume | Toronto Star
"A checkup of Canada's major cities reveals some surprises (it's okay, Montreal, you're still cool)


Say what you want about this country, it's nothing if not big.

Just how big came clear to me when I travelled from coast to coast by train last summer. I had done the trip when I was a kid wanting to see Canada, but this time was different.

This time my journey was for The Nature of Things, one of CBC TV's most venerable documentary series. The show's executive producer, Michael Allder, had more or less called out of the blue to ask if I'd like to be part of a one-hour program looking at the state of Canadian cities. Once I realized Allder hadn't dialled the wrong number, I said yes. The decision took about two seconds.

The prospect was daunting, but the opportunity too much to refuse. Cities interest me enormously, and in Canada each one comes with its own mythology. You know what I mean: Toronto's so self-centred it thinks it's the centre of the universe; Vancouver exists in the middle of a natural paradise; Halifax is a sleepy Atlantic port where little happens.

It didn't take long to figure out that many of these myths are just that – myths. Though some are based on a modicum of truth, others have no basis in reality.

More than that, the hard truth in Canada is that we neglect our cities. We fail to value and invest in them. As a result, they are literally falling apart around us. Worse still, they are failing to keep pace with other cities around the world, especially in Europe and Asia.

Though Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a passing attempt to deal with Canada's urban crisis in this week's federal budget, it's clear he has at best a partial understanding of what's at stake, indeed, of what Canada has become: a thoroughly post-modern, multicultural, urban nation.

Successful Canadian cities are those that have a strong and clear sense of their own destiny. They carry on despite chronic underfunding and legislative impotence.

Some of the cities we visited – Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver – were exactly what you'd expect; others were anything but.

The biggest surprise was Halifax; it doesn't get much attention, but what a fantastic place – compact, coherent and connected.

On the other coast, Vancouver has become one of the world's most desirable cities, routinely voted the number-one livable community on Earth. But don't hold your breath for Calgary, Winnipeg or Edmonton to make that list. Western Canada may have a lot going for it, but not its cities. As Gertrude Stein would have said, there's no there there. For all the wealth, these cities are rough, unfinished, uncared-for and scarily empty.

My first question: Where is everyone?

At the same time, the trip allowed me to meet many Canadians who toil quietly but tirelessly to improve the quality of their cities. They do it for money, of course, but everyone I spoke to – planners, politicians, designers and architects – brought a huge personal commitment to their work. Some of the most poignant moments we filmed were with idealistic civic employees convinced they could turn the sow's ear of suburbia into the silk purse of the city.

Good luck. My skepticism notwithstanding, I wish them well. Let's not forget, if they don't succeed, neither will Canada.

You can watch Christopher Hume's The Nature of Things documentary, Living Cities: A Critical Guide, on CBC TV, Thursday, Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. You can join in on the discussion on Canada's most livable city and post pictures of your favourite places at cbc.ca/natureofthings."