In Montréal, Habitat III forum hails rise of ‘cities planning’

At the heart of a thriving region, the formal thematic meeting discussed the new era of metropolitanization and offered input to the New Urban Agenda.

Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos (left) and Montréal Mayor President Denis Coderre shake hands at the recent thematic meeting on metropolitan areas, 7 October. Coderre is also president of the Metropolitan Community of Montréal, which hosted the meeting. (Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal)

MONTRÉAL — Two days of intensive discussion about the role and shape of metropolitan areas in the future of urbanization led to many bold pronouncements, perhaps none bolder than the death notice issued by Victor Vergara, a World Bank urban development expert.

“The era of city planning is dead,” he said. “It’s cities planning. If you plan only for your city, you’re getting it wrong.”

That warning resonated strongly with the representatives from more than 40 countries, 90 cities, 145 organizations and 115 local governments gathered in Canada’s second-largest city. The convening last week was the second “thematic meeting” in preparation for Habitat III, next year’s U. N. conference on cities. The event’s consensus document, the Montréal Declaration on Metropolitan Areas, serves as formal input to the New Urban Agenda, which will guide U. N. policy on urbanization for the next 20 years.

[See: Montréal Declaration: Metropolitan areas key to sustainable urbanization]

But, Vergara also cautioned, just swapping “urban” for “metropolitan” when it comes to planning and policy won’t cut it either. The dynamics between downtowns and suburbs, city centres and urban peripheries, necessitate new ideas about land use, transportation, housing and financing.

Such a holistic framework reflects current realities, according to Rovena Negreiros, president of São Paulo’s metropolitan governance corporation, EMPLASA. “Cities don’t have boundaries,” she said. “Urbanization is not happening just in the central city.”

Montréal example

The metropolitan theme was particularly well suited to Montréal, which is at the core of a robust metropolitan governance system, the Metropolitan Community of Montréal (CMM in French), which also hosted the meeting.

[See: Preparing for the great metropolitanization]

CMM, in turn, is a founding member of the Network of Metropolitan Areas of the Americas, an initial effort to establish peer-to-peer learning among metropolitan governments, just as numerous networks exist to connect cities. EMPLASA is also a founding member, and the network decided at its inaugural meeting last year in São Paulo to nominate Montréal as the host of a Habitat III meeting on the subject.

“In the end, it’s important that the Habitat III agenda reinforce the idea of the metropolitan citizen and creation of metropolitan identity,” Negreiros said.

At the grass-roots level, that kind of effort is already underway in Montréal, home to the non-profit Marcher la Région (Walk the Region), which organizes an annual three-day traverse of Greater Montréal on foot. Photographer Alexandre Campeau described the walk as an “extraordinary experience.” “By doing this journey on foot, some borders become clearer than ever, but the impression of being part of a greater whole is equally strong,” he said.

At the political level, meanwhile, Montréal is nearing special “metropolitan status”, which would give it more direct control over its affairs. In light of negotiations with the provincial government of Québec, where Montréal is the largest city, Mayor and CMM President Denis Coderre told Citiscope that CMM “is a living thing that’s growing”. He highlighted transportation and social housing as particularly ripe areas for the metro region to assume greater autonomy.

[See: In the Montréal area, 82 municipalities begin to think and act as one]

Admittedly, Greater Montréal has gone through growing pains. It merged municipalities into a single mega-city in 2002 only to demerge at voter insistence in 2006. CMM was created as a compromise between consolidation and isolation.

Last week, CMM held its second Metropolitan Agora, an opportunity for local officials and everyday citizens to participate in a daylong public forum about the metro region. “Referenda are not as important as consultation,” Coderre said, referring to the Agora. “That’s real democratic participation.”

Financing the region

Given the fragmented nature of metropolitan areas composed of a central city and smaller peripheral municipalities, the challenge of financing across those jurisdictional lines occupied much of the attention at the thematic meeting, held 6-7 October.

Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos insisted, “Cities are a factory that create money.” By that, he meant that metropolitan areas are the leading economic drivers of their respective regions and countries, and that their contribution to the tax base should provide them with a source of financing for local projects.

[See: A towering challenge: Habitat III must promote municipal fiscal health]

Unfortunately, it rarely works that way, and several leaders pointed out the imbalance between what they contribute to national tax coffers and what they receive in return. Bob Stacey, deputy president of Portland Metro, considered the strongest metropolitan governance structure in the United States, admitted, “We’ve raised money for parks and the zoo, but we haven’t had the boldness to raise money for transit and social housing.” He continued, “We’re afraid to tax ourselves.”

Portland’s neighbour to the north, Vancouver, found itself in a similar situation in July. At that time, metro-area voters rejected a referendum to provide nearly USD 5.8 billion in transit funding — without which Mayor Gregor Robertson had indicated “There is no Plan B.”

In hindsight, Raymond Louie, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and vice-chair of Metro Vancouver, thinks it was foolhardy to send the issue to voters at all. “When was the last time people voted to tax themselves?” he asked. “Sometimes government has a role in stepping in to make decisions and not just having a referendum.” (In recent years, voters in Los Angeles and Denver have voted for tax increases to support public transit.)

Metro Vancouver is Canada’s oldest metropolitan governance structure, founded in 1967. That made it a fitting counterpart to host city Montréal. Moreover, Vancouver was the host of Habitat I, the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, in 1976.

“Vancouver has been blessed with generations of good planning,” Robertson said at a lunchtime speech hosted by the Montréal Council on Foreign Relations. “But we’re stuck in a 150-year-old model of sending money to the federal government, from when Canada didn’t have big cities like this.”

Learning from North and South

In the wide-ranging debate on metros, it seemed that everyone at the thematic meeting agreed: There is no one-size-fits-all, or even one-size-fits-many, approach. That was both the opening and closing message from Clos, who has studied the issue both as former mayor of Barcelona and as current executive director of UN-Habitat.

“Metropolitan areas have one common feature,” Clos said. “There is no single model of governance for metropolitan regions. Everyone is different.”

[See: Metropolitan regions the ‘new normal’, study suggests]

In part, that stems from a dichotomy between the developed and developing worlds.

“In the West, metropolitan governance is a very complex issue, because our governance structures, legislation and traditions are so complex that when you need to move the law to the reality, there’s a usually a huge fight,” Clos said. “In the developing world, it’s totally different. Central government is highly centralized and local governments are really weak.”

But even if cities like Portland, Vancouver and Montréal provide models of functioning governance systems, Clos was just as quick to point out metropolitan Lagos or Kenya’s recent experiment with city-counties.

“We can learn from developing countries how they are reacting and managing their problems in a much more experimental way,” he said, underscoring further calls for South-South cooperation on this key issue.

New metropolitan agenda?

Whatever the model, Janice Perlman, founding president of the Mega-Cities Project, sounded a cautionary note about governance structures that are not locally responsive. “No metropolitan area will function unless it’s the metro of all the people,” she said. As example, she highlighted a “people’s plan” for metropolitan Rio de Janeiro as an alternative to an ongoing government-driven process.

In primarily unelected roles, metropolitan governments often struggle vis-à-vis citizen groups focused on accountability. “There is a challenge of democratic legitimacy,” said Edgardo Bilsky, research director for United Cities and Local Governments, a global network. Nevertheless, Pierre Hamel, a Université de Montréal sociologist, said, “The metropolitan area is part of the solution much more than the problem.”

Université de Montréal Associate Professor Michel Max Raynaud summed up the historical trajectory that metro advocates invoke: “If the 19th century was the nation state, the 21st century is the ‘metropolitan state’,” he said. “The challenge of the New Urban Agenda is integrating this idea in the nation state.”

[See: Charting the metropolitan century]

Indeed, given that U. N. member states, representing national governments, will ultimately decide on the details of the New Urban Agenda, metropolitan and local governments are facing an uphill battle.

“We are going to find a pragmatic solution that will recognize the hope that during the [Habitat III] conference we will do what the U. N. General Assembly has asked me to propose,” Clos told Citiscope, referring to the U. N. resolution authorizing next year’s cities summit. That mandate specifically calls on the conference to meet and exceed the level of participation set for Habitat II.

[See: Let’s not forget the legacy of inclusiveness from Habitat II]

Coderre, in turn, told Citiscope, “Power is human nature. Local authorities are more than a trend — we are a counterbalance.” He added, “The meeting today sends a very strong message.”

Note: This story has been updated to include reference to the final declaration.

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