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Urban matters: City life in Alberta

Alberta stands at the vanguard of the historic shift from rural to urban living in Canada

Nov 5, 2013

by Michael Ganley

When the architects of the Canadian constitution sat down in Charlottetown in 1867 to draft the documents required to structure the federation, fewer than 20 per cent of Canadians lived in an urban centre. Faced with a population spread over millions of square kilometres – connected only by the telegraph, rutted roads and a growing rail system – the fathers of confederation wanted to centralize power, guard against the growing power to the south and ensure the fledgling country’s survival. Many of the structures they established (the tax and justice systems, the House of Commons and the Senate, to name a few) reflect this reality.

My, how things have changed – and how they haven’t.

Today, the percentage of urban dwellers versus rural has completely reversed, with more than 80 per cent of Canadians now living in cities. They have become not only the homes for most of us but are the economic engines of the country and an increasingly important piece of our social fabric.

And Alberta is at the vanguard of this historic change. Once a predominantly agrarian province, the fastest-growing large cities in Canada are Calgary and Edmonton; small towns like Olds and Airdrie are going through similar per-capita changes; and Fort McMurray is in a class by itself.

With population growth, cities have taken on increased responsibilities for providing the basic services and infrastructure on which we rely. They build the roads, sewers and playgrounds, they provide public transportation and social services, they engage in business development and much more.

The challenges facing cities as a result are many and varied, but one handicap they face is universal: In many ways the tools of the federation remain stuck in those original documents from 1867. In particular, the power of taxation remains in the hands of the federal – and, to a lesser extent, the provincial – government, forcing cities to rely on regressive property taxes or to turn, hands open, to the higher levels of government for the money they need to operate. Of all the decisions that could be taken affecting our cities, those that better balance the powers of taxation to the jurisdictions that need the money will be among the most important.

In this issue of the magazine we dive into the world of cities. We look at the urban-suburban battle that festers in Calgary; at two change-the-life-of-a-city mega-projects; and at the growth challenges in Fort McMurray. We also sit down with a roundtable of experienced practitioners of city development and bring you our annual Best Communities for Business rankings. All in all, it’s a story of where our cities have been, where they are and where they’re going.

And we’re all along for the ride.

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