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Are Cities Really That Important?

May 22, 2008

By former Canada’s World blogger Christopher Leo

I’m asked to blog about the power of cities, one of the topics listed in the Canada’s World discussion guide. Let’s start with a basic question. Much of the argument for the power of cities rests on their position in a global economy, in other words their economic importance.

However, any newspaper reader will attest that much of Canada’s economic strength rests on commodities: oil, hydroelectric power, lumber, minerals, agricultural produce. Are these not produced in rural areas? Of course they are. There’s no question, therefore, that rural production is critical to Canada’s economy.

To get at the importance of cities, we have to ask, not where commodities are produced, but where the control lies, and where the ideas were developed without which they could not exist. Almost always, the answer is cities. For example, Canada’s largest source of oil is the Alberta Tar Sands, which were originally developed – and a substantial share of which is still owned – by the corporation that today is called Suncor Energy Inc. Its headquarters are in Calgary.

The earliest version of the process that allows allows bitumen, or tar, to be converted into oil was developed by Dr. Karl Clark of the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Similarly, agricultural commodities are usually produced in rural areas, but agricultural research stations are generally in cities, as are the companies that control marketing and processing.

More fundamentally, although urban-rural rivalries are easily generated and lovingly cultivated, by both city dwellers and aficionados of rural life, they serve no practical purpose. Cities are generally the centres of decision-making and invention, and they are also major producers of goods. The fact that they usually exercise control does not take away from their reliance on the products that come from the countryside, and the importance of rural production, but it does underline the salience of the phrase “the power of cities”.

Cities are our primary generators of ideas, our centres of economic control, and of much important production, even in an economy driven by commodities. The prosperity of us all, even those of us who work in rural areas, depends on the prosperity of our cities. As surely as all Canadians rely on commodity production, we rely on the health of our cities, and of the networks of infrastructure and services that keep them viable.

For a darker picture of the position of communities in a globalizing world, take a look at The Age of Community.

~ Christopher Leo

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2008 11:39 pm

    Hi Renée and Christopher,

    You’re touching on some of the issues we’ve been thinking about a lot lately here in our Vancouver office, since we just hosted a big dialogue on the global food situation. The impression I’ve gotten is that growing more food locally is an important part of a healthy approach to food production and distribution. I really worry, however, about the potential impact going local could have on places (both in Canada and abroad) that aren’t blessed with the fertile soil we’ve got in the Lower Mainland – or on those places where agriculture is one of only a few comparative advantages.

    What I’d really like to hear is how global and local could complement each other in a sustainable, equitable way. I haven’t seen that vision yet, though I’ve been looking for something like it to add to the resource guide we’re compiling on food. It’s here:

    http://www.igloo.org/canadasworld/foodfortal

    And definitely not complete yet, so I’d love suggestions for links to add to it – particularly anything that meshes the local and global in an innovative way.

  2. June 5, 2008 8:32 pm

    Thanks to Chris Adams for his kind comments. I can add that it works both ways. The kinds of critical questions your students asked are what teachers and writers need pull them up short and make them work a little harder developing their ideas. Thank your class from me for keeping us on the ball.

    Reneethewriter: Yard gardens are a great idea. We grow herbs and vegetables in our yard, and there’s nothing like fresh produce.

    Rural-urban antagonisms are a good way to get votes, and sell books, but they’re also a great way to keep us from developing sensible solutions to some of the difficult urban and rural development problems we face where the city and the countryside are adjacent to each other. Cities that straggle out across the countryside harm themselves and harm agriculture at the same time. Could be a topic for another blog entry.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    June 5, 2008 6:44 pm

    As a writer and a community gardener, i’m very interested in learning more about your ideas regarding “urban -rural” rivalries – recently a friend showed me photographs from east Vancouver during WWII and how many backyards and lawns were transformed into “victory gardens” – people were encouraged to grow their own food and to share surplus food. I find it interesting that within the growing “eco/green” movements within our cities, such notions – about eating local, growing food, planting vegetables instead of ‘lawns’ – are once again encouraged. I liked the way your thoughts open up several lines of ideas about cities and the “surrounding countryside.”

  4. Chris Adams permalink
    May 31, 2008 6:50 pm

    These comments are quite useful. In our political economy class after reading Harold Innis’ material regarding Canada’s reliance on staples, students were surprised that political writers were arguing how cities are the engines of our economy. How can this be with Alberta relying on oil and Manitoba on hydro electricity, grain, and minerals? etc etc.

    I suppose staples and cities could be the ying and yang of Canadian political economy.

    Leo’s comments here provide a thoughtful response to the discussions in class.

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