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Urban Planning

The good, the bad and the down right backwards

Last month, Macleans magazine issued a bold exposition; assessing our cities.

Instead of measuring citizen’s happiness or measuring young professionals’ choices, the survey – conducted by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) – looked at the performance of city services compared to the cost. The magazine explained:

For without some sort of yardstick to measure their performance, either against other cities or against their own past record, how can they hope to know whether they are succeeding?

Macleans was quick to point out that their survey is different than the Frontier Centre’s Performance Index which they say measured how efficient Canadian cities are (doing things right) while Macleans was trying to measure how effective they are (doing the right thing).

There were two conflicting factors in the survey. One was inconsistency. Upon hearing the results, some cities’ Mayors complained that their city was unique and did not compare justly to other cities. And the fact is that some provinces maintain certain services while in other provinces, it is the cities that maintain those services. It was like comparing apples to oranges in many cases. A city that has a lot of crime may not be the fault of the police, just as a city that suffers a lot of snowfall may have to spend a lot of effort and money to plow it.

However the bigger problem in comparing the cities was the utter lack of transparency. In many cases, many cities either didn’t collect any data or feedback on their service levels or straight out did not release it to the public. But this all comes back to the main point, if we aren’t allowed to know the data which we already paid for, then how can we properly judge the decision making of our community leaders, or more importantly understand our weaknesses and improve upon that?

Macleans stated that if more than half the top 30 cities did not release information on a certain indicator, it was left blank such as “fire department response times or the percentage of roads in good condition” and if a city (like Victoria and Laval) didn’t release much data, they were dropped from the overall score. Painfully, one third of the cities offered very little data, specifically in regards to safety and protection (police and fire services). So AIMS had to rely on other previous works in the field of municipal assessment, such as Ontario’s Municipal Performance Measurement Program which started in 2000.

It’s not perfect, AIMS admits, but it’s a start. Assuming that Macleans will sponsor this survey on an annual basis, researchers hope that a pattern will emerge and hopefully pressure for open government data will prevail. In the meantime, it’s all meant for consideration.


One interesting point was that the cities near the top of the list tended to have low voter turnouts while those cities near the bottom had the highest voter turnouts in Canada. Perhaps happiness equates to apathy?

Another interesting trend appears to be geographical, lending weight that the provinces or regional attitudes may play a part in local city centres.

Three of the top four cities in the Macleans list are in Vancouver and its suburbs. Quebec contains three top cities (Longueuil, Sherbrooke and Quebec City) in the top ten list, and apparently have the best fire and police services in Canada. Four cities in the Atlantic region ranked in the bottom third of the list. Winnipeg scored well with having the fourth most city employees per capita and Winnipeg Transit scored really well.

Green the Gardiner

A Toronto architect has proposed building a seven-kilometre park on top of the Gardiner Expressway. The “green roof” was proposed for the run between Dufferin Street to the Don Valley Parkway, eight metres above the current road. It would be similar to New York’s High Line (video) (photo) which is a two-kilometre park on top of an elevated freight railway.

Since the Gardiner was built in 1965, residents have long complained that the elevated expressway blocked their view of the waterfront and recently the City of Toronto has been debating what to do with it. Mayor David Miller favours dismantling the expressway at the tune of $200 million while others suggest burying it at the cost of nearly $1 Billion.

Les Klein, the architect behind the unsolicited proposal says his idea would cost about $600 million, but the design also would include solar panels and wind turbines to power it’s lights. He argues that the roof would protect the road underneath from rain and snow and thus save the city from snow clearing and using salt.

Unrelated to the proposal, Toronto recently passed a bylaw that requires the construction of a green roof on all new developments of a certain size – a North American first.

Klein says even if his idea isn’t accepted, at least he has proposed an idea that will fuel the debate and get people to think about creative alternatives.