What makes a city a city, officially? Kelowna and Sudbury could be a surprise


The sun is shining over downtown Kelowna and Lake Okanagan on a September morning. According to the city, its population is over 143,000, enough to be considered an urban area by Statistics Canada, but it does not meet the criteria for a new international definition of “city”.

Lucas Oleniuk / The Globe and Mail

The good people of Kelowna believe they live in a city. In fact, local tourism developers refer to the location as “the largest town in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia”. But according to a new international definition developed over the years by the European Commission, the OECD, the World Bank and others, and approved in March by the United Nations, Kelowna is not making the cut. It’s a city.

Fredericton is not a city either, the century-old capital of New Brunswick whose roots go back to Fort Nashwaak, built by the French in 1692. The northern Ontario community of Sudbury, nor the Quebec municipalities of Saguenay and Lévis, all three of which have populations hovering on either side of 150,000.

The new definition, based on population and density thresholds, was designed largely for the purposes of international statistical comparison. No one will insist that these places remove the word “city” from their letterhead. But the demotions run the risk of confusing people who believe they live in a metropolis and raise a philosophical question: what is a city?

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“Every day I would compare Sudbury to cities much larger than ours,” said Mayor Brian Bigger firmly, saying that whether a place is a city should be judged not just by density or number of people. , but by what they accomplish. He highlighted the work at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory that had led to a Nobel Prize in physics, an honor he said could not be claimed by all the places where the UN deemed a city “in its own right.” “.

“The critical and essential minerals that are required for future technologies, battery technologies and everything in between, all come from the Sudbury Basin… so we are a big contributor to the world,” he said.

Sudbury, with a population of 161,000, is home to the Big Nickel and the now disused Superstack, behind it, the second tallest chimney on the planet.

Gino Donato / The Globe and Mail

The mayor of Kelowna declined to comment on the status of his community. Inquiries to Fredericton communications staff about an interview with its mayor came to nothing.

The UN definition has three stages. An area is divided into a grid of one square kilometer. Each square is evaluated to see if it has at least 1,500 inhabitants. If there are enough contiguous squares with this minimum density to total a population of more than 50,000 inhabitants, it is a city.

While the new definition does not replace Canadian law, it raises some interesting questions. To some extent – based on the standard of obscenity coined by former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart – you know a town when you see one, but in truth, they aren’t. easy to define.

It can get surprisingly complicated. The essence of the city can be seen in legal and political terms. It can be based on the population, infrastructure analyzes, the variety of equipment or the type of buildings.

But Roger Keil, York University Research Chair in Suburban and Urban Studies, makes a point similar to that of the mayor of Sudbury: the key factor is the lack of insularity, the fact that the place is part of a global network. “It’s a matter of your actual connectivity with the rest of the world,” he said. “You can say whatever you want and your city council can decide it now wants to be a city council, but if you’re not a city people will see that you are not a city. “

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Lakeside tourist sites in Sudbury and Kelowna: At the top, the Science North museum complex on the shore of Lake Ramsey in northern Ontario; below, a visitor from Toronto sits on a statue of the legendary Ogopogo monster from Okanagan Lake.

Gino Donato and Lucas Oleniuk / The Globe and Mail

Why would it matter? Choosing to present itself as a city – or not to do so – can reflect a municipality’s self-image and aspirations.

The city of Markham, north of Toronto, was renamed as a city in 2012 to reflect its rapid growth and possibly to gain some more international attention.

West of Toronto, the community of Oakville continues to insist that it is a city – despite a population of over 200,000 – a designation that matches its skepticism to the development consideration.

“Whether we are city dwellers or rural dwellers, villages or towns, these words start to define a place, then this definition starts to be constructed and it has implications,” said Matti Siemiatycki, professor of geography and town planning. . department of the University of Toronto.

“These discussions, while somewhat abstract and probably not anyone’s top priority, they become relevant when you next start talking about [things] like how businesses are attracted and what kind of activities take place there and who feels included or excluded.

(For what it’s worth, the new UN definition doesn’t take a position on either Markham or Oakville, but brings the two together in one metropolitan area of ​​the greater Toronto area.)

A scooter driver walks past Kelowna City Hall.

Lucas Oleniuk / The Globe and Mail

Canada is often described as a very urban country, with 80 percent of citizens residing in cities or suburbs. But this characterization is based on a modest definition of what is urban.

Dan Rogers, who heads the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce, remembers with sadness the reaction he had a decade ago to the World Expo in Shanghai, while presenting himself in his role as mayor of Prince George, in British Columbia.

“I went to China in 2010 and had the audacity to stand up in front of a group and say, ‘I’m from a big city in Canada, in northern British Columbia, with a population of 85. 000 inhabitants “, then there was silence in the room as most of them turned and looked at each other. [as if], “Did he say big city?” ” ” he said.

According to Statistics Canada, communities of more than 10,000 people are considered urban. This means that Strathmore, the small farming and dormitory community east of Calgary, officially becomes a town, even though it calls itself a town.

To complicate matters, the provinces have their own approach.

Cities in British Columbia start at just 5,000 – and those places can remain cities even if the population subsequently drops below that number. Alberta uses a threshold of 10,000 residents. Quebec does not have a definition of a city.

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Danish flags fly on a Copenhagen street last summer. Copenhagen has over 600,000 inhabitants, but to be considered a city in Denmark it would only need 200.

MADS CLAUS RASMUSSEN / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP via Getty Images

Notions of what a city is vary greatly across the world. In Denmark a city starts at just 200 inhabitants while in China it takes 100,000. There are small communities in Europe which retain the city designation due to their political importance centuries ago. An extreme example is Staverden, the Netherlands, which received city status in 1298 and retains it today, although it has only 30 inhabitants.

It was because there were so many different views on this that the European Commission started working on a global standard 13 years ago. The process eventually included other international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. A total of 115 countries were consulted and in March the United Nations adopted the definition.

It has been a bumpy road at times to get there, admitted Lewis Dijkstra, head of the European Commission’s economic analysis sector. He said officials in Mongolia were “terribly worried” that their capital city of Ulaanbaatar is too sparse to make the cut, although it ultimately is. And there were surprises, including how well a definition originally designed for European cities worked in other parts of the world.

An indication of the validity of the new definition came when researchers superimposed it on every metro system in the world, a fundamentally urban type of infrastructure. “We understood that, I think, 99% of all metro stops fall within our definition of city,” said Mr. Dijkstra.

For Cherise Burda, who runs City Building Ryerson, which seeks to showcase urban innovation to the university, one value of the new definition might be that it spurs municipalities that want to be part of the club to be more ambitious.

“If you really want to be a city, you have to create more density so that you can have things like a transit system,” she said. “The benefits of cities are the critical infrastructure that density supports, on the right, as well as jobs and services. And you won’t get these things if you aren’t dense enough.

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