The Challenge of Building a Great City

Joining Land Use 2014 as the Keynote Speaker was an easy decision for David Miller.

“I thought the conference would be a terrific opportunity to talk about city building,” said Miller, President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund – Canada. “How to use good planning and good thinking to help cities succeed economically, socially and environmentally.”

Miller observed that Canadian cities are going through a transition that is starting to show the connection between land use, the economy, the environment and social inclusion.

“When I first started in politics well over 20 years ago people looked at those things differently,” he said. “I think land-use planning has become extremely interesting because it combines all those elements.”

To Miller it’s a blueprint for building a successful city that is welcoming, provides employment opportunities, and creates a quality environment for its residents. He’s excited about the field of land-use planning today, and his previous job as Mayor of Toronto had been a great learning process.

“In an ideal world you start with land-use planning right at the beginning, but in Toronto’s case, historically, we had lots of successes and made a lot of mistakes,” said Miller. “There wasn’t much potential for any more subdivisions so we had to start looking at really smart, thoughtful ways on how we used our land and planned our city.”

The City of Toronto’s 2003 Official Plan was a major turning point in the community’s approach to land-use planning. Miller noted that subdivisions may have a place in city building, but they sometimes become the default solution.

By 2003, the city’s growth meant there were no greenfield sites and it had to look at increasing densification within its boundaries, but that wasn’t the first challenge the city had faced in planning. In 1997, the City of Toronto Act amalgamated six municipalities with what was then known as Metro Toronto.

“Amalgamation was very controversial, and resulted in the loss of some local accountability. You can still see the effects today, or at least the tensions today,” said Miller. “The gain was that Toronto has a much stronger voice on the national stage, becoming a city of three million resulted in a stronger voice and has resulted in a government that has the capacity to do some really advanced work.”

After the Second World War, Toronto built its transportation networks, infrastructure, schools and parks for the population of approximately one million. Now the amalgamated City is the core of a region of six million people.

“The big questions are how do you manage that growth, how do you ensure that the transportation system works, how do you deal with the environmental impacts, and how do you deal with the pockets of poverty that are arising more and more,” said Miller. “It’s all through these big questions, and I think a lot of that growth happened because there was easily available and inexpensive greenfield sites that just got developed with perhaps not as much long-term thinking that we would hope takes place today.”

So how does a municipality tackle regional land-use issues after a population surge from amalgamation?

“I think it’s absolutely essential to work together,” said Miller, “and I think you need to respect each other’s voice and needs, and the way you work together is through the areas of commonality.”

In his experience there were two significant areas of commonality. The first area was transportation issues particularly in planning public transit. Miller noted that transportation was especially important to both urban and rural populations. The second area of overlapping interest was environmental issues.

“It was on these issues, and many others, that we found ways to work together and I think that’s the most important thing,” said Miller. “Respect each other, respect each other’s position and try to understand it, and find the areas of commonality and work together on those.”

Miller will contribute his land-use planning experience to Land Use 2014, but said there is much that he hopes to take away from the conference discussions as well.

“It really does give me an opportunity to listen to others and learn,” he said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity that I value and I am looking forward to it.”

Land Use 2014 will be held May 7 and 8, 2014, at the Westin Edmonton.