Friday, April 1, 2011

City of Ottawa MIA on the world stage

Similar to professionals, I believe networking is important for cities. The world is full of local, provincial and international peer groups for cities like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). Alta Vista Councillor, Peter Hume, is currently the chair of the AMO providing our city with a sense of leadership among municipalities in Ontario.

But in a time of fiscal restraint Ottawa's presence at these municipal peer groups will be limited. Earlier this year the City's Finance and Economic Development Committee, chaired by Mayor Watson, voted to trim attendance at the FCM and AMO conferences in Halifax and London. Although six names were originally submitted for the FCM conference and nine for the AMO conference, only three councillors will attend each of these events. With this kind of restraint on attendance for conferences which are close to home, peer groups and events in the international arena are probably out of the question.

Thanks to social media sites like Twitter it's not uncommon to witness conversations between former Toronto mayor, David Miller, and NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg or Portland mayor Sam Adams. It's a testament to the increasing international function of cities. But is our mayor and city that connected?

Prominent international peer groups for cities include UNESCO Creative Cities Network, C40, MuniGov 2.0, and ICLEI- Local Governments for Sustainability.  Unfortunately, the City of Ottawa has limited to no participation in many of these groups.

I have written about the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in a previous post, but now two more international peer groups have me intrigued- United Cities & Local Governments and Metropolis.
Headquartered in Barcelona, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) represents and defends the interests of local governments on the world stage, regardless of the size. Their mission is, "To be the united voice and world advocate of democratic local self-government, promoting its values, objectives and interests, through cooperation between local governments, and within the wider international community."

There are number of committees and working groups that cities could sit on, each chaired by a mayor. These include Digital & Knowledge-Based Cities, Urban Strategic Planning, Urban Mobility, Culture, Responsible Tourism & Sustainable Development, and Local Finance & Development.

Since this organization hasn't released a list of its membership I don't know if Ottawa is a member, but our city is no where to be found on their website and in their publications. Cities that represent Canada on the UCLG World Council include St. Albert, Guelph, Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal, Surrey, Burnaby, Edmonton, Kitchener, and Central Kootenay. Montréal Mayor, Gérard Tremblay, is listed as the President of UCLG North America. But where's Ottawa?

Metropolis, "the World Association of the Major Metropolises", is the Metropolitan Section of UCLG. This organization, with only 100 members worldwide, "operates as an international forum for exploring issues and concerns common to all big cities and metropolitan regions". In order to become a member in this peer group a city must either have over 1 million residents or be the capital city of a nation state. Under these rules the only Canadian cities who can be members at this time are Toronto, Montréal and Ottawa, with the prior two cities already being members. Aside from being the capital, Ottawa recently broke the 900,000 mark in population strengthening our case for membership. Calgary will qualify in the next few years.

This association brings together major cities and metropolitan regions from all over the world. There are six Commissions on which cities can sit with two cities appointed as chair or vice-chair. These are the commissions for Ecological Regions, Managing Urban Growth, Integrated Urban Governance, Megacities, Urban Innovation, and the Women's International Network, with Montréal being the Chair and World Secretariat for the latter.

Ottawa is missing in action. I long to see Ottawa taking a leadership role on the world stage. There are organizations and forums like Metropolis that our city can join that only Toronto and Montréal have access to at the moment. That would give us a competitive advantage over other cities in Canada. These kinds of groups could help us to separate ourselves from smaller cities like Victoria, Regina, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg so we could take our place among the bigger cities in Canada.

When I see the effort Montréal is making in taking a leadership role in these international groups I wonder if we're even trying as a city. We'll say that we need more international flights at our airport, we don't attract as many immigrants as Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver, and we need to attract foreign investment, but we're missing at these international forums. What would it do for our city's brand if Mayor Watson was the Chair of the UCLG Digital & Knowledge-Based Cities Committee or if the City of Ottawa was the chair of Metropolis' Urban Innovation Commission?

What's the issue? Have we been told for so long that we're a small town that we've started to believe it?

In a globalized world, now is the time for Ottawa to make its presence felt on the international stage. Being a G8 capital city is not enough.

Kevin Bourne

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