City building requires resilience

fred-eisenbergerBy Fred Eisenberger

As Japan works to recover from a series of devastating natural and technological disasters, the difficult task of rebuilding the country’s shattered economy will begin in its cities.

Like Canada, Japan is an urban nation with sophisticated municipal systems and a highly developed public realm. As many commentators have noted, Japan’s advanced level of preparedness– from stringent building codes to regular emergency drills – has helped mitigate the worst effects of both the earthquake and the tsunami.

A hundred years ago, the population of the capital region around Tokyo was less than one million people. Today, its population is larger than that of Canada at 36 million people. The same qualities of innovation and resilience that supported such rapid growth will clearly be needed in the months and years ahead.

The reputation of global brands like Sony, Hitachi and Honda is synonymous with these attributes. Although Japan is in many ways a closed society, it has a long history of seeking out new ideas and “best practices” from other countries regarding how to build and operate successful cities. For example, the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) has been working with the Tokyo-based Council for Local and International Relations (CLAIR) since the 1990s, and has pledged its ongoing support to colleagues there.

The commitment to knowledge exchange was one of the founding values of the CUI over 20 years ago. This commitment is realized by exporting local expertise in urban affairs – and bringing ideas back. This includes undertaking applied research and strategic engagement assignments on a fee-forservice basis, as well as organizing educational programming designed to accelerate progress on urban issues. The common denominator is the CUI’s reputation for objectivity and impartial commentary.

Working with a variety of partners in government, the private sector, academia and non-governmental organizations in Canada and abroad, the CUI focuses on four inter-connected areas of practice. These are:

1. Re-urbanization – seeking new approaches for rebuilding and reinvesting in our cities.

2. Adapting to demographic and climatic change – looking ahead to challenges such as those associated with an aging population.

3. Stimulating regional competitiveness – creating partnerships that assist with economic development.

4. Supporting cultural regeneration – working with civil society and municipal leaders to create plans for leveraging local assets.

As the world knows only too well, one of the most daunting challenges facing Japan is the rebuilding of its energy infrastructure. Here in Canada, the CUI’s contribution to helping cities better understand how to plan for a more sustainable energy future has been the development of an innovative new concept called “energy mapping”. Hamilton is one of four cities where this technique is being piloted. There are many benefits to this approach as it creates a way to visualize where the sources of energy demand are today, where they are likely to evolve, and how best to select energy solutions that will be economically and environmentally viable long into the future.

Drawing on research and exchanged knowledge, the CUI has also worked collaboratively with municipal officials in Hamilton to identify where the best return on investment is to be found in terms of investing in “necessary infrastructure”. Necessary infrastructure is a term coined by the CUI that encompasses everything from rebuilding sewer systems and water pipes to investments such as higher order transit. It also refers to schools, hospitals and other key civic assets such as community centres.

Achieving the right balance between infrastructure investment and land use policy is an idea that many preach but few practice. One of the best examples of a jurisdiction where decision makers have grasped this simple but elusive concept is in the larger cities of Japan. CUI researchers have studied the methods and approaches used in Japanese cities and see the benefit of applying similar principles here in Canada. The rebuilding of Japan will begin in its cities, just as Canada’s economic future is tied to supporting reinvestment in ours.

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