Skip to content

The Monitor Progressive news, views and ideas

Cities could be the engines for addressing crises—if we push them

It is time for more cities to bring forward policies and practices for economic, social and climate justice as their primary goal

April 2, 2024

4-minute read

Cities are the locus of social, environmental, and economic struggles. There are three fundamental conflicts and challenges that are playing out in cities: inequality, climate change, and the international crisis of human displacement.

Wealth and income inequality continues to grow rapidly. Affluence and poverty exist in close proximity in urban areas.

Pressure on housing and employment are two consequences of inequality. The crisis of housing is played out daily with rising rents, renovictions, land speculation, and homelessness. People with moderate income are shut out of the housing market. Commodification and profit motivate developers and investors to control more urban land and the housing market, at the expense of the majority.

Cities have become the locus of low-wage labour. We see a segmentation of the labour market with intellectual labour (research, IT, design, etc.) as one pole of growth and huge numbers associated with the growth of the low-wage service sector, tourism and logistics/distribution and warehousing. The latter absorbs much of Canada’s immigrant and migrant arrivals.

Climate change and the environmental crisis play out daily in urban areas. The consequences of rising temperatures and weather-related crises create challenges that force city administrations to react. The long-term solutions (recasting our transportation system, removing/reducing cars, protecting and expanding green spaces and biodiversity) are climate issues. All shape local politics, all demand immediate action, and all provoke complex legal and political reactions.

Cities are on the front line of the international crisis of human displacement—internal and transnational migration because of wars, climate change, repression, and forms of economic development, such as mining. Cities play a key role in settlement, and housing. Groups that arrive in Canada are a source of low-wage and precarious labour and they face threats of deportation.

Immigration and migration have always transformed cities. This wave of global human displacement is large and it’s happening amid the growth of anti-immigration governments and the rise of nationalism.

Cities in Canada have neither the resources nor the constitutional power to resolve these challenges by themselves, but they have a responsibility and a role to play.

The basic questions for us are: Can cities play a role in advocating for, mobilizing and educating their citizens to find local solutions while also challenging higher levels of government and the economic forces that benefit from the issues presented above? Can progressive city administrations be a force to challenge the power of higher levels of state and the interests of private capital?

We have seen examples in recent years when elected municipal officials challenged higher levels of government and, in their own practices, surpassed them in their innovation. In Europe, cities like Barcelona, Berlin, and Paris have confronted the power of capital in housing; during the Trump administration, U.S. cities played an oppositional role in protecting migrants against deportation and the long arm of the U.S. immigration police (ICE).

Cities have also introduced climate measures, such as expanding green space, expanding green energy, limiting car traffic, and increasing public transit.

There are often tensions between cities with progressive administrations and state/provincial powers. Sometimes cities ally with central governments (with highly visible international commitments and cash). Protection of private capital’s interests and power always plays a central role in the fight for social, economic and climate justice.

Even with the best intentions, progressive city administrations face an uphill battle. Cities are the weakest level of government in Canada. As creatures of the provinces, their jurisdiction and taxing power is defined by the province. Operating revenue is derived mainly from property taxes. Other city revenues are a burden on lower-income residents, such as user fees and fines of various kinds.

Are city administrators in a conflict of interest with their voters when increases in property values and high-density construction bring more revenue to cities but also encourage land speculation and expensive housing?

This dynamic, particularly in an era in which finance capital sees housing as an extractive industry, limits the role cities can play in investing in different forms of social and non-profit housing and green space. That results in cities going hat-in-hand to higher levels of government to move forward on agendas like housing. In many parts of the world, we see a marked ideological tension between cities and higher levels of government.

The relationship between Montreal and Quebec’s CAQ government provides an example.

The CAQ holds a majority of seats across the province but just two in Montreal. Its policies on immigration, climate change, and inequality are weak. In contrast, Mayor Valerie Plante’s administration has taken relatively progressive positions on social housing, green space, public transit and welcoming and supporting immigration. We have not nuanced these differences; in practice these positions are more complicated. However, this tension between province and city positions on these issues is central.

In the Greek myth, as retold by Hawthorne, the mighty Antaeus—drawing great strength from Mother Earth to protect the little pygmies—is helpless when Hercules lifts him from his mother and his strengths ebbs away. With the provinces holding all the strings, can cities really hope to win any real gains?

The following are some implications for policy and practice.

First, we need a deep constitutional and policy change. Cities need much more power to tax and shape policy. This transformation would reflect the shifts in population and properly recognize the centres of economic and social development in Canada.

Second, Canada’s cities reflect a continuum of municipal administrations, ranging from those supporting the conventional growth “trickle-down” model (Denis Coderre in Montreal and John Tory in Toronto), to those with a more progressive environmental and social justice agenda (Valerie Plante and Olivia Chow). They are confined by the narrow definitions of the role of cities and are forced to balance the interests of traditional urban growth led by private development with other priorities, such as the housing and climate crises.

It is time for more cities to bring forward policies and practices for economic, social and climate justice as their primary goal. These kinds of cities would require brave and strong leadership, with a clear alternative vision.

Some European cities have stood up—Paris, Barcelona and Berlin and others—and, in the early 20th century, cities in the UK and the U.S., led by socialist mayors and parties, provide stirring examples (Stromquist, Verso Books, 2023). In these cases, their election grew out of local organizing, movement building, and a party to contest city hall.

Cities are the site of important contestations on issues that are both the traditional boundaries of city administrations—urban transit, police budgets and green spaces—and are outside of their formal jurisdiction—worker strikes and migrant protections.

To build toward an activist city hall, groups and organizations engaged in campaigns have to see the city as a target and demand agendas for climate, social and economic justice.

Without pressure from the bottom up, most city administrations will stay within their narrow confines.

Related Articles

Genetically modified corn trade fight heats up in Mexico

Much-watched CUSMA case raises public morals and environmental justifications for Mexican food measures—and first-of-its-kind Indigenous Peoples’ defence

Budget 2024: Has the government seen the light?

Canada’s latest federal budget has some real gains in it—and some really frustrating half-measures

Will the capital gains tax change affect you? Only if you’re part of Canada’s 0.13 per cent.

The business lobby is spinning the tax increase as a middle class issue. It’s not.