According to author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the world is flat. By this, he means the planet has effectively become seamless as a result of globalization and the interconnections brought about by email, cheap transcontinental flights, and the easy flow of goods and services across borders.
Economic geographer Richard Florida believes otherwise. In his best-selling book Who’s Your City?, Florida argues that the world is a “spiky place,” characterized by a concentration of economic activity, innovation, and resulting prosperity in a relatively small number of urban hot spots around the planet.
“In terms of both sheer economic horse-power and cutting-edge innovation, today’s global economy is powered by a surprisingly small number of places,” Florida writes. “The tallest spikes — the cities and regions that drive the world economy — are growing ever higher, while the valleys — places that boast little, if any, economic activity — mostly languish.”
This is especially true in Canada. Despite being a vast nation of mountains, forests, and ice, where wilderness and wildlife feature prominently in what Florida calls our “nature-loving, outdoorsy culture,” Canada is an urban society. Close to 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities, and more than half of our country’s economic wealth is generated in five metropolitan areas (Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary and Montreal) while rural and resource-based communities in the nation’s heartland remain economically vulnerable.
Florida believes the concentration of people, and especially newcomers, in these urban areas has generated many desirable benefits, such as scientific advancements; explosions of creativity in art, writing, and music; and thousands of jobs in the emerging green-tech sector.
Although Canadian cities have emerged as centres of human capital, their growth has had a devastating impact on natural capital — ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and rivers that sustain the health and well-being of the very people who live there.
Take the Golden Horseshoe, a large area that encompasses the Niagara Peninsula, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo and the region’s anchor, the Greater Toronto Area.
Nearly a quarter of Canada’s population lives here, in the fastest growing region in North America. Florida heaps praise upon this densely populated corridor, citing its successful high-tech companies, access to venture capital, world-class universities, ethnic diversity and lively arts and culture.
It is a vibrant place. But this mega-region has come together largely in an unplanned mess of urban sprawl. A once diverse mosaic of woodlands, wetlands and towns, productive farmland has been replaced with a seemingly endless expanse of built-up areas, crisscrossed with hydro lines, highways, and trophy homes.
A David Suzuki Foundation report released last year concluded that an alarming 16 per cent of farmland in the Greater Toronto Area was lost to urban encroachment between 1996 and 2001. This represents the loss of thousands of hectares of some of the most fertile soils in all of Canada, something we should all be concerned about if we want to maintain local food security and minimize the environmental costs such as long distance transportation of food.
I spent part of my childhood in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe. And I have fond memories of the place before it became one of the world’s urban mega-regions. I believe that while urban growth and development can foster wealth generation, innovation, science and the achievements that Florida praises, only “smart growth” can enhance our quality of life while preserving the natural environment and our precious agricultural soils.
Post City Magazines’ environmental columnist, David Suzuki, is the host of the CBC’s The Nature of Things. David is also the author of more than 30 books on ecology.