What I learned about London by travelling across Canada

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Today I arrived home from a trip across Canada. Over the past two months, I have travelled to cities in every Canadian province. The purpose of this cross-country trek was to study the role of mayors for my PhD dissertation.

It has been an extraordinary experience – personally, professionally and academically – and a more profound learning opportunity than even I expected. Yes, I learned a lot about mayors. I learned about local government, urban politics, and local political culture. I learned about Canada’s cities and provinces.

What I didn’t expect is that I also learned a few things about my hometown, London Ontario.

London is a mid-sized Canadian city, home to 381,000 people and the urban hub (or, as we sometimes say, ‘the heart’) of Southwestern Ontario. London has many assets: leading healthcare and educational institutions; strong and mostly stable public, private and nonprofit sectors; a robust network of services and amenities; a revitalizing downtown; interesting and increasingly diverse neighbourhoods; natural assets like a beautiful river and excellent park system; and by many measures, an engaged, caring and connected community. The people are great and there is always something to do. Believe me, I could go on. London is known as a place with an affordable cost of living and a high quality of life – an excellent combination.

Like every Canadian city, London is not without its struggles. We face complex issues like poverty, homelessness, addiction, and unemployment. We have a growing infrastructure gap and a very real need for investment in key amenities like public transit. Once home to many corporate head offices, we have struggled to hold our place as economic activity and growth concentrates in larger urban centres.

However, it’s my personal opinion that London’s greatest plight is that we suffer an acute case of Grass Is Always Greener Syndrome. The sense that things are better elsewhere is an enduring narrative within the city. You can find it woven through decades of media stories. You feel it in the discourse on almost every major policy debate. You read it in blogs and hear it in coffee shops. I’m not saying this view is pervasive, but the undercurrent is there, running stronger every now and then.

Even more troubling, this narrative seems to get a lot of traction. The voices of the community’s biggest critics are often most amplified, fueling a sense of insufficiency and normalizing negativity. They preach a gospel of rosy half-truths about other cities, often without much understanding or recognition of the challenges facing those places. It can blind us to what is good about the place where we live by wrapping us up in the illusion of somewhere else. Grass Is Always Greener Syndrome is about setting up comparisons where the other always comes out on top. It fuels a self-confidence problem, and over time can erode a city’s sense of its own worth.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have a keen interest in learning from other cities. We can, we do, and we should. But it means that when we say we want to be like other places, we need to really know what we are talking about. We can’t cherry pick the good things about other cities that we want without recognizing the things those places also have that we don’t want. And we should appreciate that most city-to-city comparisons are shallow. They reduce a city to a single variable (or small list of variables) to make it easier to neatly line cities up from best to worst. This data can be helpful, but there isn’t a variable in the world that should be considered a proxy for a city’s worth.

There is a lot of literature on what makes cities successful, and perhaps more importantly, how we conceive of ‘city success’ in the first place. Is it traditional measures like economic performance and growth? Or is it about social inclusion or justice? Or sustainability, resilience, innovation? Or perhaps a combination of things? Of course, the answer depends on the values of the person you ask – and it’s perfectly acceptable that there isn’t a single universal answer. If someone tells you there is a simple recipe for building a great city, that person doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Over the course of this trip, I’ve gained a deeper appreciation of the diversity of Canada’s cities. I’ve started to think of cities less as competitors and more like members of a team, each playing its own role based on unique strengths and weaknesses. The success of one isn’t at the expense of the others. We face similar struggles, and local problems are now national issues. Our best hope of addressing them is by learning from each other, tackling them together, and understanding that cities are like little laboratories where success and failure is a normal and productive part of urban evolution. What a shame it would be if all of our cities tried to become exactly like each other. We’d lose the very thing that makes our team so strong – our diversity.

If you’ve read anything else on this blog, you’ll know I’m prone to being swept off my feet by the charms of cities. I’ve found myself in awe of many things in other places, things I want for London – Charlottetown’s charming waterfront, Vancouver’s spectacular skyline, Halifax’s unique urban spaces, Calgary’s investment in transit and public art, Saint John’s careful preservation of heritage, Montreal’s exceptional public amenities, Toronto’s fierce sense of pride, and on it goes. But has appreciating these things made me less proud to live in London? Not even for a minute.

I’ve had hundreds of conversations over the past two months with people from cities across Canada, most of which begin with the usual introductions when I share that I live in London. I’ve been surprised at how often people would mention specific things about London which are Greener Grass to them. Public officials in Charlottetown told me they are studying Budweiser Gardens as a leading example of catalyzing downtown revitalization. An interviewee in Calgary rhymed off an impressive list of innovations she was aware of happening at Western. Most people could name at least one thing – a company or product, sometimes a restaurant or amenity, or a fond memory from a visit to the city – that had impressed them about London.

I couldn’t help but think, I wish every Londoner was hearing this.

It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and this has been the case for me. Being away for most of the last two months has made me even more proud of the place where I live. I am often teased for having a Leslie-Knope-like love of London, and I’m fine with that. I enjoy an excellent quality of life, and have London to thank for much of it. I like living in a place that is big enough to have everything I need, but small enough where it’s possible to make a difference. I like being close to other cities, but not so close that our distinctness will be lost over time. And I really like the people. I know more smart, engaged, talented, funny, creative and kind Londoners than I can count.

My hope for London is that we become a more confident, proud and ambitious city (and I think there’s a relationship between these three traits). We have every right and reason to be. The Grass Isn’t Greener. Yes, sometimes it’s different, and that’s a good thing. The best cure for Grass Is Always Greener Syndrome is to pour our energy into making our lawn look good, learning from our neighbours but not letting anything – anything – erode our sense of pride in what have.

London is a great Canadian city. Let’s set our sights higher, believe in ourselves, and embrace all that is good about the beautiful city we choose to call home.

 

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