Shaping cities

Shaping cities

It was an email I’d been expecting. We all knew Catherine McKenney would take a little time to rest from the gruelling mayoral campaign and come back with a different project to carry forward their vision of what a good city looks like. 

The announcement happened at Impact Hub on January 19 by McKenney and Neil Saravanamuttoo, former chief economist of the G20’s Global Infrastructure Hub and Finance Canada executive. The new outfit’s name is CitySHAPES, and it aims to do nationally what McKenney wanted to do as mayor of Ottawa: Making cities (plural this time instead of just the one) better, healthier, greener and more equitable. 

There is, as it turns out, an illustrated children’s book of the same name that tells the story of a young girl walking through her neighbourhood and seeing various shapes common to cities. An explosion of life, the book description claims. 

I don’t doubt it. A city is not just a where. It very much is a who. It is only ever so alive and interesting as the people who live in it, who give it its shapes, as it were. 

And now you’ll thank me to stopping right here with the poetry. You’re very welcome.

The outfit is set up as a foundation within the Ottawa Community Foundation, which allows people to give money and get a tax receipt for it. The pair is hoping to work directly with cities to help them deliver on some of the objectives from the mission statement. 

I wanted to know, given that this is by no means the first organization focused on making cities better places to live, what they thought they could bring to this space that was new. 

“When we look at cities, and we look at the types of policy, the types of community engagement that we are focused on,” McKenney said, “it is really at the ground level, that it really is about sparking change that will make a difference in cities on a daily basis.” 

Ground level certainly is where it’s at. And most of the time — in most Canadian and American cities — we’re not getting the kinds of policies we need to make cities vibrant, lively, livable, green and welcoming because residents of those cities don’t realize that those policies would be better for them, very much including their pocketbooks. 

It’s been a thing of mine for years. We absolutely need to show the change-averse in the suburbs and elsewhere that bringing about the kinds of progressive ideas about cities that woke loudmouths like yours truly keep advocating for is what the fiscally conservative crowd would want if only they understood the connection between great reliable free transit, green cities, walkable neighbourhoods, bike lines from here to there — the connection between all of this and healthier city budgets. Something I wish I knew how to do using much shorter sentences. 

So, I asked the pair, are you going to focus on knowledge sharing, too? 

“CitySHAPES is about building better cities, and doing that through community engagement, doing that advocacy work, giving people the tools,” McKenney answered. Citizens need to know it’s not just possible but desirable to ask for better. That, for instance, a city where people are housed is a healthier city and that healthier cities are more productive, more prosperous cities. Why not demand that? What possible rationale is there for denying ourselves the benefits of a richer, better, more livable, greener and more equitable city? 

Me, I can’t think of any. I hope you agree.