Comparing Vancouver with Toronto hardly seems fair at the best of times. Throw a garbage strike into the mix, and it seems criminal to put Hogtown up against the charms of Grouse Mountain or Stanley Park. Of course there’s a lot more to ranking cities than scenic beauty. But almost any way you measure it, Vancouver still beats its bigger brother.
Maclean’s groundbreaking examination of municipal efficiency and effectiveness, in partnership with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, has determined Canada’s best- and worst-run cities. The big-city championship clearly belongs to Vancouver. It’s the only one of our three major metropolises to register above average in both efficiency and effectiveness. This alone should be cause for bragging rights.
But Vancouver’s dominance extends to international rankings as well. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) business travel index puts Vancouver first in the world as a desirable business meeting location. Toronto is second. These calculations are based on infrastructure, security, culture and local costs. Looking at infrastructure alone, Vancouver is currently ranked sixth-best in the world (Singapore is number one), and tops in North America, by Mercer Human Resources Consulting. This respected study examines the provision of utilities, the state of roads, public transportation and airport facilities. Toronto comes 18th. Mercer also produces an overall livability index, combining infrastructure with indicators on the environment, culture, schooling and business climate. Vancouver is fourth. Toronto? 15th.
Certainly Vancouver has its challenges—from the Downtown Eastside to road congestion to growing gang violence; but such is the case for all large cities. By national and international standards, Canada’s third-largest city outshines the other two. In fact, Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey in B.C.’s Lower Mainland represent three of the top four cities in our rankings. So what’s their secret?
Taken together, Maclean’s rankings plus the other international measures reflect on the competency of municipal government. And it’s not the pleasant physical climate that’s driving these standings, it’s the raucous political climate.
Municipal politics in B.C. are notable for their partisan nature. Local elections typically feature slates of candidates representing parties such as the Burnaby Citizens Association or Vision Vancouver. And while the inherent conflict this creates may stifle the collegial atmosphere praised at city halls in other provinces, it greatly improves accountability.
Too frequently, municipal politics in Canada is devoid of serious scrutiny. Voters are often unclear as to where candidates stand or what policy options they face. Compared to provincial or federal politics, a lower level of accountability means more opportunity for poor decisions, personal agendas and general inefficiency. Even in Toronto, where city politics can be fractious and ideologically driven, the absence of parties leaves the opposition scattered and disorganized.
Adding partisanship to local politics can improve voter clarity, enhance the policy-making process and lead to better governance. Yet provincial law in Ontario and elsewhere forbids listing party affiliations on ballots and stands in the way of such an improvement. A minor change to the law could give Toronto a fighting chance next time around.