Canada’s smartest cities 2010

Learning across most of the country has stalled. Is your city a bright spot?

Photograph by Geoff Howe

A decade ago, urbanists had just about written the obituary for St. John’s, Nfld. The fate of the hard-luck port town, like much of Newfoundland, was wedded to the fisheries. Between 1992, when the cod moratorium was announced, and 2006, the province lost 11 per cent of its population—the youngest, brightest and most productive 11 per cent, as Newfoundlanders will tell you. Everyone figured St. John’s would become a wasteland, because it had such low learning and employment opportunities, says Paul Cappon, president and chief executive of the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), an Ottawa-based non-profit that ranks more than 4,500 Canadian cities and communities annually.

Overall Rankings

Grim social and economic warnings no longer define the region. When, a few years ago, geologists realized that more than two billion barrels of accessible oil lay buried off the provincial coast and Premier Danny Williams helped restore a sense of pride in the place, St. John’s started to get its mojo back. Three producer fields, Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose, provide plenty of new work, including about 14,000 jobs in spin-off industries. And Technip, a local subsea engineering and construction firm, is using its “Engineer here. Live here” campaign to lure Newfoundlanders back from Houston and Calgary. They’re among a tide of returnees, says one local, bringing home “new ideas, and ways of doing things.”
Sure, St. John’s benefited from the boom, but smart policy, a focus on investments in the arts, sports and recreation, and formal education has helped make it a bustling Atlantic centre. It may not be Canada’s smartest city—that honour goes to Victoria—but in the five years the CCL has been ranking the country’s cities, St. John’s has shown the greatest improvement.

And it’s not the only success story down East. Strategic investments in the knowledge sector have also paid off for Fredericton, the second-most improved city in Canada during this stretch. Today, the New Brunswick capital—which boasts Atlantic Canada’s highest per capita income—is home to 70 per cent of its knowledge-based companies, creating a high-tech hub in the Maritimes. And the New Brunswick government has also been investing more heavily in the arts—specifically Symphony New Brunswick, Theatre New Brunswick and the Atlantic Ballet. Both Fredericton and St. John’s have dramatically improved their Composite Learning Index (CLI) score, the measure by which the CCL ranks cities. St. John’s has shot up from a score of 65 in 2006 to 80 this year; Fredericton has gone from 69 to 78 (Victoria improved to 95 this year, up from 88 in 2009). In that time, St. John’s jumped 10 spots in the ranking, leapfrogging Ontario cities like Mississauga, Brampton and St. Catharines, and finished 14th this year.

While St. John’s and Fredericton are getting “smarter,” learning in Canada, by and large, has stalled. And in some places, we’re getting even dumber, according to the CCL’s new report. Learning almost everywhere in the country except for Victoria and the Maritimes has flatlined, with potentially dire consequences to Canadian competitiveness and productivity, warns Cappon. Canada’s private sector, he notes, is among the lowest performers ranked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And when it comes to skills acquisition and workplace training, Canada ranks among the bottom third of OECD countries. Right now, just one-third of Canadians take part in job-related training. This, he predicts, will get even worse when the data from the recession is tabulated. “When budgets are tight, training is one of the first things to be cut,” says Rob Greenwood, head of Memorial University’s Harris Centre. But Canadians aren’t doing much to improve their lot at home, either. Since 2002, spending on books, magazines and newspapers has dropped off drastically—27 per cent for newspapers, and 18 per cent for magazines. Meanwhile, in Victoria, one of Canada’s most literate cities, 85 per cent of households spent money on books, newspapers and magazines last year.

But Victoria didn’t grab the top spot this year just for being well-read—or for that matter, its ocean views, cherry blossoms or the warm climate. The CLI is based on data from 26 measures, which are grouped into four “pillars” of learning, a framework originally developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The first, the “learning to know” pillar, focuses on formal education, including university enrolment, high school graduation rates and students’ standardized test scores in math, science, reading and writing. The second pillar, “learning to do,” looks at skills acquisition. It considers, for example, the number of vocational schools within driving distance, how cities stack up when it comes to workplace education and training, and—just as importantly—how many workers take up the offer. The “learning to live together” pillar measures a city’s social values: how many in the community volunteer? How many are active in clubs: scouts, a church, a political party? How many socialize regularly with people from other cultures? “Learning to be,” the final index, considers cultural opportunities as well as per-capita spending on books, museums, art galleries and sports and recreation.

Victoria, home to two universities and two colleges, earned top marks in three of the four pillars. Almost half of Victoria residents visited local museums, including the Royal B.C. Museum, Carr House and the Maritime Museum of B.C.; for Canadian cities as a whole, the figure is 35 per cent. The city of just 78,000, which sustains a symphony, two ballets, an opera and a philharmonic choir, is also the only Canadian city where 100 per cent of the population has access to high-speed Internet, compared with 68 per cent for Calgary, last year’s “smartest city.” Fully 77 per cent of those in Victoria spend money on Internet services, compared with just 56 per cent for Quebec City. Victoria’s residents are brawny, too: 52 per cent spent money on sports and recreation, compared with 35 per cent for Moncton, N.B.

How your city scores when it comes to learning is important, say experts. Research has consistently shown that the better educated a city’s population is, the higher their incomes will be. And, says Kevin Stolarick, research director of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, as places become more prosperous, they become happier. What’s more, “dynamic economies and well-paid jobs attract smart people,” adds Greenwood.

Canada’s smartest cities tend to be snug, efficient, modest-sized centres—the type idealized by urban historian Lewis Mumford for avoiding the congestion problems, outsized real estate prices and yawning income gaps typical of megacities. (There’s nothing new to the idea that small and smart go hand-in-hand: cities like Venice, Amsterdam and Genoa once controlled the Western economy, nurturing modern capitalism and creating the piazzas, canals and tight cores that urbanists drool over still today.)

Smart Cities 2010: Get Your Score

One of the more troubling results this year is that the six bottom spots—Laval, Longueuil, Montreal, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières and Saguenay—are all in Quebec. Trois-Rivières and Saguenay, where the rate of volunteering and the percentage who socialize regularly with other cultures is half that of Saskatoon, are considered “at-risk” by the CCL.

Once, you might have imagined the same of St. John’s. “When the index was launched there was a clear East-West gradient in favour of the West,” says Cappon. Newfoundland and New Brunswick have done very specific things to improve the conditions of learning in their cities. The healthier the economy, the more willing employers are to make investments in human infrastructure, offering job-related training, apprenticeships and mentoring programs.

For starters, incomes in St. John’s have always lagged well behind other Canadian cities, says David Campbell, a Moncton-based expert in economic development. But incomes are climbing rapidly; already, the city boasts the highest median income in Atlantic Canada—it’s almost on par with Ontario, Campbell adds. And income, he says, drives everything. More money in your pocket means there’s more available to spend on new technology, sports and recreation—and it puts “more bums in seats,” adds Greenwood. Suddenly, people in St. John’s “aren’t so nervous about spending $60, $70 for a ticket to a show,” says Memorial University’s Gail Gosse, noting that even Cirque de Soleil touched down in St. John’s last year. These days, it seems, there’s a book launch, an art or a choir event every night. “You have to choose what to miss,” says gallery owner Emma Butler. Her George Street West space, the Emma Butler Gallery, features local big guns: Christopher and Mary Pratt and David Blackwood. Not long ago, she adds, you couldn’t miss a thing—there wasn’t anything to miss. Local officials realize that cities are more than “sidewalks, brick and mortar,” says Mayor Dennis O’Keefe. Ten years ago, that wasn’t the case. Now, he says, the city says yes to busker festivals, yes to parades and to street closures. “We have a city council that says: yeah, we can find the money for that—we can help make it happen.”

More money, both public and private, is being poured into local arts festivals, the symphony and the philharmonic choir, and residents are spending more on theatre and concert tickets, museums and books. Five galleries have opened in the past few years. The Rooms, the spectacular, new, all-in-one provincial art gallery, museum and archive designed by Christopher Pratt’s brother, Philip, has injected the arts scene with an aura of prestige, says Butler. City sports and recreation programs are full; the more popular programs have wait lists, says city official Elizabeth Lawrence. The local heritage centre is offering free classes in weaving and cartooning, grassroots efforts to improve community centres and neighbourhoods abound, and Memorial University has kicked up the number of public lectures and breakout sessions it offers the local community. A “huge cohort” of leisure learners has recently enrolled at Memorial University—teachers picking up courses in library studies, and professionals taking “Developing Green Buildings,” and “e-Marketing Essentials,” explains Gosse, its program head. The College of the North Atlantic, the largest college in the province, has doubled the number of spots in many of its trades programs.

A smart city, after all, is one where people are engaged with each other, the government, and the businesses around it, says Bert Sperling, the Portland, Ore.-based founder of Sperling’s Best Places, which ranks municipalities by living conditions. The promise of a job, say experts, is no longer enough to attract smart people; cities need amenities, vibrancy and culture, which “signal that these are prosperous, exciting places,” says Stolarick. St. John’s, he adds, has begun acting as a “magnet,” sucking up talent from nearby provinces. New investments in arts, culture and formal education are all parts of the puzzle.

Gosse says 10 years ago she would never have guessed St. John’s could look the way it does today. Recently, she was asked to create a purchasing list for new university equipment. At first, she was stuck. After a decade of trimming budgets, laying off staff and cutting programs, she had to relearn that skill.

Smart Cities 2010: Get Your Score