Are cities really that important?

I was asked to blog about the power of cities, one of the topics listed in the Canada’s World discussion guide. Let’s start with a basic question. Much of the argument for the power of cities rests on their position in a global economy, in other words their economic importance.

However, any newspaper reader will attest that much of Canada’s economic strength rests on commodities: oil, hydroelectric power, lumber, minerals, agricultural produce. Are these not produced in rural areas? Of course they are. There’s no question, therefore, that rural production is critical to Canada’s economy.

To get at the importance of cities, we have to ask, not where commodities are produced, but where the control lies, and where the ideas were developed without which they could not exist. Almost always, the answer is cities. For example, Canada’s largest source of oil is the Alberta Tar Sands, which were originally developed – and a substantial share of which is still owned – by the corporation that today is called Suncor Energy Inc. Its headquarters are in Calgary.

The earliest version of the process that allows allows bitumen, or tar, to be converted into oil was developed by Dr. Karl Clark of the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Similarly, agricultural commodities are usually produced in rural areas, but agricultural research stations are generally in cities, as are the companies that control marketing and processing.

More fundamentally, although urban-rural rivalries are easily generated and lovingly cultivated, by both city dwellers and aficionados of rural life, they serve no practical purpose. Cities are generally the centres of decision-making and invention, and they are also major producers of goods. The fact that they usually exercise control does not take away from their reliance on the products that come from the countryside, and the importance of rural production, but it does underline the salience of the phrase “the power of cities”.

Cities are our primary generators of ideas, our centres of economic control, and of much important production, even in an economy driven by commodities. The prosperity of us all, even those of us who work in rural areas, depends on the prosperity of our cities. As surely as all Canadians rely on commodity production, we rely on the health of our cities, and of the networks of infrastructure and services that keep them viable.

For a darker picture of the position of communities in a globalizing world, take a look at The Age of Community.

One response to “Are cities really that important?

  1. Hi Chris,

    Good discussion and points raised. Will be useful in my political economy class to raise with the students.

    Chris Adams

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