Jul 23, 2019



Urban sustainability is a multidimensional (ie., environmental, social, economic) and multigenerational imperative that is driving high-level policy discussions around the world. The complex intersection of intensive urbanization and the impact of climate change presents an historic opportunity for audacious thinking about Canada’s urban future.   


Intensive urbanization, a pillar of global economic development for the last 100 years, is now constrained by the planet’s ecological limits. Several authoritative studies including the 2018 IPCC Report highlight the urgency of mitigating climate change impacts while the UN Habitat for Humanity has been a long-time advocate of designing low-carbon, resilient, and resource efficient cities. In 2015, the strategic leadership of municipal leaders was formally codified in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the first time an international accord treated municipal and national leaders as equals. 


  • While Canada has some of the world’s most sustainable cities (Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal), there is much work that needs to be done if the country is to lead the global movement for sustainable living. For example, Canada is the world’s ninth largest contributor of greenhouse gases. As a signatory to the Paris Agreement (2015), Canada has a moral and ethical responsibility to “green” its cities by promoting more sustainable lifestyle choices and by mitigating the effects of high-impact sectors (ie., oil and gas, transportation, and buildings).  
  • Globally, the most sustainable cities combine a differentiated portfolio of human-centred designs and a multi-layered knowledge mobilization infrastucture that supports both strategic planning and operational decision-making. Singapore is an excellent example of a resource-poor state which engaged in collaborative learning with a view to developing world-class expertise in sustainable development (ie., congestion pricing, desalination, waste-water management) that it now exports to India (ie., NITI Urban Management Program) and to China (ie., Sino-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City).   
  • The competitive pressure to remain resilient in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world raises the strategic value of foresight analysis. Incorporating foresight analysis at the beginning of the strategic planning cycle will provide national, First Nations, and municipal planners with critical insights about their core assumptions under different conditions of uncertainty. 



  • If international sustainability frameworks evolve in response to more extreme climate change scenarios (ie., climate-induced migration), this could prompt a rebalancing of the structural asymmetry within Canadia’s federal hierarchy. At the same time, local governments will have to be realistic about their ability to function independently as “green islands” (even if the pathway to urban sustainability is likely to be different for cities across the country).   
  • Because natural habitats rarely coincide with municipal borders, there is likely to be a premium on “intelligent urbanism” that values early warning indicators and interdisciplinary research, flexible and inclusive planning structures, transportation-oriented and biophilic design principles, and distributed knowledge systems that can be quickly scaled-up in disaster management situations. 
  • Rising overseas demand for sustainable energy infrastructures and niche technologies (ie., AgTech) may present lucrative export opportunities for Canadian entrepreneurs, particularly in South East Asia where clean technology adoption has been slow and the GDP is expected to triple by 2040. 
  • Vancouver’s flourishing high-tech and green-tech sectors are major growth catalysts for the rest of Canada. According to one estimate, Canada’s economic demand for low-carbon technologies will double to $184 billion between 2020 and 2030


In addition to managing complex challenges, including issues not traditionally defined as “urban,” sustainability planning requires cross-jurisdictional solutions and “over the horizon” timelines. An intensification of sustainability risk factors will compel large and medium-sized Canadian cities to become more strategic, agile, functionally integrated, and innovative in the delivery of public services. Exploring sustainability challenges in a process of discovery-led learning and complementary planning will be especially important as hard scientific evidence accumulates and political pressure grows, domestically and internationally. 

Urban Dispatch summarizes and clarifies contemporary city-related trends, strategic management issues, and research questions. It is intended to provide VSIR clients and interested readers with relevant insights for use in making timely and informed decisions. Vancouver Strategic & Integrated Research is a catalyst for agile thinking and organizational learning. Further research and analysis of the issues discussed in the Urban Dispatch series is available upon request. Please forward any correspondence to grant@vancouverstrategicresearch.ca.

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