Alan Broadbent: We Are All City Builders

September 12th, 2014

Alan_300x200Alan Broadbent is the Chairman and Founder of Maytree. This article has been adapted from his opening speech at the 2014 Cities of Migration Conference in Berlin on June 4.

It is a great pleasure for us to be once again in Berlin, one of the world’s most vital and important cities. My colleagues and I have had the privilege of being here before, and we always learn something new about city building, and certainly about the power and importance of public discourse.

City building is of great interest to us at Maytree, and in our sister organizations in Toronto. We have been keen observers of the dawn of the urban age. You all know the signs: over half of the world’s population now lives in urban settings; in the global north over three-quarters of people live in cities; in the global south urbanization is taking place at an astonishing pace; the global economy has become reliant on wealth creation in our large cities; and global competition is increasingly city-to-city rather than nation-to-nation.

What we have observed in our work on immigrant settlement and inclusion was that the useful conversations were taking place at the city level. Important conversation has always taken place between nations, about immigrant selection systems, quotas, and other policy issues. But on the key determinants of success, like employment, home ownership, success in school, and neighbourhood inclusion, it was the practitioners in cities who were innovating and taking solutions to scale.

Sharing of ideas

But what we also observed was that the opportunities to share good practice were rare. We would often get into a conversation with someone active in the sector in one city and be surprised that they hadn’t heard about a good practice that may have been occurring just down the road from their city. Thus the idea for Cities of Migration was born, which we saw as creating an organized way to share stories and good practice.

Our Cities of Migration team, led by Kim Turner and Evelyn Siu, has done a wonderful job in finding and publishing good stories, over 225 of them on our website. And many of you have done a wonderful job of both supplying them and passing them on. But this as you know is only part of the job.

The real impact of Cities of Migration comes from the adaptation and implementation of good ideas in other places. We know stories about a good idea being picked up and implemented, say between the Cardiff and Madrid police services. But we are eager to know more, and to take further steps if we can actually facilitate and promote adaptation and replication.

We know that not every good idea can be simply copied in another place. There is too much specific context, influenced by social, political and economic factors. As Canadians we know that even countries that speak the same language can be as different as those with different tongues. So we don’t think simple replication is a goal.

And we know that a catalogue of good ideas and good stories on its own in insufficient. At its worst it becomes just another weapon in what we call the Culture of Complaint, where we describe problems and assign blame, and we use examples of success elsewhere as a way of bolstering our complaint and deepening the blame.


And we know it is also possible to use good stories as just so much good reading, interesting for our own edification and conversation.

But at their best Cities of Migration’s stories can be transformational and liberating. When they are picked up and applied they can increase the effectiveness of public and private players in city building, and nation building, and can make better lives for countless people, both immigrants and residents. Because the good ideas in which we trade create success for everyone: they create personal relationships, they strengthen neighbourhoods, they bring people and institutions together, and they generate prosperity.

In many ways they provide the energy for the new city age that has prompted such books as Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World, an optimistic take on the surging urban tide. All of us here have the privilege of being engaged at the vanguard, coming as we do from so many cities around the world, being engaged as we are in this vital work. At Maytree, we look on this work as a great privilege, and a great responsibility. So we’re delighted to be with you all this week in Berlin.

Alan Broadbent is also the author of Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong. You can read and watch here more speeches by participants at the Berlin conference.

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