For much of Canada’s history, our cities were like islands in a vast wilderness. They rose suddenly out of the prairies, emerged from forests, or clung to the land at the edge of great lakes or oceans. Most Canadians lived in rural areas and had very little experience of life in a big city. In the 1861 census, the last conducted before Confederation, 84 per cent of the Canadian population was rural.
Today, the opposite is true. In 2017, nearly 82 per cent of Canadians called a city home. Our major urban centres are no longer islands in the wilderness, but rather form the heart of huge regional economies. The tech and innovation sector in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor alone already accounts for 17 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product, and is set to grow even more.
When York opened its Keele Campus in 1965, it too felt very much like an island, literally standing alone in a sea of farmers’ fields. But over the past five decades, Toronto has grown around the University. In December 2017, York was finally connected to Toronto’s subway system, further embedding the institution into the geography of the city.
Physical connections, however, are only one part of the story. The bigger question is what role universities should play in building the cities and regions that surround them. It is clear our cities will continue to grow. What is less certain is whether cities will grow in a way that benefits everyone – what I refer to as “inclusive growth.” I believe York and universities like it have a central role in creating the kind of urban development we need while ensuring that everyone – urban and rural – benefits from that growth.
Above all, it is important to realize that city building cannot be done in the absence of community building. That means we need to provide infrastructure and resources that allow people to connect and learn from one another, sharing and collaborating on innovative ideas that improve the well-being of all members of society. Universities are ideally positioned to facilitate these crucial connections. An example is the collaboration between York University Professor Isabella Bakker and the City of Toronto’s Equity, Diversity & Human Rights Division to introduce a gender-based budgeting process to help address gender inequality in the city.
Or consider Osgoode Hall Law School’s Poverty Law Intensive at Parkdale Community Legal Services (PCLS) in downtown Toronto. In 1971, Osgoode students were instrumental in establishing PCLS, the first community-based legal clinic in Ontario. Today, Osgoode students continue to be an integral part of the clinic’s work, benefiting from an invaluable experiential learning opportunity. At the same time, they provide one of Toronto’s most diverse neighbourhoods with legal resources and collaborate with residents on strategies to overcome the challenges in their community.
Just as Canadian cities are no longer islands unto themselves, universities cannot be islands within the communities they inhabit. They are key players in building and sustaining vibrant, livable and economically robust urban centres. While there remains much work to do, I am proud that York has already shown leadership in building an inclusive future. As an institution, we are committed to driving this vision forward in Toronto, in Canada and around the world.