Twenty-four hours before Calgary, High River, and much of southern Alberta were put under evacuation notice due to severe flooding, Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi was at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, speaking on the theme of "innovation and the city."
Wry and disarming, Nenshi spoke with the geeky humour that characterizes his leadership, at terms verging on self-deprecating. A video preceded his talk, showcasing living city that Torontonians might identify with David Miller-cycling, street art, fishing on the Bow River, and the performing arts, all part of an urban kaleidoscope underscoring Nenshi's Calgary as a story of renewal.
But barely minutes into his speech, Nenshi was quick to shoot humorous holes into his own civic branding. "Everyone is young; everyone is beautiful," he snorted, referring to the video's stylish promotion of a young, cosmopolitan city.
The reality, he said, is usually less music video and more day-to-day in its civic reality. "The two biggest issues for Calgary right now are dandelions and mosquitoes," he said. If attendees at MaRS visited Calgary that morning, they'd lkely see less of the young, sexy, vibrant city shown in the video. Instead, "a very soggy, very lush city that needs a good mow," he suggested-overgrown, infested with bugs, and struggling with the typically Albertan effects of a wet, humid spring.
??Less than a day later, 100,000 people were told to pack up and get out as the Bow River crested over its banks. So much for the week's worst problems. To be fair, of course, Nenshi was referring to the issues that he says all cities have to deal with before getting into the marrow of city-building. Before alternative energy, investment in a green economy, or any of the other ambitious, forward-thinking projects identified with Nenshi's mayorship, the chief executive of any city needs to deal with what he described as the "cost of admission" to that party.
"We are in the pothole-fixing business," Nenshi stated. And refuting the position of certain other mayors, transit, he says, is just as vital as fixing roads. "If you don't fill the potholes, if you don't have a transit system that works, no-one will move [to your city]," he said, reminding an investment-minded audience that cities, first and foremost, are about their people.
"Infrastructure maintenance is the basic level, but people ultimately live in cities for access." Indeed, brave new days have come to Nenshi's Calgary. Ideas are flourishing along with investment. To use just one example dear to Toronto's heart, the young mayor touted his thirty-year plan for Calgary transit: over 12.9 billion dollars are to be pumped into downtown transportation, funding that Nenshi says must be on-going, sustainable, and able to outlive the current municipal government. It's a price tag around 300,000,000 dollars per year, ballpark, and he knows it won't come out of thin air.
"I don't expect anyone to show up with a cheque for 12.9 billion. I don't have a Nigel Wright, so it's not going to happen," he said, eliciting roars of laughter.
Like David Miller, Nenshi believes that cities are nodes of global progress - places where innovation pursued locally reverberates worldwide.
But Nenshi differs from Miller in how he plans to pay for this vision.
Speaking as mayor of the most prosperous, populous city of a province that leads the country's economy, certain statements invariably emerged: a stated "agnosticism" about public-private partnerships, and even a semi-apologetic defence of Canada's petroleum-based energy economy. "[It's] a one-meter wide pipe," he said, referring to the Keystone XL pipeline, "and we're putting all of the sins of the energy economy through it."
The wealth made available by Canadian energy is nothing to apologize for, he suggested.
"If we're committing environmental sins today, we're doing it for a good reason." That reason? A future hallmarked by the sustainable infrastructure that future generations, he says, might not be able to afford.
"Let's not apologize for being a successful energy state," he said, reminding the crowd that Canada came through the economic collapse of 2008 better than most. "Let's figure out how to use that, how to use the hand we've been dealt. And it's a really, really good hand-we've been handed a Royal Flush on the first deal."
Does this constitute a city-building deal with the devil? Or the measured policies of an economic pragmatist?
??Listening to Nenshi, these are the wrong questions. In the same way that repairing potholes are the "cost of admission" for cities to play the sustainability game, the largesse of an energy economy may be similarly needed to transform that economy from the ground up, he suggests. However he plans to make this vision a reality, the Jane Jacobs-esque principal of cities for people, by people, rang throughout his entire pitch at MaRS.
It's as simple as the guiding principle he says is all but posted to the door of his office: "How is what I am doing right now making life better for my neighbours?"