Canada's smartest cities

Will yours help you thrive in tough times, or leave you to fall behind? Now, more than ever, it matters.

Canada's smartest citiesHow dumb do you think Canadians are? The answer may come as an unpleasant surprise. A new report by the Canadian Council on Learning shows that, for the first time since the organization started measuring what it calls “lifelong learning” in communities across the country—which reflects everything from university completion and museum attendance to participation in sports and volunteerism—the national average score has actually dropped. Visit the art gallery? Forget it. Pick up an actual newspaper? No, thanks. Canadian cities, it appears, are getting dumb and dumber. And given that a city’s performance on this lifelong learning index seems to go hand in hand with economic success, some are wondering what this tumble may foreshadow. “Learning plays such an important role in the social and economic resilience of the country that I think we really need to pay attention to this,” says Paul Cappon, president and chief executive of the Ottawa-based non-profit corporation.

Until now, Canada’s score had been on the upswing, from 76 in 2007 to 77 last year. Today that number has dropped to 75, precariously close to the lowest level recorded, which was 73, in 2006. The figures are based on the annual Composite Learning Index, which gives every Canadian community (some 4,719 in all) a score according to how it supports lifelong learning. It’s broadly defined by four categories or “pillars” that were originally developed by UNESCO: learning to know (which encompasses access to schools and literacy levels), learning to live together (religious activity and the level of interaction between people from diverse cultures), learning to do (workplace and vocational training), and learning to be (engagement with the arts, sports, media). And taken together, the categories correspond with economic indicators like unemployment rates and incomes.

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This year, the place that came out on top is the ebullient city of Calgary, up from third last year. It is closely followed by Victoria and Saskatoon. But even Calgary, with a score of 89, has gotten dumber since a year ago, when it achieved an impressive 92. In fact, most of the smartest major cities have seen their scores dip since 2008: Ottawa, Victoria, Regina, Edmonton, Halifax, Guelph and Kitchener, Ont. Meanwhile, many of last year’s lowest scores have only gotten worse, especially in places such as Moncton and Trois-Rivières. Across the country, more than half of all communities (large, small and rural) have seen their numbers fall. And not a single place scored 90 or higher, compared with 55 in 2008.

All of this is troubling, say observers, because at the end of the day, learning opportunities are what a city needs to thrive. Lifelong learning isn’t about creating a warm and fuzzy civic feeling, they argue, or establishing an air of sophistication. The fact that individuals, say, volunteer and use libraries actually improves a community’s safety and quality of life. The CCL has evidence that cities with low scores experience an ugly mix of problems, including higher crimes rates, poorer population health, lower voter participation, and more unemployment. This is why the index is so exciting, and Canada is being hailed as a pioneer for developing it. The European Union and German group Bertelsmann Stiftung are using the CLI as a model to measure lifelong learning in their own communities. The first results will be released this summer, and Cappon hopes that next year Canada will be able to compare its performance with that of those nations.

Cappon and others believe that lifelong learning—especially the kind gained through the arts and culture—is more important now than ever. These experiences, they say, anchor individuals to a place so that when economic disaster strikes or a local industry goes kaput or a community tragedy occurs, the whole place doesn’t simply collapse. The big question now is, can a city that has a healthy learning score bounce back better from crisis? Could going to local theatre and playing community soccer actually improve your financial well-being and your city’s too? And how much less of a chance do cities with low scores have at thriving?

If you’re surprised to hear that Calgary is Canada’s smartest city, its mayor, Dave Bronconnier, understands. Stereotypes are pervasive. “Calgary gets brushed with that ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of oil guys running around with a lot of money.’ ” And then there are the Stampede jokes. Last year, when Calgary turned out to be the most cultured city in the country—measured by the proportion of households that spent money on experiencing the arts and print material—radio talk shows were alight with calls from acrimonious non-Albertans who couldn’t believe their city had been outranked by the nation’s beef capital. One huffy caller, in contesting the idea that Calgarians were an enlightened lot, actually referred to them as “cowbells.” That places such as Montreal, which has long relished its international status as a bastion of fine arts, scored much lower than Calgary only added to the confusion, which sometimes bordered on indignation.

In some ways there’s a temptation to shrug off Calgary’s success as being just about money. It can afford to invest in museums and performances, and boasts well-off residents who can enjoy them. But a prominent feature shared by many of the smartest cities this year isn’t just that they are the biggest and richest places, but rather, they are growing. Guelph and Barrie, Ont., for instance, or Kelowna, B.C., far outranked large, urban centres such as Toronto and Vancouver. Barrie is actually Canada’s fastest-growing city, as revealed by the 2006 census, followed immediately by Calgary. Meanwhile, many of the places with the lowest scores, which tend to be in Quebec, have dwindling populations. For the second year in a row, Saguenay, Que., has ranked last among major cities. Like the rest of the province, the city has a low birth rate, and many young people leave Saguenay for work or leisure elsewhere. Last year, La Presse newspaper dubbed it “the unemployment capital of Quebec.”

It’s true that the connection between a city’s wealth and its lifelong learning is circular—cities with more opportunities produce more educated residents who earn more money, which they spend locally, thereby helping the city and its businesses prosper, and funnelling money back into the community. Bronconnier doesn’t discount the importance of a strong economy in creating a successful community. To him, learning opportunities are the first and most important step. “The higher the level of education, the more positive for the economy, the stronger the community,” he explains.

Of course, the correlations are not always so straightforward. Ottawa, for instance, has world-class institutions, but they couldn’t draw big crowds of local residents in 2007 compared with one year earlier, and that was the main reason the city’s score dropped from 93 to 84, and why it dropped from first place last year to sixth among major cities. Acting Mayor Michel Bellemare says that museum attendance has improved recently. “But I don’t think it’s an automatic instinct” to be a tourist in the community where we live, he says, partly because “we associate our own town with work and home life.”

Calgary, on the other hand, may not have the plethora of arts venues found in some big cities, but the growing community (1.1 million people and counting) has a major appetite for cultural events, says Lance Carlson, president of the Alberta College of Art and Design, which is in Calgary. A few years ago, Carlson started the “Stirring Culture” lecture series, which featured famous thinkers such as designer Bruce Mau, architect Will Alsop, cultural planner Charles Landry, and opera director Peter Sellars. The talks, which were free to the public, saw more than 5,000 people cram inside the downtown performing arts centre.

What’s more, the latest CLI scores confirm that Calgarians are the biggest museum-goers in Canada, with 48.1 per cent of households having visited at least one local exhibit in 2007. Montreal placed 10th among major cities with only 24.7 per cent of households having gone to a museum that year. Meanwhile, in Toronto—where the Art Gallery of Ontario recently laid off 23 staff—only 35.1 per cent of households visit museums compared to 28.9 in Vancouver.

So why don’t people go? Art galleries and museums can seem isolating places, says Carlson, which may discourage people from visiting. Others may not go because they see attending cultural events as a luxury or frill, says Bob Williams, a director of Vancity credit union in Vancouver, and a former politician who has commissioned studies on the role of arts in the community. “It’s the embroidery,” he says, the kind of indulgence that might be further forgone in grim economic times or perhaps even when people get too busy with work.

But the consequences of this kind of drop-off are real. In fact, the reason for the big decline in Canada’s CLI scores overall is mainly due to decreases in this “learning to be” pillar. Fewer and fewer households across the country have been spending money on going to museums, art galleries, or live performances, and on print newspapers and magazines. Given the economic downturn and Canadians’ tightening belts, this nosedive threatens to get worse—especially considering that most of the Statistics Canada data used to tabulate this year’s scores is from 2007, which was a boom time compared with now. Cappon worries that educational engagement will be sacrificed in the name of cost-cutting. “Obviously what we don’t want is a future in which the CLI declines even more because of the recession,” Cappon says.

It’s not all grim; there is some good news in the “learning to be” pillar. Internet use is up yet again, which suggests to Cappon that people may be keeping abreast of current events online even if they aren’t reading hard-copy magazines and newspapers as much. And books are the one print medium that households report spending just as much money on as ever.

There is also a school of thought that suggests the recession may send people running to community events. Budget-conscious families may choose the “stay-cation” route, visiting local theatre and sporting events in lieu of expensive vacations beyond their city limits. And people disillusioned with the economy may actually want to be more culturally engaged as a way of coping, say Carlson. “The fundamental pivot point for humans is to understand what things mean,” he explains. So when the comforts of daily life begin to unravel and our stability is compromised by uncertainty—because of a pay cut, job loss or the strained personal relationships that often accompany financial stress—a fun afternoon playing on the town hockey team or appreciating a local artist’s work may actually soothe us.

If that were to happen, it would do the city, and the country, some good. When people invest regularly in the cultural aspects of a community, they are more likely to identify with that place as part of who they are, says Williams, because they have a financial stake in it. He has found that how people spend their disposable income is often indicative of their identity. The more people allot “spending money” toward a community’s own activities, the more likely they are to feel that they belong there.

Obviously that can help a city retain its citizens during tough times, when they might otherwise move away for better employment opportunities. “Culture can create the kind of place where people want to live,” says Kelly Hill, founder of Hill Strategies Research in Hamilton, which studies the impact of the arts in Canada. He sees a link between economy and way of life in a place. “There’s a lot of research now looking at how people are picking jobs and it’s not just about the job itself, it’s about what kind of lifestyle the community offers. A place where people want to live is probably going to have a better economic return over the long term. That’s what it boils down to,” he explains.

Despite the drop in the overall scores of most communities, there is one bright spot that Cappon says is encouraging. The “learning to do” pillar has been on a steady incline for the last four years. This pillar measures the proportion of employers offering job-related training and the proportion of Canadian adults who participate in it, plus the average travel time to vocational schools in the community. Historically, Canada has been a low performer on this front relative to other OECD countries. During the recent economic boom, however, businesses were more willing to invest in their staff’s education, explains Cappon, and helping them develop transferable skills.

In Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton, roughly two-thirds of employers have offered their staff job-related training. In Quebec City, a stunning 70 per cent of employers have done the same, up from 48 per cent. But this data goes back as far as 2005, which means it is pre-recessionary. That has some observers worried that we may see the trend reverse soon. “You could predict, if you were a pessimist, that this score will decline next year,” says Cappon, as more cash-strapped employers cut their spending on human infrastructure. Anecdotally there are signs this is indeed happening; “People are battening down the hatches,” an official at the OECD told Cappon.

If this does happen widely in communities across the country, Cappon warns that Canada could actually be worse off once it comes out of a recession—many people in the labour force will be older, and our skill sets will have stagnated. He stresses the importance of employers actually putting more money into job-related training during this economic downturn as a way of fortifying the abilities of their staff, so that when the economy recovers, businesses and their surrounding community will emerge stronger than before the downturn.

It helps that the other two pillars, “learning to know” and “learning to live together,” have been barely budged over the last four years. This means that post-secondary education participation, youth literacy and high school dropout rates have been stable. And when it comes to living together, the consistent scores recorded in Canadian communities signal that a committed pool of individuals are participating in social clubs and organizations such as alumni groups and bridge clubs, as well as interacting with people from other cultures regularly.

Across the board, experts say that each community has to determine for itself what kinds of learning are most important to the people who live there. The CCL has developed an electronic simulator that allows cities to hypothetically improve their score in any one of the pillars to see how it would impact their overall standing.

Even in Calgary there is room for improvement, says Carlson, who thinks the city needs a contemporary art museum. Communities get distracted by short-term issues, he notes, such as potholes and roads. While those are important, Carlson believes we need to focus on creating a civic identity. That, he argues, is central to lifelong learning—offering citizens a chance to determine who they are, and why they are central to a place’s success. “If a community—a country, province, city—really wants to maximize the potential of its members, the issue is how do we create the particular conditions that will allow people to be more fulfilled?” asks Carlson. “That’s a fundamental question for a successful society.”

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