April 13, 2015
From the President

Cities: A Role for Philanthropy?

By Hilary Pearson

Almost 80% of Canadians live in cities. So we all have a stake in cities that have strong civic cultures, opportunities for all their citizens, and a commitment to the wellbeing of their inhabitants.

This month, I want to highlight the role of philanthropy in supporting the healthy growth of cities. Of course in this, as in other areas, the strategies for supporting cities can be as diverse as the philanthropies that pursue them.

Let’s look at two very different strategies, one in the United States and one in Canada.

The first is a top-down strategy, working through governments. When we think of cities, we may think first of their governments, and their leaders, the mayors. Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York and a major philanthropist, thinks about mayors, naturally enough. His assertion, articulated in his annual Letter on Philanthropy is that the role of philanthropy is to embolden government.

Bloomberg notes that “advocacy is not the only way to spur public sector change. In many cases, government leaders are eager to test out new policies and programs but cannot justify spending scarce resources on unproven ideas. Citizens rightly expect their representatives to be careful stewards of their tax dollars, which is one reason why risk-taking is harder in the public sector than it is in the private sector. But without experimentation there is no innovation, and without innovation, there is just stagnation. I know from talking with mayors around the world that they have an enormous appetite for new experiments, but often don’t have the funds or capacity to undertake them. Philanthropy can help bridge the gap between ambition and implementation.”

To embolden mayors and city governments, in 2012 Bloomberg Philanthropies initiated a Mayors Challenge which has resulted in the awarding of funding to ten cities in the United States and Europe that came up with the best creative experiments to solve their most pressing problems. While ten cities were given awards, over five hundred cities applied. And many of them were brought together as finalists by Bloomberg to share ideas with each other and to spread the creativity through Ideas Camp. An interesting approach to generating and sharing creativity for cities.

Another way to go about this is to stimulate the creativity of urban citizens, not just their mayors. In Canada, Cities For People about is doing just that. Still in its experimental phase, this initiative, seeded by the J.W.McConnell Family Foundation, is at its heart a bottom-up collaboration. Quoting Jane Jacobs, Cities for People says : “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”  Many people and organizations are collaborating on this innovation platform. “ Cities are complex, so the solutions needed will also be an intricate collaboration between diverse stakeholders – everyone from residents, community organizations, policy makers and municipal governments to artists, universities, private companies and charitable foundations.”

To learn more about Cities For People, watch their video. They are looking for initiatives that connect people, ideas, and activities across the following domains:

  • Art and Society: Transforming public narratives and community practices through socially relevant arts.
  • Citizen Spaces: Animating public spaces, exploring ways for citizens to engage in local decision-making and governance.
  • New Economies: Promoting sustainable consumption and production, local economic development with a particular focus on collaborative and environmentally-friendly economic and business models.
  • CityScapes: Addressing housing, infrastructure and transportation needs, as well as greening neighbourhoods, brownlands development, agriculture, energy and water.

It’s exciting to see these different philanthropic approaches at work … creating the liveable cities we all want! We’ll hear more about this work in 2015.

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