The Next City
The Irreversible Urbanization of NB

This is an unedited version of a #nextcity column that appeared in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal on Feb 11, 2012

Montreal’s Trudeau Airport is lined with advertisements from the bank HSBC that highlight how the global economy has changed the very way we live. Walking through the airport’s corridors earlier this week, one of HSBC’s factoids caught my eye: each day, 200,000 residents of the countryside leave some part of the world for the city.

The reason this ad grabbed my attention was that it affirmed just how global the economic forces underlining the latest Census data truly are – New Brunswick, just like virtually every other corner of the planet, cannot escape the trend toward greater urbanization.

 The 2011 preliminary Census results themselves were interesting on their own merits for a number of reasons ( I hope to address NB’s growing suburban communities, and the rising population count in Saint John’s urban core, in future columns), yet I am most interested in how the latest census numbers may shift the way in which policy-makers seek to shape the economic direction of our now urban province.

Taken as a whole, New Brunswick’s population numbers aren’t much to celebrate. While our growth rate was almost 3 percent, the largest it has been in over three decades, this was yet another census period in which the NB growth rate has lagged behind the rest of Canada. While it is better to be growing than shrinking (just ask Edmundston today, or Saint John circa 1996, which they’d prefer), the simple fact remains: New Brunswick is becoming less and less relevant to Canada’s key decision-makers, as we are no longer big enough to be heard, at least not without a struggle . To maintain a national voice, we’re going to have to be more imaginative, more creative, and more bold in just about all that we do.

Ironically, while one of the reasons New Brunswick grew less quickly than other provinces was because the allure of the big city (be it Toronto or Montreal, or increasingly Calgary) continues to take New Brunswickers beyond our provincial boundaries, the very fact that our growth rate was more robust than previous census years was in large part because our own big cities (admittedly, quite small on a national scale) also became a place that more New Brunswick residents were willing to call home. Overall, the total population of New Brunswick grew by over 21,000 from 2006 to 2011. In the urban regions of Moncton, Saint John (both CMAs) and Fredericton (CA), the number of new residents actually grew by close to 26,000, suggesting that urban New Brunswick produced virtually all of the province’s net growth.

How has this urban growth shifted the political and economic balance of power in New Brunswick? According to the 2011 data, the three urban regions of New Brunswick account for 48% of the province’s population, a voting bloc that will be sure to dominate a 49 seat legislature, once the seats are redistributed. Add Oromocto to the mix, and the percentage of New Brunswick that is either near or within the three communities approaches 50 percent.  (For some reason, Statistics Canada doesn’t consider Oromocto part of Fredericton’s urban region – an odd decision, given the political clout of the late Fredericton-area MP Milton Gregg made Oromocto the administrative HQ of CFB Gagetown, and not the other initial choice, the Saint John bedroom community of Welsford. If Oromocto was added to Fredericton’s urban region, the provincial capital would likely join Saint John and Moncton as a full-fledged Census Metropolitan Area.)

That shift toward the three cities will be sure to change much of the way in which New Brunswick is governed, as urban-centric economic files (be they NB’s small, but nimble IT sector) or issues (the relative lack of quality rental housing, or rising property tax bills) become of more paramount importance to parties seeking to gain control of the provincial legislature. While New Brunswick’s rural communities will no doubt continue to demand (and in many cases deserve) equitable government service, the urban-rural debate will likely get a lot more divisive, as fewer MLAs will come from rural ridings. If our next legislature is to have six fewer MLAs, there is a very real possibility that five of the lost seats will be from the province’s North.

While our politics may get messier in the near term, there is no turning the clock back for New Brunswick. Urbanization is a global phenomenon, and our province can’t escape its inevitability. Well before the next census, our youngest residents will continue to seek out the bright lights and big city, but if we’re smart, we’d try to find ways to ensure that bright lights are shining here in this province.

In short, provincial policy makers have a choice. We can invest in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John (if not the downtown cores of Edmundston or Miramichi), and make New Brunswick’s urban life as attractive economically and culturally as it is in Canada’s leading metropolitan areas. If we do, our children and grandchildren can have a vibrant future right here. If we don’t make the right investments, that future may quite likely be in Montreal, Toronto or Calgary, and we’ll see them over the Christmas holidays.

I know that when my children grow up, I’ll want to see them more than once a year.

Saint John: NB’s very own Toronto

This #nextcity column was originally published in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal on Feb 8, 2012

Is Saint John New Brunswick’s own version of Toronto?

While this question may seem odd, given that Canada’s leading metropolis is over 30 times larger than our city, it is one that I’ve been asking myself this week as I’m attending a national conference in Toronto.

Obviously, there are many differences – Toronto is more robust economically, more diverse culturally, and the remaining brick and stone buildings that line its core now have a habit of sprouting 30 or 40- story condo towers on top of them. 

And the degree in which the city’s urban core has become more dense is very impressive. When I attended grad school in Toronto years ago, the bank towers of the financial district – a symbol of Bay Street’s wealth, and a key driver of the city’s economy – dominated the skyline.  Today, the bank towers are largely hidden by a vertical jungle of residential steel and glass, a localized building boom a few square kilometres in size that easily outpaces all of the residential construction activity for the entire province of New Brunswick.

The sheer enormity of Toronto makes it difficult to fairly compare with Saint John. Yet despite the huge differences in scale, the two cities have more in common than you’d first think. Our local officials would do well to compare themselves to Canada’s biggest city, rather than the other New Brunswick cities that happen to be a lot closer to us in size, but whose urban environment is very distinct from our own.

What specifically do Toronto and Saint John have in common? Because of urban density, both cities enjoy the highest public transit usage of any community in their respective provinces. Of course, Saint John has recently cut its bus service, while Toronto is expanding its subway line. Both cities are committed to embracing culture and amateur sport as a vehicle for ensuring citizens feel a sense of community. Toronto now has a new opera house, and will soon be hosting the Pan-Am games. While Saint John’s cultural scene may be neglected by government funders, it still remains the most vibrant in New Brunswick, and Saint John Common Council actually once considered a bid to host the Pan-Am games, back in 1960 when our collective ambition was greater than it is today.

Like Saint John, Toronto’s city hall has had its share of financial challenges. The new Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, was elected in large part because of a burgeoning taxpayer revolt – his oft-repeated pledge to stop the municipal government ‘gravy train’ propelled him into the helm of the spaceship-like piece of architecture that serves as Toronto’s city hall. While Ford has lost some recent budget battles with council, his campaign to lower costs was given momentum when he received significant concessions from the city’s outside workers, who had the bad timing of entering into a new contract in a time of significant public-sector restraint. Because there is very rarely an original idea in politics, I wouldn’t be surprised if a Rob Ford-type emerges in Saint John’s approaching civic vote.

Perhaps the greatest parallel between Saint John and Toronto, however, rests with the often  stormy relationship that both cities have with their respective host provinces.  Toronto is the economic engine of Ontario, just as Saint John is the economic engine of New Brunswick (of course, the scale of Toronto’s economy means that its provincial dominance is much, much greater). Yet both cities have a bit of a chip on their shoulder, as they wonder why residents who live outside the metropolis somehow don’t appreciate how all of the urban-based economic activity translates into significant cash for the provincial governments of Ontario and New Brunswick, and pays for new schools and hockey rinks in Barrie and Petawawa, or Fredericton Junction and Quispamsis.

In Toronto, this metropolitan angst has translated into a successful documentary – a few years back, a Toronto-based film-maker had a small hit on his hands when he dared to ask the question ‘why does everyone hate Toronto?’ In Saint John, the angst has launched more than one facebook or twitter campaign. Uptown resident (and former mayoral candidate) Bob McVicar recently caused a bit of a stir when he posted an online commentary calling for the provincial government to send more of Saint John’s money back to the people of Saint John, in the form of new investment. The city, according to McVicar, was the goose that lays the golden egg, yet provincial policy-makers refuse to tend to its immediate needs.

As long as the discussion remains constructive in tone, we need more of this sort of frank talk. Toronto’s relationship with the rest of Ontario is much healthier than it was a few years ago, as talk of a New Deal for cities (led by the Toronto Star’s editorial page, and embraced by many municipal politicians) created a better understanding of how vibrant cities created wealthier provinces.

As Canada’s leading city, Toronto started the national urban discussion.  Perhaps, now that the latest Census data suggests that New Brunswick is a de facto urban province, Saint John should be leading the discussion here.

Who wants to have a (civic) party?

This #nextcity column was originally published in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal on Feb 4, 2012 

There’s an old maxim in politics – originally attributed to Ben Franklin around the time of the American Revolution – that states, ”We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

While the imagery might be grim, this phrase has been repeated time and time again by party whips of all stripes, in large part because solidarity is a very important attribute in politics. When the going gets tough, its nice to know that your seatmate in the legislature or council chamber has your back. If they don’t, it can descend into Lord of the Flies territory very, very quickly.

I offer this maxim because the great Saint John budget debate of the last few weeks has made one thing clear: a lot of our councillors don’t actually appear to like each other very much, at least if the raised tempers in public sessions and the accusations of closed-door bullying are any indication. And that contempt, if not outright distrust, for one another has turned our budget process into a very public contest of wills.

The very concept of Team Saint John – popular among politicians not that far back, suggesting that regardless of political background, everyone was there for the public good – has been replaced by a much less pleasant idea, a virtual Cage Match Saint John.

Obviously, the difficult choices surrounding the municipal budget (and their political consequences) have heightened emotions in this election year. Yet some of the conflicts around the council table have been longstanding – for an example of this, simply search ‘Saint John Common Council’ on YouTube. The most popular clip that emerges involves a heated argument between two current members of council, held over an obscure point of order. In the middle of the debate, former mayor Shirley Mcalary apologizes to the people of Saint John for having to witness the outburst. Comedy council, indeed.

Of course, Saint John Common Council has had a long history of such outbursts. The legend of Elsie Wayne grew mythical in proportions when she poured a can of soda on a fellow councillor – not long after, she was elected as a reformist mayor.

While Elsie is fondly remembered still for such exuberant acts, her career as a municipal politician offers a potential prototype out of the current impasse. When she first ran as a mayor, a broad coalition of citizens rallied around her – five former mayors publicly endorsed her, and many other less well-known residents stepped up to join in her campaign to clean up City Hall.

In short, when Elsie Wayne was elected as mayor, the campaign was less about her, and more about the idea that citizens actually mattered. A series of ‘Elephant Never Forgets’ newspaper advertisements developed by members of her team ran with the signatory line CITIZENS FOR BETTER CIVIC GOVERNMENT. (Full disclosure: my aunt Joan Pearce was one of the Elephant copy writers. I’ve inherited much of my activist impulses from her earlier civic adventures.)

The 1983 contest in essence became a contest between the pro-reformers that coalesced around Elsie, and those who favoured the incumbent Mayor Bob Lockhart. Elsie Wayne’s biography highlighted just how intense that contest became: in the week before the vote a paper ballot was circulated throughout the city, naming the mayoral and council candidates to endorse.

 According to Wayne, they “had been passing out ballots, already ticked off for the incumbent Mayor and a group of people who were part of the clique on Council. They were all told to just put that ballot in the box, and it was a real ballot!“ In other words, the 1983 contest turned into a battle of competing (if not potentially fraudulent) slates.

I certainly don’t endorse the sort of shenanigans that might have took place in the 1983 vote, but there is a certain political merit in organizing municipal slates in a transparent fashion. In fact, history has shown that the city has organized a number of municipal slates before. In the early 20th century, they were quite common – especially after the Board of Trade and organized labour were divided by a particularly bitter street car strike. And in larger Canadian cities, such as Vancouver or Montreal, these slates have evolved into organized municipal political parties, complete with cheery names like ‘Vision Vancouver’ or  ‘Montreal Citizens Movement.’

While this level of partisan organization makes for more robust electoral participation, it also ensures better municipal governance. When slates are well organized, incumbents have a tougher time getting re-elected, as name recognition (long an advantage incumbents enjoy) is trumped by a guiding set of civic pledges that all slate candidates must endorse. Within Saint John, candidate slates could be organized around protecting public services, or lowering the property tax rate, to name just two potential rallying points.

Organized slates – with clear and transparent election pledges – can also help clear the air, as we enter into future budget years in an era of fiscal austerity. It becomes a lot easier to pass a budget if you know going in to the council chambers which of your fellow councillors is on your team, and that you’ve received clear direction from the voters.

As the civic election gets nearer, perhaps it is time for Saint John to consider abandoning the current free agent approach to electing the mayor and council, and instead opt for organized teams or slates, if not civic parties with specific platform commitments.

 What’s the worst that can happen? If a clear majority of council is elected under one banner, then our city government would have a clear mandate from the citizens to undertake the reforms needed to make Saint John a better city. 

The current alternative, of electing councillors without having any idea whether or not they can actually stay in the same room without sniping at each other, has arguably run its course.

We Regret The Error, Now About That Cheque…

This #nextcity column was originally published in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal on Feb 1, 2012

I spent much of the last column suggesting that whatever the financial woes at City Hall, they’re not for lack of internal revenue (indeed, I actually underestimated the numbers – see postscript below). Now, let me come to the city’s defence by stating this: Saint John can’t achieve sustained prosperity without a new arrangement with the Province.

One of the principal ways in which the government of New Brunswick funds its municipalities is with the unconditional grant – consider it a form of in-province equalization. This grant is calculated using a formula almost as obtuse as federal equalization; everything from the total length of roads in a community to the total resident population is used in the grant calculation. Regardless of the way the formula is calculated, one thing is certain – the cheque is getting smaller.

In 2012, Saint John will receive close to $19 million from the province in the form of an unconditional grant. In 2000, we received slightly more than $21 million (the equivalent of $26 million in 2011 dollars).  In 1991, the Government of New Brunswick paid out roughly $67 million to New Brunswick’s cities in the form of unconditional grants (nearly $100 million in 2011 dollars). Over 20 years later, the total amount given to NB cities in the form of an unconditional grant in 2012 is expected to be only $46 million.

In short, Saint John – not to mention the province’s other cities – has been facing an ever-increasing financial shortfall from the province.  And in a world that is becoming increasingly more urban, short-changing Saint John not only makes for increasingly dire city budget sessions, it undermines the long term economic health of New Brunswick.

 Canada’s leading cities are prosperous in large part because they have forged a new deal with their provincial governments, allowing for new investments in transit, housing, and smart growth. Other provinces are making these sorts of urban investments because urban economies are driving provincial economies.

We need to make more urban investments in this province. Even in heavily-forested New Brunswick, where the mill-town still haunts our cultural imagination, the urban-based information technology sector is now a larger contributor to provincial GDP than wood products, according to the New Brunswick government’s own Finance reports.

 Our economic life is increasingly urbanized – over the last decade the only counties that have resisted population decline in New Brunswick have been the counties nearest the orbit of Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton.

Yet Saint John, much like the cities of Fredericton and Moncton, has yet to be fully supported by the Government of New Brunswick – certainly not in the way that Nova Scotia supports Halifax, or Quebec supports Montreal. Obviously, the fact that we have three urban centres, rather than one key metropolitan community, complicates matters.  It doesn’t help that New Brunswick’s largest cities often act like three cats in a bag, clawing at each other for funds for the next convention centre or airport runway expansion. If one cat gets a treat, the others meow very, very loudly.

Perhaps it is time for a new direction, if only for the sanity of our councillors spending their Saturday mornings trying to decide which community grant to cut next.  Before Minister Higgs tables his next budget, Saint John should formally seek out a new dialogue with the Province of New Brunswick, and invite the cities of Fredericton and Moncton to join us at the table.

Combined, the urban regions of southern NB make up over ½ the provincial economy. For 2012 and future budget years, let’s ensure provincial financial decisions respond to the three cities’ collective needs (wants can wait a couple of years).  If our province’s future rests with its urban areas, then in an era of scarce resources maybe we should start asking exactly when provincial funding arrangements will reflect this reality.

Postcript: Today’s column has to end with what every newspaper scribe abhors – an omission of error. In Saturday’s paper, I suggested that the city’s finances have in fact been growing at a fairly steady clip. While I was correct to make that observation, I actually short-changed the percentage growth in which the municipal warrant increased from 2000 to 2010.

To wit, in the last column I wrote: “In the 2010 budget year, the municipal warrant (essentially the sum of the property taxes collected, and the major revenue source for New Brunswick’s cities) was  41 percent higher in Saint John than a decade ago, and now stands above $100 million. Consider that growth the next time an official claims the city is broke.”

When hastily undertaking my calculations, I put the wrong year as my denominator, and the resulting calculation of growth was 41 percent,  when the actual City of Saint John warrant increased by 70 percent. I made the same column mistake in my calculation of provincial health care spending: I wrote 48 percent, when the actual 10 year growth was 92 percent.  In other words, I miscalculated, and for someone who makes a living analyzing data, this is simply unacceptable. For the error, I sincerely apologize.

City Budget Wants, Needs and Elephants

This #nextcity column on the city budget was originally published in the Telegraph Journal on January 28, 2012. NOTE: it originally contained errors made in calculating decennial percentages. The errors are corrected in this online edition, and will be referenced in a future column. For newsprint readers, I apologize for the error.

As City Hall finalizes its budget, what are the wants, and what are the needs? And what is the equivalent of the health care elephant?

 Finance Minister Blaine Higgs is touring the province as part of his pre-budget consultations, and he’s quick to inform audiences of the need to distinguish between wants and needs. This is certainly wise counsel, in an era of aging demographics, a large fiscal shortfall, and ever-increasing health care costs.

When examining the provincial budget, it is apparent that trying to trim the health care bill is a significant challenge, as it is the single largest government expenditure. In 2011/12, health care costs were budgeted at $2.5 billion, over $1.2 billion more than 10 years earlier.

In other words, in 2011/12 we spent over $1 billion more on health care than 10 years ago, an increase of 92 percent (NOTE: in the print edition of this column, this was published as 48 percent. I regret the error). During that same period, the province’s population grew older and slightly fatter, but not necessarily any healthier.

According to the Bank of Canada’s handy online inflation calculator, a basket of goods that cost $100 in 2000 would cost $121.50 in 2010 – a decennial increase of 21.5 percent. The cost of health care, like that of many other government expenditures in the province, is rising at a rate faster than inflation, suggesting that the taxpayer is potentially facing a higher burden now than a decade ago.

Now City Hall is putting the final touches on its own budget for the next fiscal year, and faces some of the same fiscal challenges as the province. The economic outlook is cloudier than we’d like, the population is aging, and the pension shortfall is causing bean-counters inside the municipality to lose sleep at night in much the same way that the provincial deficit is plaguing their counterparts in official Fredericton.

But if we were to look inside the city ledger, how can we tell if they’re making the right choice between wants and needs? Is there a health care elephant we need to worry about? And is there an easy way to tell if we’re financially healthier than we were 10 years ago?

To get a feel for budget choices before Common Council, I examined recent municipal statistics reports, freely available on GNB’s Local Government website. The most recent data I examined was for 2010; to get a sense of longer term trends, I compared the numbers to the 2000 report, published 10 years earlier.

First of all, I should highlight that Saint John, much like Fredericton or Moncton, has access to more tax revenue than 10 years ago. In fact, the property tax base in urban New Brunswick has been rising at a steady clip in the last decade. This same luxury is not enjoyed by many towns and villages in rural New Brunswick, further underlining the need for meaningful reforms to local government in the province.

In the 2010 budget year, the municipal warrant (essentially the sum of the property taxes collected, and the major revenue source for New Brunswick’s cities) was 70 percent (NOTE: in the print column, this was published as 41 percent; I regret the error) higher in Saint John than a decade ago, and now stands above $100 million. Consider that growth the next time an official claims the city is broke.

Where has the money been spent? On a lot of needs, and some wants. If municipal budgets had an equivalent to the health care elephant, it would be in protective services: fire and police. There are a number in the city who would seek to cut further here, although I suspect their thinking might be different if they lived on a block filled with hundred- year old wood-frame housing (a common streetscape in many Saint John neighbourhoods).

Over a ten year period from 2000 to 2010, however, the budgetary percentage spent on fire and police in Saint John has actually decreased marginally, from 33.3 percent to 32.8 percent.  Of course, the police and fire budgets have increased over 10 years (from a combined amount of roughly $30 million to over $43 million), but there has been an even greater increase in the category of general government expenditure, at least according to the municipal statistics. In 2000, general government expenditures cost the city $7.8 million. Ten years later, the number was close to $14 million. In other words, our administrative wants have been outpacing our public safety needs.

All this to say that the choices before council are difficult, and they must be well considered before the next budget is approved.  An informal public session, complete with opportunities to respond to submitted questions, might be useful before the final budget vote, if only to inform the public of the logic behind specific budget decisions.

One final note: any discussion over financial matters can get quite complicated and messy, and it becomes even more challenging when the discussion is limited to 800 words or so (no wonder council prefers that the majority of these discussions take place behind closed doors. While I disagree with this approach, I’m more empathetic to the municipal government after staring at my own spreadsheets for too long).  We need to continue this discussion, for in the end it is our money that is being spent. So let’s continue this exercise in future weeks –the question of municipal water rates alone merits a PhD dissertation.

 But before we take the budget challenge again in a future column, let us collectively grab one more coffee.  Good budget planning is helped by caffeine. And if we really, really need it, perhaps a shot of Bailey’s.  

Saint John Enters the Dragon (Year)

This is a draft copy of the #nextcity column originally published in the Telegraph Journal on January 25, 2012

Gong Xi Fa Chai!

I’m not 100% sure, but after a quick internet search I believe I’ve just said wishing you to be prosperous in the coming new year. I say this because I had the pleasure of attending last Saturday night’s gala celebration of the Chinese New Year at the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre. As has been the case in recent years, the event was completely sold out (this time they even ran out of food for a while). The Chinese community is now the largest immigrant community in Greater Saint John, and their New Year celebrations are bringing a wonderful vitality to the uptown core in one of the coldest months of the year.

While the evening was a celebration of the Chinese New Year, it was also a recognition of how an increasingly smaller planet is changing the very feel of Saint John. Alongside giant paper dragons and Tai Chi performances were Bollywood dancers, a Philipino dance group, and a soloist who performed Yuji Opera. In between saccharine Chinese pop ballads about love was a Chopin piano recital, conducted flawlessly by UNBSJ Music Professor, the European-trained Ludmila Knezkova-Hussey.  Taken as a whole, the cultural output of close to ½ the world’s population was represented in the Saint John celebration of the year of the water dragon.

Arguably the most memorable performances of the night involved the creative fusion of East and West, performed by both native-born Saint John residents and new arrivals to the city. A blond-haired folk singer from Saint John captivated many in the audience by singing a pop song entirely in Chinese, and a New Brunswick-born Simonds high school student showed off his talents in Chinese caligraphy. For the Youtube generation, back-to-back performances by a Burlesque troupe rivalling the Los Angeles-based  PussyCat Dolls and a hip-hop duo busting moves usually seen in Chicago or New York were both riveting. Each of these western-influenced acts were performed entirely by dynamic young Chinese dancers, all now residing in New Brunswick.

I left the evening optimistic over the future of Saint John. I was even more optimistic when I learned that a similar celebration was held at Main Street Baptist Church, suggesting that the Chinese community is now a vibrant part of our port city. Christian Dimmer, a Japan-based researcher whose twitter feed I follow, recently noted that over ½ the world’s urban population now lives in Asia. This mass of humanity, which is changing the very direction of the world economy, also represents an opportunity to change Saint John. More than any civic budget shortfall, our future as a city rests on our ability to welcome newcomers from every part of the globe.

Because of its long history as a port, Saint John has had more exposure to the rest of the world than any other community in New Brunswick. Its only natural, then, that multicultural events like the celebrations of the past weekend would be embraced by so many. Like so many before them – be they Irish, Spanish, Lebanese, or Iranian – the Chinese community in Saint John is using our port as a gateway to a better life. If we’re fortunate, that life will be here. If not, it will be in Toronto or some other immigrant-rich part of Canada.

To ensure that these immigrants prosper in Saint John, we need to do more than simply attend a multicultural event to make our newcomers feel welcome. We need to invite them to dinner or a coffee, and just as critically, either hire them or become a patron of their newest business endeavour.

 While recent history suggests that while we’re improving  in terms of rolling out the welcome mat – Saint John has been  host to more immigrants than any other New Brunswick community in the last couple of years of federal data – we’ve still got lots of progress to make.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on an immigrant research project with Dr. Greg Marquis at UNBSJ.  His own research has found that in the early 20th Century, Saint John already had a small but vibrant and politically-active Chinese community, but that racist federal anti-immigration laws hastened their demise. While we may think we’ve turned a corner, a survey of contemporary immigrants that I conducted on behalf of the same research project found that roughly 30% of new Canadians residing in Saint John have been subjected to some form of racism.

Despite all of this, most of the immigrants I surveyed enjoyed their new lives in Saint John, and if they found the right economic opportunity they would stay.

We need to do all that we can to facilitate this, for it enriches our community over multiple generations. Our former MP, Paul Zed, often used to talk about how his immigrant grandmother used to sell bananas in the inner city. And I still remind newcomers from Asia that our first mayor, Gabriel Ludlow, was himself an immigrant.

In short, we’ve got a legacy to hold up. Let’s continue to welcome the world.

The Economic Logic Behind Hugging It Out

This is an unedited draft of the Jan 20 #nextcity column, originally published in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal

THE ECONOMIC LOGIC BEHIND HUGGING IT OUT

First and foremost, I’d like to thank you, the readers, for your rather engaged response to my initial #nextcity columns, written over Christmas eggnog in the hopes that a new year would lead to new ideas about the future of Saint John.  Like Lord Beaverbrook, my foray into newspapers was largely propagandist in nature – I figured if I could link the city’s Loyalists and post-war art movement to Jay-Z or the Kardashians, I’d at least get Saint John residents to see their city in a new light.

Thinking about the #nextcity appears to have started a lot of civic conversations. Let’s hope that in the months to come, this conversation can continue to entertain, and enlighten.

With that pleasantry aside, let’s discuss something that was first reported in the paper over two weeks ago, and is still the talk of the town – the idea of a ‘congestion tax’, applied to suburban commuters who work in the city. The idea was actually part of a larger package of proposed council reforms on transit, some very interesting (such as the idea of using smaller, more fuel efficient buses for inner-city routes). Practically all of these ideas were overwhelmed by the discussion over the proposed congestion tax.

The reaction? Fairly negative, if published online comments and coffee shop conversations are any indication.  More than one twitter pundit noted the irony of applying a congestion tax in a city with virtually no congestion. The Mayor of Rothesay called the idea ‘ludicrous’ and ‘a joke’. One suburban shop-owner told me he was considering charging city dwellers more for his meats and poultry; he was joking, but you get the point.  A Facebook forum suggested that the city was a sinking ship – unfortunately, its commentators (most of them city dwellers) were in a less humorous mood.

Sadly, this rhetoric will probably get even more heated.  In the months to come, politicians from all of the region’s municipalities will likely be calling for their fair share of either existing or new taxes, as the civic elections get closer and promises have to be kept. 

Inevitably, this could lead to sniping, as local pols claim that the other municipalities’ fiscal woes would never have occurred, if only they did not build that expensive overpass / outdoor pool / bus station / name your infrastructure here.  The property tax base, just like the grass, always appears greener on the other side of the municipality.

If our regional economy is to be the strongest in the province, we must refrain from this sort of intra-metropolitan warfare. Not only does this run contrary to the spirit of True Growth (the community plan every local municipality signed on to not more than a decade ago), its based on bad economics. Collectively, our economy has close to 130,000 residents, and is home to both the poorest and wealthiest households in New Brunswick.  For that economy to work for everyone, we need to ensure that its residents are free to trade and work with one another, without arbitrary barriers.

Just as free trade and labour market mobility can transform international markets, it can power local economies. Because of this, policies that run counter to universally recognized economic theory should be carefully considered before implementation, for the consequences may be more troubling than the problem in need of a solution.

Perhaps, if only to have a more civil discussion in the silly season before the May civic vote, someone should take their cue from the saucy U.S.  cable hit Entourage, and tell our regional politicians to ‘hug it out.’ Although our region is served by 5 distinct municipalities, we’re one economy. Uptown, Rothesay, or St. Martins, we’re all in this together. Infighting gets us nowhere with official Fredericton, and certainly doesn’t give the rest of the province a compelling picture of Greater Saint John. (For those who assume I’m discounting our fiscal situation, don’t fret; I’ll be talking about our financial challenges with official Fredericton in a future column.)

Since I started today’s  column with a reference to Lord Beaverbrook, I’ll end it with an anecdote from his book, My Early Life. Max Aitken had his first real taste of finance in Saint John, before making even more money through various business interests in Halifax, Montreal, Calgary, and eventually London. As a very young man from the Miramichi, he was quite awestruck with the hustle and bustle of New Brunswick’s urban side. Upon walking up King Street in 1897, he felt like he was at ‘the very centre of the American continent.’  For a very brief moment, the always adventurous Aitken – then only 18 years old, and fresh from Union Station – imagined himself a future mayor of Saint John.

 Of course, the future Lord Beaverbrook  never did become mayor of Saint John, as his life took a very different path (it didn’t help that the ambitious young man was not invited to a well-attended civic ball, and instead spent his evening walking sullenly outside the dance hall wearing a new dress shirt from Scolvil Brothers).

 But old slights heal, and Aitken did give the city’s children a brand new skating rink roughly 60 years later, in the middle of Main Street.  That rink is still being used today, by young hockey players and roller-derby girls from throughout greater Saint John. Consider Beaverbrook’s regional legacy the next time a local official talks about tolling their neighbour down the road.

All boundaries are inherently artificial – smart cities know this, and open their doors to anyone who wants to take the highway exit into town.

The Next City: A Truly Provincial Metropolis

This was the final column in my initial #nextcity series, originally published in the Telegraph Journal on Jan 6, 2012

Over 225 years ago, as refugee ships from the American Revolution unloaded thousands of Loyalists into Saint John, one of the passengers, Sarah Frost, wrote her initial impressions in a journal. The historian Christopher Moore later included the perspective of a very pregnant Mrs. Frost in his very entertaining book, The Loyalists. After landing in the harbour, the young woman wrote:

“It is, I think the roughest land I ever saw; but this is to be the city, they say!”

Frost’s rather mixed emotions upon her new life in Saint John were shared by others – one of the most enduring Loyalist images (also included in Moore’s book) is of a distraught young mother from New York, left abandoned to the Bay of Fundy wilderness. According to oral history, upon seeing the ships leave Saint John for the journey back to Manhattan, the woman sat down on the mossy top of Chipman Hill with her infant child on her lap, and cried.

It certainly was a very humble beginning for Saint John, as a rather obscure trading post suddenly became home to thousands of Americans, tired of war and the economic loss that inevitably became a result of being on the losing team.

Yet the city endured, and in the decades to follow, opened up its harbour to thousands more individuals, all in search of a new beginning. The nineteenth century influx of Irish literally overwhelmed Saint John, and the Irish presence would transform the city’s social, political and cultural institutions for close to a century afterward. In the early twentieth century, new arrivals included Greeks, Lebanese, Dukhobors, and Eastern European Jews. After the war, hundreds of war brides came, a number of them with infant children in tow. As the Iron Curtain descended over Europe, refugees from Hungary and other nations managed an escape route that included as a point of arrival Saint John’s Inner Harbour.

These new arrivals have all contributed to the city’s constant process of reinvention and renewal, and although the advent of commercial air travel has meant that most of Canada’s newcomers today arrive at Toronto’s Lester Pearson airport instead of our harbour, we still have lots of opportunities to begin anew.

Exactly how much opportunity? A CMHC housing analyst once told me that in any given year, over 6,000 residents move either in or out of the Saint John CMA – a fairly significant churn rate. This number represents a lot of young people going off to Halifax for university, or coming from one of the Fundy Isles to attend university at UNBSJ. It also represents between 100 and 150 international immigrants in any given month; tradesmen going down the road, or young professionals coming home mid-career to apply their experience her in New Brunswick.

In short, each and every year Saint John is given the opportunity to recreate itself, in large part because every year this city is blessed with newcomers ready to take part in the community’s renewal. Too often, we miss this opportunity, as we focus on the weekly nitpicking over the bylaws of city hall, instead of welcoming the new immigrant or young student from a rural village who just moved in up the street. If we’re going to once again be the leading city in New Brunswick, we’ll need to shift our priorities.

The past few columns were written to help envision what Saint John might look like in 2035, with the subtle aim of once again restoring the city’s allure as the most vibrant community in New Brunswick. But can our city be the province’s defacto metropolis by 2035, just as it was New Brunswick’s pre-eminent city back when it all began? Absolutely, if it puts less focus on the latest tale of parking woe, and instead rallies behind those initiatives that are moving Saint John in the right direction.

On culture, let’s spend less time passively consuming, and more time actually creating. Let’s create a new cultural precinct around King’s Square, or on Wellington Row. And let’s become more like the garage patent-tinkerers of old, and start developing made in Saint John computer apps that are used around the world. All of the above is certainly a better use of our time than watching the Kardashians.

If we really want to eliminate poverty, let’s ensure that our focus on eliminating the education gap extends well beyond elementary or high school. Currently, the tuition at UNBSJ is over $5,000, while the median household income in the Crescent Valley neighbourhood, located just down the hill, is roughly $14,000. Simply put, the vast number of kids living in these public housing units can never afford to attend the university that is located just outside their neighbourhood. If we want to raise entire inner-city neighbourhoods out of poverty, we need to get as many inner-city kids access to higher education as we possibly can.

On the economy, we need to once again embrace risk, and not look at ACOA or some other government agency to hedge our bets. But we also need to adapt as quickly as we can to a more sustainable manufacturing base. The refinery may be here 25 years from now, but in 2035 the industrial infrastructure I’d want others to gossip over would be a state of the art tidal power plant located at the base of Reversing Falls.

To increase density, we absolutely need to strengthen the core by building up, not out. We also need to make our core a more liveable place. Main Street must return to where it was before ½ of it became a dangerous urban expressway, and we need to remove the cheaply-constructed asphalt sidewalks that litter far too many inner-city streets. More bike lanes are fine, but why don’t we get more ambitious, and demand a pedestrian link on the Harbour Bridge?

These ideas are just that, ideas. Hopefully, they’ll inspire many more, for every challenge our city faces also creates an opportunity for new thinking.

And while Saint John certainly has its fair share of challenges, in many ways it is better positioned to face a rapidly changing world than any other community in New Brunswick.  Yes, it has a pension deficit in the millions, but it also has a property tax base of over $6 billion. Yes, it has abandoned buildings, but it also has seen significant new infill apartments and condos be constructed alongside heritage blocks that have themselves seen record levels of renovation investment.

Yes, it has a rapidly graying population (all of New Brunswick has this), but it is also one of the few communities in the province to see a regular influx of young people. Yes, its port sees fewer and fewer container ships, but its IT sector is burgeoning, as services are replacing goods as the currency of international trade. Yes, it has cut its transit service, but it still has more bus passengers than any other community in NB, and greater density in the years to come will inevitably reverse those cuts. Yes, it is facing significant budget restraint from all levels of government, but it still has the most dynamic private sector labour force in New Brunswick.

For all of these reasons, I’m an optimist about the future of Saint John. I’m influenced by the American economic historian David Landes, who surveyed over 500 years of world economic history in the sweeping book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. His conclusion, after examining the economic data of every continent, in both times of misery and sustained prosperity? In the long run, the optimists are always right.

Just like the refugees that entered into our harbour over 225 years ago, we are the architects of our own destiny. Add a little optimism into the mix, and all of New Brunswick will follow our lead.

The Next City: Let’s Do Business Like Louis B. Mayer

This was the fourth column in my #nextcity series, this one on Saint John’s economy. It was originally published in the Telegraph Journal on Jan 5, 2012

In late 2011, Future NB, a combined think tank/business lobby organized by the New Brunswick Business Council and dedicated to making the province a more prosperous place, introduced their inaugural Board of Directors. While its membership contained the usual suspects – university administrators, economic development types, and heads of family dynasties – there was one glaring omission.

Not one of the Board Members appeared to be from Saint John, home to the largest private-sector labour force in the province.

Such an omission would have been unheard of in the early twentieth century, when the city’s mercantile elite laid the foundation for the Maritime Rights Movement. Concerned with the region’s declining economic and political influence in central Canada, the Saint John Board of Trade started calling loudly for a New Deal with the rest of the Canada, in order to ensure that Confederation would benefit all of its signatories. By the 1920s, regional politicians of all political stripes rallied under the Maritime Rights banner, and much of the written material used to highlight the righteousness of the cause was prepared by prominent Saint Johners. Indeed, John Baxter, one of the leading proponents of Maritime Rights, was also the last Saint John resident to be elected Premier of New Brunswick.

If Saint John’s business community was once the driving choice for change not just in New Brunswick, but all of Atlantic Canada, then why aren’t we automatically included in a present-day discussion over the province’s future? If we are home to the province’s most diverse labour force, and some of its most successful companies, shouldn’t we matter more? When did the way we do business somehow become less relevant?

A recent research report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business offers some clues. Titled Communities in Boom, the report chronicled the most entrepreneurial cities in Canada. Among the criteria considered for ranking? Business presence ( the local economic fundamentals), business perspective (is the local glass half-full), and business policy (does city hall welcome the economic risk-taker?).

Predictably, the booming cities of Western Canada are tops on the CFIB list, with 9 of the top 10 communities  located in either Alberta or Saskatchewan. Placing 16th on the national list is Moncton, while Fredericton placed 49th and Saint John 50th. But the CFIB report becomes its most interesting when you drill down into the data. On the matter  of business presence – the key question of whether or not the local economic fundamentals are strong enough to support new enterprise – Saint John scored the highest among the NB cities, with 49 compared to Moncton’s 41 or Fredericton’s 39 (for context, the highest Albertan score was 83).

In short, according to the CFIB’s 2011 data, Saint John has the strongest economic fundamentals of any NB city in the report. Why, then, did we drop to 50th on the national list? Principally, because of a lack of confidence – our business perspective score (willingness to take on new hires, level of confidence over business growth, etc) was 29, less than half of that of Moncton’s 63. If we’re not careful, this economic gloom will envelop us like an August fog.

If Saint John is to have a dynamic economy in 2035, then it best do away with the gloom now. As David Campbell wrote in this paper a few months back, “New Brunswick needs an ambitious Saint John.” Fortunately, there are plenty of signs that we’re getting there, despite our tendency to be in denial about it. Saint John has had one of the strongest employment pictures in the province since the 2008 economic crisis began, and since late 2010 we’ve actually had a lower (!) unemployment rate than the always optimistic Moncton.

Of course, our economy today is certainly weaker than that of any Albertan community, but it is arguably stronger than a lot of other economies in Atlantic Canada, if not Ontario. And while some may yearn for an era when we were the Greatest Little City in the East, the economic fundamentals would suggest that we are faring much, much better in this recession than in either the 1982 or 1991 downturn.

 Our labour force is growing, its becoming more diverse and entrepreneurial, and it is reshaping the very nature of the city. How big is the change? Consider this: in 1981, according to Census data, Saint John had the lowest rate of self-employment of 27 major urban centres in Canada. Broadly speaking, virtually every one in Saint John depended on someone else for a paycheque. In 1991, we were still last in self-employment, but many of those paycheques (particularly in specific industries, such as sugar refining or the shipyard) were just about to dry up.

By 2011, a number of our old manufacturing industries have been lost to restructuring, only to be replaced by hungry start-ups (with the most interesting of these in the IT sector). Old haunts like Reggie’s or Pearl’s Kitchen are gone, but their replacements are wine bars and restaurants experimenting with fusion fare.

Not convinced that our economy has changed? Our male labour force may still be slightly below where it was at the height of the shipyard boom, but our female labour force has never been larger in size. And increasingly, a number of these women are their own boss, or in some cases the CEO. Some of the most interesting retail shops leading the Uptown’s revival are owned by women, be they high end shoe shops or cozy tea emporiums. The Chief Executive Officer of Bayview Credit Union, southern New Brunswick’s largest locally-owned financial institution, is a woman (and an immigrant, as well).

To be fair, our economy is still not as strong as it should be, and far too many Saint John workers are in a position far removed from their grandparents, who could count on years (if not decades) of stable employment in the railyards, or at the paint brush factory. But all cities face economic turmoil – the best among them embrace opportunities for re-invention. If Saint John’s economic future is to be found in cyberspace and not its inner harbour port lands, then let’s adapt to this new reality sooner rather than later.

What will our economy be like in 2035? No one really knows, but given the changes the city saw in the late 20th Century, we can expect a fairly different place over two decades now. There will be still local chatter about Irvings and Olands, just as had there was talk about the Crosbys or Simms decades earlier. Given the nature of company growth cycles and demographic change, however, it may be just as likely that local economic chatter will instead be about family names like Boudreau, Wang or Kim, or a young immigrant entrepreneur named Mohamed or Nima who has started a viable enterprise based on a patent they first developed at Tucker Park.

Of course, to get to this sort of economy, Saint John has to get a lot of things right, including ensuring that our city (including its municipal government) welcomes the risk-taker. If we are to remain true to our history, we really have no other choice.

The Next City: We’re Richer Than We Think

This was the third column in my #nextcity series, on the subject of urban poverty. This column was originally published in the Telegraph Journal on Jan 4, 2012

In 2005, in the final days of a hotly-contested by-election in Saint John Harbour, former Premier Bernard Lord went to hard-scrabble St. James Street in the city’s South End to announce that his government would do all that it could to facilitate tougher action against slum lords. The backdrop for his hastily-prepared press conference? A delapitated old tenament house, complete with fine Victorian-era architectural detailing, but overwhelmed by dozens of building code violations.

The press conference did little to shift the strong political winds then blowing against the Premier. The Tories lost the by-election a few days later, in part because Lord was accused of doing little to combat poverty, and the related issue of inadequate housing, during his term in office.  (The Premier didn’t help matters when he said he wasn’t aware of how severe poverty was in the urban core of Saint John; obviously no one had ever bothered to look at the census data before they started door-to-door canvassing.)

While former Premier Lord gained little political traction from his visit to St. James Street – he would lose the next general  election, and most of the Saint John region’s seats, less than a year later – the issue of poverty certainly grew in public prominence after that by-election, both locally and across the Province. In the years since, organizations such as BCAPI or Vibrant Communities have championed a provincial strategy to help our community’s most vulnerable, while local institutions such as ONE Change or the Boys and Girls Club have developed innovative approaches to tackling poverty, centred around the children of specific neighbourhoods.

And what came of the delapitated building that served as the dreary backdrop to the Premier’s 2005 press conference? It has been undergoing extensive renovations in recent weeks, although there was never a press conference to announce its renewal. Just behind the building is a renewed Rainbow Park, itself dedicated in memory of two impoverished young children who were neglected by too many – relatives and government officials alike – during their short lives. In a park established because of heartache, dozens of South End kids are now regularly seen at play, and the area that surrounds the park is seeing slow, but visible signs of improvement.

In actual fact, nearly all of the neighbourhoods that make up the inner city of Saint John have seen progress in the fight against poverty, suggesting that the renewal seen on St James Street is not isolated. From 2001 to 2006, every Census Tract in Saint John but one saw a reduction in its overall poverty rate (Stats Can uses LICO, or low income cut-off, as the most common measurement of poverty).  The single neighbourhood moving in the opposite direction? The Crown Street Census Tract, dominated by public housing.  Every other neighbourhood saw a reduction in the number of households living in poverty.

 The overall numbers are quite impressive. According to the 2006 Census, the Saint John Census Metropolitan Area (Saint John and its suburbs) now has a lower poverty rate than all of Canada. There has been plenty of focus on poverty in Greater Saint John, but its 2006 LICO rate was 14.7 percent, actually slightly lower than Canada’s rate of 15.3 percent. Given that our unemployment rate has  declined in the years since the 2006 data was collected, the results of the 2011 Census should show even more progress.

 Of course, these numbers include Saint John’s relatively wealthy suburbs, which have some of the highest median household incomes in the Province. (Hardly any poor families reside in Rothesay, largely due to the high cost of housing and limited rental options. Recent planned demolitions will make the housing options facing Rothesay’s poorest families even more scarce.) But when you examine the level of poverty for just the city of Saint John, there are still encouraging signs. In 2006, 20.7 percent of residents lived in poverty, compared to over 27 percent ten years earlier. In fact, the 2006 percentage was the lowest number the city of Saint John had shown in over 20 years.

Similar progress is seen when you look at the neighbourhood data, but some of the numbers are misleading because of the gentrification of certain parts of the city. In the early 1980s, the Census Tracts of the Deep South End were  virtually identical in their characteristics – all overwhelmed by high levels of unemployment, limited education credentials and low household incomes. Almost thirty years later, the Census Tract comprised of large parts of Duke and Orange now has more socio-economic characteristics in common with Millidgeville (exhibiting higher levels of post-secondary education and incomes) than the Census Tract just to the South of it. In short, the very feel of the neighbourhood has changed, in part because of the influx of new households ready to convert old tenaments into a place to call home, and in part because the families living in the neighbourhood are being given more economic opportunity .  

In the North End or Lower West Side of the city, the degree of neighbourhood change isn’t as dramatic, in large part because these neighbourhoods have yet to be discovered by young professionals, whose spending power has helped direct renewed investment in urban cores throughout North America. Given the long term trendline, however, one could certainly see a coffee house like Java Moose opening up at the foot of Main Street in Indiantown well before 2035. The neighbourhood may not seem ripe for investment right now, but it has a long history – less than 100 years ago, it was a bustling commercial area, secondary only to the Uptown core. And if Harlem can take part in the Manhattan renaissance currently transforming New York City, why can’t the North End join the #livelifeuptown movement?

Neighbourhood change is one thing, but what about the quality of life of Saint John’s poorest households? Are their prospects improving?

Broadly speaking, yes. Using virtually any indicator – social assistance claims, high school dropout rates, or labour force participation – poor households in Saint John are making real progress, if you look broadly at the data. Some statistics, such as teenage fertility, are still stubbornly high, as Saint John county still produces close to 100 teenage mothers each year. 

Other data sets are much more encouraging, including basic student literacy. For the last few years, the education gap between inner-city elementary schools in Saint John and the rest of the province has been closing, and that trend appears to have real momentum. And these schools are key to the success of the city’s urban core – if they prosper, then you’ll see an awfully lot more old tenement houses be renovated on St James or Metcalf in the years to come.

What does all this mean in 2035? Only an idealist would suggest that our city will have finally tackled poverty by that date, but a realist would state that given the facts on the ground, the city is headed in the right direction. Of course, economic shock can change these facts dramatically – the prolonged slump of the 1990s, after much of our manufacturing sector collapsed, certainly hurt a lot of city families – but Saint John’s youngest residents are much better prepared to face future economic shocks.

Simply put, our poorest residents are producing much stronger education outcomes than just a decade ago, and in today’s skills-based economy, this means that the next Saint John will have a lot less poverty and more plenty.

The Next City: The Future of Our Neighbourhoods will be a lot like their Past

This was the second in my #nextcity series, written on the topic of density. The column was originally published on Jan 3, 2012 in the Telegraph Journal.

Sometimes, the wisdom found in the most innovative new scholarship can also be confirmed through a rather casual holiday chat with your grandmother.

Discussing her teenage years in the 1940s in the city’s North End just a few days ago, my grandmother Margaret Ketch made the following observation, “The moment you were 14 or 15, you’d walk everywhere. To the neighbourhood drug store, or Uptown.  My friends and I walked all around the city.”

Of course, my grandmother could do this because she came of age in a time when the majority of Saint John residents did not have a car, a few decades before the cult of the automobile removed rather chaotic, densely-packed city blocks in the city’s urban core in favour of a myriad of wide laned, if rather soulless, driving corridors.

In pre-urban renewal Saint John, thousands of residents lived within a few kilometres of each other – a sardine-packed  core that took in the Southern Peninsula, the old East End, St Paul’s Valley, and the North End. By most accounts, life was loud, often grimy, and chaotic. If you had a car, you would often get stuck in traffic at Haymarket Square, or on the old viaduct heading north. If you preferred boat travel, you could grab a small ferry that would take you from Princess Street to the West Side, but watch out for the rather salty harbour spray on a windy day.

Yet despite the chaos, this Saint John offered a rather robust local economy. The Uptown had some of the most interesting department stores in the province, from Scovil Brothers’ to the famed Mancherster, Robertson and Allison Ltd (where Brunswick Square is now located). Butcher shops, grocers and plumbers all lined Main Street in the North End, and the lower West Side had its own small but vibrant retail area. In between, dozens of fish sheds could be found from Navy Island to Reversing Falls. Long before fads like the one hundred mile diet came into the public realm, a number of Saint John families could locally source much of their nutritional needs by simply walking the square mile around their apartment.

Then came the automobile. And Saint John, like every other modern city, was never quite the same.

In Saint John, as in most other urban centres in North America, the post-war trend toward suburbanization and a family life facilitated by efficient vehicle transport became an almost unstoppable force. Popular culture eased the transition: the working class, cold water flat of Jackie Gleason was being replaced by the orderly white picket fence from Leave it to Beaver. The urban cores, which were previously seen as joyful – if chaotic – communities to thousands of working class and immigrant families, were instead being viewed as a place where mothers only rarely dared to tread, and fathers found it difficult to find decent parking.  Turning the urban core into nothing more than an efficient stopping point for modern highways became a rallying cry for much of the continent’s political class, from Robert Moses of New York City to Saint John’s Eric Teed.

Its not surprising, then, that urban renewal led to such significant destruction of the city’s central core – similar experiences had been felt in dozens of other communities across North America, and only a few (such as Vancouver) have successfully limited the so-called march of progress. What is surprising is how reckless some of the urban renewal visions of Saint John really were:  Haymarket Square, Waterloo and Crown became devoid of any character in order to appease the traffic gods, while Main Street (once the city’s second most important commercial area) was allowed to wither, in large part because over ½ of it was turned into a 6 lane expressway. At one point in the mania, civic officials were seriously considering demolishing the venerable Saint John City Market in favour of a parking garage. Another near-miss came in the late 1970s, near the very tail end of the urban renewal experiment, when large portions of Prince William Street (now the epicentre of Saint John’s restaurant scene) were deemed ripe for demolition.

Predictably, given the automobile-centric bias the city took on in the last half of the twentieth century, our population shifted towards the suburbs, because we facilitated that movement. Local politicians still lament the 1970s-era demographic study that predicted a Saint John population of close to 300,000 by the end of the twentieth century. What is less often said is how that specific study was linked to the ill-fated multiplex industrial expansion of Lorneville, an exuberant economic scheme which outside of a rarely-used power plant never came to fruition. Another local demographic study, which came out a few years later, focussed on the opening of the McKay highway. Its conclusion? From the mid-1970s until the 1990s, the vast majority of population growth in Greater Saint John would take place in the Kennebacasis Valley. Of course, the second study was much more accurate than the first, yet nobody ever mentions it.

There are certain rules behind successful cities. If you build a city for cars, you get more cars. If you build a city for people, you get more people. Smart cities build up, not out.

The good news? Despite decades of flawed urban planning, the city appears ready to embrace these rules once more, and will likely be a much more densely-populated place by 2035. If the right mix of economic incentives and streetscape improvements are given to provide ballast behind the recently-announced planSJ, the wide spaces and empty lots currently plaguing Crown, Main or Waterloo will eventually be replaced by dynamic, multi-story and multi-use buildings. And just like my grandmother did, you should be able to walk everywhere (or at the very least share in a neighbourhood car co-operative).

My grandmother must have a bit of the urban champion Jane Jacobs in her, because an academic has recently proved that her fond memories of 1940s North End Saint John are based on good economics.  In The Triumph of the City, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has argued that the best cities not only embrace density because housing thousands of people close to one another unleashes all sorts of economic possibilities – its also one of the most sustainable ways to live on an increasingly hot planet.

Urban density is in fact one of the strongest ace cards for Saint John, as its urban core has developed neighbourhoods with population densities much, much larger than any other part of New Brunswick.  Nearest the city centre, some select city blocks have densities approaching 8,000 residents/per kilometre, easily making our core the most densely populated area in the province.  While Metro Moncton’s population is actually larger than Saint John’s, its built environment is more spread out, and even more dependent on the automobile. In an era of sustained $100/barrel oil, which NB community do you think is more sustainable? If energy prices escalate even further, which community will have a competitive edge?

Given worldwide trends towards even greater urbanization, and a local recognition that scarce resources will hamper our province’s ability to provide an equality of services to all communities, higher densities may be almost inevitable for the next Saint John. Let’s embrace this future now, for having even more residents populate our core would make our future that much more sustainable.

Ironically, for many Saint John neighbourhoods such a future would also resemble our not too distant past.

The Next City: A City Made Vibrant Through Its People

This was the first in my five part column series on the future of Saint John. This article was originally published in the Telegraph Journal on Jan 2, 2012

The Toronto-based urban theorist Richard Florida has built a small empire promoting the idea that in today’s highly fluid modern economy, those communities that fully embrace the creative class - the artists and architects, IT professionals and digital pioneers – are the only ones with much of a future.

His central idea is not without its critics (in part because Florida has a habit of tailoring his creativity pitch for whomever is paying his speaking fees), but it nonetheless remains quite potent.  Unleashing the creativity of a city’s residents can have profound consequences, especially if the reputation of the city is transformed in the process.

Now here’s a thought: if cities can be transformed by unleashing the full potential of their creative class, no other community in New Brunswick is better positioned to achieve this than Saint John.

 As a community, we often obsess over City Hall, and its numerous limitations. But a community is not made vibrant by municipal officials – few travel to New York City to visit with Mayor Bloomberg, and in all likelihood he’ll be forgotten by most  New Yorkers 50 or 60 years from now. Yet millions visit Manhattan each and every year, to take in the lights of Broadway, explore the museums of Central Park, or, if they’re particularly adventurous, seek out the next new hot spot of SoHo or Tribeca.

New York is a mecca not because of efficient governance, or robust by-law development. In actual fact, the city has flirted with outright bankruptcy on a number of occasions - once, in the 1970s, President Ford famously refused to come to New York’s financial rescue. After the President’s firm stand, one tabloid declared in bold letters, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. (Consider that the next time a councillor bemoans the fact that the NB legislature isn’t quick to assist Saint John in its pension woes.)

Yet despite its repeated hardships, New York has captured the imagination of thousands, time and time again. As the rapper Jay-Z famously penned it, ‘these streets will make you brand new/ big lights will inspire you’.

Of course, Saint John is not New York, but it does provide the most uniquely urban experience in New Brunswick. It always has, and likely always will. And for most of our history, that experience has been developed not by city hall, but by our very own creative class.

Miller Brittain. Jack Humphrey. Ted Campbell. Fred Ross.  These artists all loom large over the provincial arts scene, as their post-war art movement became one of the most significant visual movements in English Canada, inspiring dozens of local artists in the generations since to follow in their large footsteps.  And just as our visual artists have been innovative, so have our institutions. Mt. Allison’s Owens Art Gallery, the oldest university art gallery in Canada, started out as an independent art school in the North End of Saint John in the mid-19th Century.

Our city has also been home to some of the very first dramatic productions in Canada; the early theatre can be traced back to the arrival of the Loyalists.  In the 19th century, Uptown taverns and coffee houses were mixed with lecture halls and elaborate entertainment venues.  North of Union, not far from where the current police station is being built, famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde spoke at the Saint John Mechanics’ Institute (itself considered an early institute of higher education, established decades before UNBSJ).

Of course, twentieth century culture was largely defined by film, and here Saint John also played a contributing role.  MGM, one of Hollywood’s original studios, was established by Louis B. Mayer, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who grew up in the North End of Saint John. The Paramount theatre and other uptown movie houses often had access to Hollywood film reels before other Maritime cities in large part because of Mayer’s childhood links to the community.

The city’s creativity hasn’t been limited to the arts, however. Some of our creators have been builders – be they the shipbuilders who built the roof trusses of the city market, or the famous furniture maker Thomas Nisbet, whose cabinetry can be found in museums throughout North America. We’ve also had our fair share of patents, produced in large part because some Saint John artisan decided to build a better plumbing system, or propeller.

While it is wonderful to reflect upon the city’s rich cultural history, too much nostalgia can prevent us from fully realizing the vibrant creative scene that is in Saint John today. Florida’s ‘creative class’ thesis is rooted in part on hard numbers – for a community to be truly compelling, it is expected to have a certain cluster of creators within it. Here, Saint John shines. According to the Census, it has more musicians, visual artists, and architects than any other community in New Brunswick. And the IT sector – arguably the fastest growing sector in Saint John’s economy – is filled with creative thinkers.

 Thanks to an increasingly online world, our creative class is collaborating with each other in ways previous creative producers would have never thought possible, and the results are being broadcast to the world.  The weekend fashion photo-shoot is now being disected on twitter and facebook, or the latest sketch is being sold on etsy, or short film uploaded on youtube. We may not be New York, but thanks to the egalitarian nature of modern media, our most talented can take Manhattan through a few viral uploads created on Germain or Princess Street.

So, if Saint John already has a robust creative class now, how is it to be brought to the next level? What will our cultural scene look like in 2035?

While a lot depends on how technological shifts change the ways in which we consume culture, there are road-signs that point to where we’re headed. Just in the last few years, the city has developed a fairly vibrant art and restaurant scene in the area between German and Prince William, complete with well-attended gallery hops. It doesn’t take much imagination to see this vibrancy move toward Kings Square, which itself could become a vibrant cultural district anchored by the Imperial and a revitalized Paramount Theatre (perhaps, in a tribute to our past, renamed the Louis B. Mayer Centre?).  North of Union could also become a go-to scene, with a digital arts collective housed on Wellington Row, or maybe a school of industrial design in the old synagogue.

In the not-so-distant future, our artists should have more suitable space to create (either by themselves, in under-utilized loft space, or through more official establishments, created by developers with some imagination). And since technology is rapidly changing the various price-points in which culture is created and presented to the world, it may be just a matter of time before one of our artists shares their Saint John vision to an audience of millions. If this sounds far-fetched, consider what a bunch of kids with guitars accomplished in Seattle, a community far-removed from the epicentres of entertainment media.

Sometimes, when I walk on Canterbury Street, I can hear a bunch of rock bands practicing loudly in a 3rd floor loft, and I wonder if they’re dreaming about whether what happened in New York or Seattle could happen here. For the city’s sake, I certainly hope so.

Why Am I Blogging?

A very good question. Its partly because I often send out 140 character missives on Twitter, only to have respondents ask for more detail on a particular stat that I’ve uncovered. This blog will give me more room for analysis.

Its also because I enjoy my occasional chats with David Campbell (www.jupia.ca), the Moncton-based economics writer who often examines the same broad issues I look at, if only from a slightly different perspective. I figure if he can make fellow New Brunswickers look at the critical challenges facing us, then I might as well do the same on a forum that isn’t twitter. Let the Saint John-Moncton competition/collaboration blossom!

Finally, I might want to post random pics of my travels through New Brunswick (it is the picture province, after all) so consider this a photographic depository. And a place to post graphs. Its hard to do that on twitter.