What Smaller Canadian Cities Need to Know to Thrive
Jennifer Keesmaat is passionate about creating places where people flourish. Named one of the most influential people in Canada by Toronto Life, she spent five years as Toronto’s Chief City Planner, where she was celebrated for her innovative and collaborative approach to city-building. Now a Distinguished Visitor in Residence at the University of Toronto, Keesmaat shares her vision for cities of the future, and her belief in inspired leadership.
In a recent Maclean’s article she examines how smaller cities in Canada—like Halifax, Saskatoon, or London—can capitalize on the extreme unaffordability of Canada’s biggest metropolises. She suggests looking south to Portland, OR, but it’s not a simple model to copy, with that city finding itself on the receiving end of an urban renaissance through decades of methodical urban planning that rejected sprawl and incorporated sound public transit options. Still, it’s not a impossible model. Here are some highlights:
It’s a story well told today: along with a penchant for avocado toast, millennials prefer living in large cities where they can walk to work. Sure, they trade higher housing costs and less private space for the perks of urban living but—as the condo booms in Vancouver and Toronto demonstrate—it’s a deal many are willing to make. Take downtown Toronto: it encompasses just 17 of the city’s 613 square kilometres, yet is home to 275,000 people, and is growing four times faster than the city as a whole. Over 75 per cent of these people walk, cycle or take transit to their jobs, which generate 53 per cent of the city’s export-based GDP. There is both an economic and a quality-of-life value to having people in close proximity.
The costs, alas, put this way of life out of reach of a lot of Canadians—especially young adults. Many of these urban wannabes are shuffled off to the suburbs, consigned to a long commute by transit or car though they long to be close to a big city for work, school or culture.
What if there were another way? What if the answer to their conundrum lay outside the epicentres of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal—in the untapped potential of cities like Saskatoon, London, Ont., or Halifax? How might they look and feel? Portland, Ore., holds a clue. It has been consistently and diligently executing a plan that, for more than 40 years, rejected sprawl, and instead linked land use with transportation planning, economic development, green spaces and strong neighbourhoods. It’s been more resilient than most American cities, priding itself on a startup culture that includes everything from microbreweries to green-tech companies—industries that ensured it rebounded better than pretty much any city since the Great Recession.
Remarkably for a mid-sized city of only 640,000, it has an integrated public transit system that includes a network of LRT, streetcars, and buses. Despite its wet climate, Portland has long recognized cycling infrastructure as a component of its transportation system,. They’ve built everything from so-called “neighbourhood greenways” to cycle tracks and off-road paths. But bike lanes alone didn’t produce this outcome: building a compact city made transit and cycling real choices for commuting and everyday tasks. With its urban growth boundary, implemented in the 1970s, Portland has focused on bringing uses in close, creating walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods, and exploiting old industrial areas, such as the Pearl District. Here, residents live cheek-by-jowl with galleries, shops and light industry on small blocks with carefully designed infill buildings or restored warehouses. It’s the kind of neighbourhood that attracts tourists in a big city. Better still, Portland is consistently ranked as one of the most desirable destinations in America for young people to move.
Mid-sized Canadian cities present a new possibility for urban living, too. Reworked and redesigned, rather than struggling to retain and attract young people, they too could be exploited to serve the aspirations of 21st-century living.
But our problem as a nation is our extremes. Our cities with liveable, dense urban centres—Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal—are differentiated by their transit access, housing choices, a plethora of diverse opportunities for living, learning, working and playing. But there are only really three of them. The next option is at the other end of the spectrum: suburban, mid-sized (and sometimes large) Canadian cities, most of which, according to extensive research by David Gordon of Queen’s University, are caught by a combination of expanding suburbs and downtowns that are declining, struggling to launch (Calgary and Mississauga, Ont.), or striving to relaunch (Hamilton, Ont. and Winnipeg). It’s not that these cities are unpleasant places to live—quite the contrary. Rather, they do not yet have the critical masses of people and uses in close proximity to draw new employment and young Canadians.