I had lunch with a few friends who live in the suburbs a few weeks ago who were all discussing how much they love their suburban homes with their big green lawns to manicure and decorate, private back decks to barbecue on, and fog-free days in late spring/early summer.
The suburbs of the Saint John region are the nicest I have ever seen. They hug a gorgeous river valley with some of the best in-land sailing in the world, they are clean, well cared for, and lush with a gardening culture. The crime rate in our suburbs are among the lowest in the country, taxes lower than the city and the average temperature for a few months in the summer noticeably higher than in the city along the coast (colder and snowier in the winter, but oh well). As a suburb, I have seen none better.
Because of what I recognize in the suburbs here, I bought what my friends were telling me. But I asked them “Where would you live if uptown Saint John had a vibrant city centre with lots of people walking up and down the streets all day long, new alternatives to heritage living, great shopping and services, and an energetic restaurant scene etc.?”
Unanimously and in chorus they answered “We'd move to the city”.
I strongly believe that it is the choice that people like my friends make to live in the suburbs that is, above all other factors, slowing Saint John toward realizing this potential. And it is this lack of human energy outside of business hours that is undermining our economic development potential in an age when people connections matter more than real estate, infrastructure, and money. Community rules. And I continue to plead with my neighbours to help us build this community simply with your presence.
There is a catch 22 at work here. Inner city businesses cannot keep evening and weekend hours that serve a local population if most of us leave the city at 5pm. And people don't want to live in the city if everything shuts down at 5pm. Something has to give and I think it's unreasonable to expect businesses to put their profits on the line to start a movement.
I believe that the leadership of this city needs to become obsessed with bringing PEOPLE to LIVE in the city. All other plans are secondary to this holy grail.
I don't want the suburbs to die, I just don't want them to continue to grow. They are already outweighing the residential population of the city by an unhealthy ratio for us to have a liveable, sustainable city.
Imagine what this city would look like if the uptown population went from 8,000 to 16,000 (which it does when a few cruise ships are in town) in the next 5 years: I believe we would have an epidemic of niche businesses, restaurants, specialty services, new residential options, better city services, and an accelerated innovation sector.
“We need more fine dining establishments uptown” – will it bring more people?
“Simms corner stresses us out and needs a redesign” – will it bring more people?
“We need bike lanes and more commuter trails in the city” – will it bring more people?
“We need a new police station connected to the courthouse” – will it bring more people?
“In-fill properties need to be developed” – will it bring more people?
“Union street needs to be widened” – will it bring more people?
A city is only as strong as its core and, because of where they are located, suburbs will never be the life-giving centre of human activity that the uptown, north end, and surrounding areas are and can be. The problem we have in greater Saint John is that this life-giving human activity disperses every day at 5pm depriving us all of the vibrancy and human-based economic opportunities we could have in building a great coastal city here.
John Ibbitson wrote a fantastic article in the Globe and Mail last spring about what he observed happening to Washington, DC as a result of the death of the suburbs from the mortgage crisis in that country. It's a great read and serves as a vision for Saint John: Go ahead, take a walk in the park – Washington's Lincoln Park, spring and the human condition.
Everyone is different and we want different things so I respect and appreciate that for many people, the suburbs are exactly what they want. But I don't believe that is true for most. People are moving to Saint John from the urban centres of other great cities where they enjoyed a great urban lifestyle and they are being directed to our suburbs because they are told Saint John's city centre is a bad place to be. This is incorrect and it does a disservice to the entire community.
Do you ever walk to the gym? After you get home on a Friday night, do you ever call a friend to let them know you're going to stop by for a glass of wine and a late night chat? Have you ever felt like stepping out your front door on a Monday morning to see people while you sip your morning coffee? Has it ever frustrated you how hard it is to attend an evening event in the city because the commute meant your dinner/family routine was disrupted by travel or you wouldn't be able to enjoy a glass of wine because you wouldn't be able to drive home afterward? Do you ever wish your friends, colleagues, or partners were close enough to meet for a quick coffee on a whim to discuss a new idea? Can you do all of this in Quispamsis?
People should give serious thought to why their choice to live in the suburbs is killing the opportunity we have to re-create the vibrant urban lifestyle of abundant commercial and public services, energetic nightlife, recreational transportation, and a “scene” for innovation companies and the arts to thrive.
Look at the potentials of the city versus the suburbs and give me an argument for the suburbs as the driver for growth and prosperity in our community. One doesn't exist. Every city that has renewed itself on this continent has done so by reclaiming its people from the suburbs into the city. And this is my hope for Saint John.
For some of you, it's the fog. Always will be. That 6 weeks each year that we could potentially get a string of fog just doesn't outweigh for you the rest of the year we spend as the sunniest city in the country. Like I said, not everyone wants the same things. But I am willing to bet that a large chunk of our suburban neighbours use the fog as an excuse to stay away from a city that just doesn't give them the energy they want in a city. And instead of helping to make that energy happen, they leave.
Be willing to pay a little more in taxes with what you save on gasoline. It's time for us all to see that the connections to people in our community far outweigh fog, cars, lawns, and big screen TVs.
We want you closer. We need you to build the city with us. #livelifeuptown