In a few short weeks, Fredericton will again be submerged in a municipal election campaign that will again require it to face some of the economic, demographic and cultural transformations reshaping cities across the continent and around the world.
So far, it looks like the race might be both more personal and more entertaining than it was last time (thank you Terry Seguin and Brad Woodside).
But what Fredericton needs most is not a debate about personalities. Rather, it needs a vision of its future.
Fredericton, like many cities, has inherited an urban environment perfectly well suited to the labour markets and households of the mid-20th century, despite tremendous change over the last two decades.
It is a surreal experience – like living in a garden dreamed up by your grandparents. The urban geography we have inherited – especially its suburban spaces, imagined as the perfect locations for mid-20th century nuclear families – is now out of sync with the times.
More than at any other time in Canadian history, one-person households have come to occupy a more important place in our urban landscape. While in the country as a whole, they represent nearly 28% of all households (26% in New Brunswick), they are also on the increase, and in some urban areas in North America represent about 45% of all households. The trend has shown rapid acceleration since the 2001 census, and there is no reason to expect it to stop.
Understandably, such individuals desire different housing and neighbourhood types than the traditional nuclear-family suburb, a point not lost on the housing industry.
The majority of households, however, are couples without children (34.4%), well above the national average – in 2011, for the first time, couples without children outnumbered couples with children, owing probably to the aging baby-boomer demographic.
This means that households are downsizing – hence the construction boom of townhouses and especially condos that have gone up in certain parts of our city. More and more people realize that they do not have the time or desire to maintain as much property as past generations did (generations that often had a full-time homemaker). They are opting for new housing types.
But it is not just housing. It is also lifestyle. Households without children have far more time and a greater desire to spend that time in public places, often within walking distance of their home.
Public urban spaces have never been more important to the well-being and competitiveness of cities.
Thus, even aside from their environmental benefits, the trend is towards more urban neighbourhoods, which is where most job creation and development is now occurring.
For a smart city like Fredericton, there is still a lot of work to do to build great urban spaces – the misapplication of by-laws have done damage that will be difficult to undo and that will cost us all in higher taxes.
Council and the mayor have lacked leadership, vision, and – evidently – experience, in thinking about urban issues. They have lacked initiative in meeting with and convincing developers to think not just about condos and dense neighbourhoods, but great urban spaces.
Who is going to innovate great urban spaces if not municipal council? Great neighbourhoods are the product of collective work, they are a project we accomplish together. It is about more than just building a bunch of apartment buildings – touted annually by the outgoing mayor.
North American cities are changing in ways that are similar to the shifts of the 1950s-1970s. These changes require new ideas, new thinking, and frankly, a new generation of municipal leadership.
Fredericton’s over-investment in big box retail is going to look silly in a few years, given the decline of this sector and its shift towards neighbourhood pocket-stores. Nowhere in Fredericton are their walkable neighbourhoods that would cater to such stores—and new building can ruin rather than build that potential if they are done wrong.
A misplaced building cannot be moved. Lack of street-level zoning for small businesses will create dead streets for generations to come.
Gambling on growth at the outskirts of the city now has little to offer the city’s residents – either in terms of lifestyle or in terms of tax revenue. Knowledge Park is a bust, and future investment in knowledge hubs will be downtown, within walking distance of our provincial economy’s workshop at Head Hall.
Further suburbanization is going to be replaced by greater density – because it is more affordable, less carbon intensive, and because that is what retired baby-boomers and Millennials want in terms of living environment.
Cities that recognize this, and can move quickly, are going to pull people in – excited about the potential for urban renewal.
Place-making – not traffic flow – is now the most important aspect of city planning.
In Fredericton, we have the potential. But so far, the action is lacking.
Matthew Hayes, acting chair of the Sociology Department at St. Thomas University, was a Fredericton mayoral candidate in 2012 winning 37% of the vote.
This commentary was first published in The Daily Gleaner.