NB Media Coop: Imagining Urban Fredericton

14 06 2016

 Imagine Fredericton

Imagine Fredericton will officially launch on June 14, 2016, 6:00pm to 8:00pm, at the Fredericton Convention Centre. The public is invited to learn about the initiative and share thoughts on the city’s future.

Now that the dust has settled on the recent municipal elections, and our city has a new mayor, we can focus a bit on what future vision our city needs.

Mike O’Brien and his council have set about the task with a new project, Imagine Fredericton.

Imagining how our city is changing also requires reckoning with how the world is changing, and how the business models of large urban and suburban landowners have run their course (the Irving family are Fredericton’s largest, but there are other families with sizeable holdings).  In light of social, cultural and economic changes—to say nothing of climate change—these business models need revision, and the city needs to play a role in the transition.

Like other parts of New Brunswick, Fredericton faces significant challenges. A declining birthrate, out-migration and lack of immigration make our economic problems even larger. Unemployment in the province remains stubbornly high, three percentage points higher than the national average of 6.9% in May, and youth unemployment is the highest in Canada.

Moreover, our economic woes are compounded by a lack of economic diversification and the weakness of our urban spaces.  Economic growth over the last generation has been concentrated in metropolitan areas.  New Brunswick doesn’t have one.

Both main provincial political parties seem stuck catering to the business interests who have benefited from lower tax rates and cheap land prices on the outskirts of our three major cities—thus undermining forces that might have created metropolitan areas over the last 40 years.

Moreover, in Fredericton, much of the last generation has been wasted catering to landowners at the city’s edges. One of the main strategies of wealth accumulation for rich New Brunswick families has been to blow cities outward through municipally-sanctioned suburban sprawl.  This has been at the cost of more complete communities and denser and more efficient developments closer to neighbourhood services and historic centres.

In addition to playing money-games at the edges of our cities, our province’s most powerful families seem unanimous that job creation will come by doubling down on old industries. Debates about jobs seem to focus especially on oil and gas projects like the Energy East pipeline and fracking, or one of the world’s largest open-pit tungsten mines.

Boosters say these projects will generate jobs.  No doubt, they will.  But they will not fix our bigger problems. The jobs they might create are few and almost all temporary jobs.  Moreover, they will create fewer jobs than their new economy and new energy alternatives.

What is needed is diversification, which has always been a problem for our province.  One reason is our skills deficit for the new economy, arguably more important than our fiscal one.  Our university participation rate is 21%, well below the national average of 28%.  The rate is even worse for young men, who have taken advantage of well-paying jobs in Alberta’s oil patch over the last decade and a half.

The skills needed for new economy jobs are often different than those in the oil patch.  And since Northern Alberta oil will have to stay in the soil for Canada to meet its climate change commitments, many of the workers who can currently rely on jobs in Alberta need new opportunities in new industries – and therefore, they also need education and training opportunities (including through our community college system) that we must provide and plan for collectively.

New projects like the Energy East pipeline and the Sisson open-pit tungsten and molybdenum mine actually threaten more jobs – new economy jobs – than the old industries will ever generate, since they create geographic spaces that new economy entrepreneurs seek to avoid.

Our politicians should seek to avoid creating these spaces.

The national context for new economy jobs is also significantly changing.  Toronto and Vancouver have become global cities, and their transnational real estate markets are changing in ways we do not yet fully appreciate.

What has been called the ‘Manhattanization’ of Toronto has created an affordability crisis that is changing the relationship between Canada’s major cities and its hinterland. A growing number of young, knowledge workers, looking to start their own businesses or remain independent in boutique-style firms can no longer afford to do so in Toronto or Vancouver unless they are wildly successful or born with silver spoons.  This will become a competitiveness issue for Canada’s economy.

While the suburbs remain relatively affordable, millennials and baby boomers mostly do not desire to live there anymore—family life and social life have changed in the last generation.  Instead, they are seeking out older, downtown neighbourhoods in Guelph, Waterloo, and Hamilton, neighbourhoods like those now priced out of reach in downtown Toronto.

These cities too are rapidly becoming cost prohibitive, but have the advantage of being a short drive from major clients in Toronto.  Why not here, a short flight away?

New Brunswick’s cities can offer the same urbanism that attract knowledge workers at lower cost, but historically we have lacked the economic opportunities to be a major draw.

A number of factors now change this.  The Internet is one—more workers are working remotely from their clients, often from lower cost locations, including here in Fredericton.  There are other factors too, notably the casualization of the workforce and the shift in career trajectories that make it difficult to sustain urban living inside the real estate bubbles of global cities.

In many respects, these changes make New Brunswick cities much more attractive for their livability and amenities than they have ever been before. We could actually attract skilled workers from other parts of the country.

Just one problem: we lack urbanism, and urbanism is what is hip.  Prospect St. is not hip anymore.  Yet we are still building Prospect Streets—e.g. Knowledge Park, Bishop’s Dr., Two Nations Crossing, etc.

Talk to any young Frederictonian working in Knowledge Park.  Almost all say they would prefer to work in a downtown neighbourhood where they could walk or bike to work (yes, even in the winter).

The alternative is to dump the old suburban model—and sorry to those families like the Colpitts, Birds and Irvings who will lose money on land at the city’s edge, at least for now.

What we need is a new urban vision to provide the critical infrastructure that will foster new industries and start-ups, as well as opportunities for further specialization in internationally competitive university programmes.

We also need to work together as a city, and with developers, to foster neighbourhoods, and not simply a collection of dense condo developments, as has occurred around Brookside Mall or on Lian Street.

The density built in the mid-town area will transform Fredericton in ways that people have yet to fully appreciate—if it is planned properly.  It offers opportunities for renewed urbanism, which was sapped by the modernist project of Prospect Street and the suburban malls of the 1970s.

This is the way the winds are blowing.  There are other global social changes afoot that also militate in the direction of massive urban transformations, particularly related to the post-carbon transition.

If we catch the wind with our sail, we might get far.  But we will have to face the failure of some of the traditional wealth accumulation strategies that rich families in our region have followed.  It remains to be seen whether these families will be on board, but surely, they must realize that the status quo has run its course.

Matthew Hayes is a professor of sociology at St. Thomas University and a former mayoral candidate.  His 2012 campaign focused on ideas for Fredericton’s future.

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