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Saint John, NB's Urban Renewal Should Be Pedestrian and Eco-Friendly

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I write this column with the perspective of an outsider, as I am a lifelong resident of New Brunswick's captial city of Fredericton. However, Saint John, New Brunswick is a city I am familiar with and I have watched with interest the deliberations around Plan Saint John, an ambitious project to conceptualize the city's future.

It is encouraging that input from Saint Johners was sought. Of particular interest were the two competing plans that were initially put before the public, one to promote more centralized development and another to focus on establishing subdivisions on the city's outer edges, likely in an attempt to compete with the suburban communities of Quispamsis and Rothesay.

The results of the public consultation favoured the more centralized vision, with statements in favour including the need to "build the city up rather than out," to focus on Saint John's strengths rather than trying to imitate Rothesay and Quispamsis, and the desirability to have a centralized, pedestrian-friendly city rather than a commuter-oriented city based around outlying subdivisions.

This focus on revitalizing the city core is a good path for Saint John to take.

A denser, more centralized city is more financially efficient to service. Also it is more environmentally friendly, as there is less car use and thereby pollution.

Furthermore, a pedestrian-friendly city creates a more socially positive environment where residents can meet and greet each other, rather than being confined to their cars.

Saint John's city centre (known as uptown) has many beautiful historic buildings and waterfront vistas that create potential for revitalization.

City centres are an important focal point for a city. Successful and healthy city centres are a place for people to meet and convene: for example at restaurants, farmers markets, and shopping centres. Also, they are centres of culture and art that give a city character and they serve as centres of business and commerce, with office towers that house local and international business enterprises.

For older cities such as Saint John, city centres contain historic buildings that are an important part of heritage, identity, and unique character.

In large part, a city's reputation rests on its central core, with a decayed and hollowed out inner-city tarnishing a community's reputation (even if it may have clean and affluent suburbs) and a healthy city core being a source of civic pride that encourages tourism and new migrants to move to the city.

Many newer cities are actually building downtowns to create this focal point and give their city a reputation for more than just strip malls and subdivisions. One example is Mississauga, Ontario, which has seen the construction of dense downtown-like developments near one of its major shopping centres (Square One Shopping Centre). These new developments include high-rise condominiums and office towers. As well, there is an active attempt to attract artists to contribute to the city's culture and identity.

No doubt these attempts are meant to give Mississauga the appearance and feel of a distinctive city in its own right.

An example that is particularly instructive for Saint John is Portland, Maine which, like Saint John, is a coastal industrial city with similar architecture. Portland's efforts followed the thesis of author Richard Florida, who has placed importance on attracting artists -- "the creative class" -- to move into abandoned historical buildings and derelict neighbourhoods, thereby improving the reputation of these neighbourhoods (and making them areas of productive activity), thus attracting middle-class professionals.

These efforts have helped make Portland's downtown a desirable place for residents and tourists.

Downtown revitalization efforts are not without their challenges. Winooski, Vermont invested significant money in its city core. However, with the global recession, efforts to attract businesses have taken longer than expected. Nonetheless, the revitalization has enhanced Winooski's reputation and promoted inner-city growth.

A revitalized city core will not only benefit Saint Johners, but also residents of surrounding suburban municipalities. One cannot conceive of suburbs as existing in self-contained silos. Many -- if not most -- residents of the suburban communities of Quispamsis and Rothesay work in Saint John. Also, suburbanites make use of urban venues such as Harbour Station. A healthy and revived city-centre is in their interests as well.

It is encouraging that Saint John is pursuing a strategy of centralized development -- even if there have been some deviations from Plan Saint John along the way and a challenge to the model of centralization from the Saint John Airport Authority; in the long-run, if successful, Plan Saint John will bring many benefits both to the city and to the region.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Telegraph Journal.

Hassan Arif is a columnist with the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick. He is a PhD candidate in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick and has a background in law and political science. He can be reached at arif.telegraphjournal@gmail.com.

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