Winnipeg columnist Brent Bellamey has written a fantastic column on how people fall in love with a city. He is talking about Winnipeg but he could be talking about Saskatoon.
The difficult solution to many of the city’s issues is to increase opportunity and prosperity for its citizens, improving their quality of life, growing the economy and civic revenue.
In business, the greatest success is rarely the result of following trends. Wealth comes from being ahead of the curve, predicting and investing in what’s coming next. A city is no different. Prosperity, particularly in this age of unparalleled mobility, can only be achieved by building a city that inspires and attracts the next generation.
Often called generation Y, 18- to 35-year-olds make up the largest demographic in North America today, with the greatest spending power and highest level of mobility. Their lifestyle choices will have a significant effect on the economy and competitiveness of cities across the continent. Those that are most successful at retaining and attracting a young, creative population will flourish in the future.
Winnipeg loses 3,000 to 5,000 (mostly young) people per year to other provinces, yet we continue to focus on creating the city of our postwar dreams. Our auto-centric urban-design template has taken the city from being a place with unique neighbourhoods and a distinct personality to one filled with low-density, cul-de-sac development, making it indistinguishable from any other.
Cities across North America are beginning to understand the baby boomer, suburban dream is less often the dream of the next generation.
North American young people are showing a clear shift to a mobile and flexible lifestyle supported by a greater level of density and urbanization. They live in smaller spaces than their parents did when they were young, focussing more on the dream neighbourhood than the dream house. For the first time, car ownership is dropping across the continent. In 2009, American youth drove 23 per cent less than they did in 2001. During that same period, bike trips increased by 24 per cent and walking rose by 16 per cent. Canadian transit ridership is growing at twice the rate of the population, and more than 100,000 of us belong to car-share programs.
These statistics show young people are gravitating in larger numbers to a lifestyle that is much more urban than past generations did. Walkable streets, vibrant public spaces and accessible amenities are beginning to replace the two-car garage and sprawling front-yard dream. The cities Winnipeg often loses its young people to, the places we compete with for investment, immigration and tourism are looking to the future, reacting to and investing in these changing trends.
I am surprised how many people who are in their 20s and 30s aspire to leave Saskatoon still. They want to live in Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal for the very reasons that Bellamey is mentioning; walkable neighbourhoods, excellent public transit, bike lanes and vibrant public spaces. None of them mention the phrase “starter home” or time of commute in their discussions.
It seems like Saskatoon is trying to build the dream city of the past rather than the future. It is a decision that we could really come to regret, especially as cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and even Winnipeg (which has a far superior transit service compared to ours) continues to pull ahead.
Let me put it this way, either Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Halifax are correct is striving to build cities that can attract global talent (and therefore become more prosperous) or Saskatoon’s method of building more roads and lowering taxes is.
Even more important than that, for Canada to survive, we must attract the best talent from around the world. So we need the top graduating engineers in Shanghai or Dubai or Mumbai to say, “I can be at the top of my profession in Canada, and that’s a place I want to live.” We need the financiers to come to Toronto and Calgary as much as they go to Wall Street. And for those people to make those sorts of decisions, we have to have great places to live.
People from Toronto are always shocked when I tell them this, but the oil sands are not located under downtown Calgary. That tower is not, in fact, a derrick. The oil sands are a 2.5- to three-hour flight away. So why are all those great, taxpaying, head-office jobs in Calgary and not a slightly longer flight away, in Houston or Shanghai? It’s because people want to live in Calgary. And what makes people want to live in our city is the fact that the transit is good, the road network is good, we have clean water and all those things that make cities work well.
So he mentioned “road network. How do you get a functioning road network?
It really is about consistent underinvestment by federal and provincial governments in this kind of infrastructure, and particularly transit. Think about the fact that, in all of Canada, there are two cities that have subways. There are fewer subway lines in Canada than there are in the city of Boston.
The reason the United States has so much transit is because the federal government started playing a very significant role in this in the 1960s and ‘70s. In Calgary, in Vancouver, and especially in the GTA, it’s unconscionable how much we have underinvested in our transit systems. Look, I’ll be a rhetorical politician for a minute: Investments in public transit are among the very best investments any government can make. Think about all the benefits that accrue from that: There are environmental benefits. There are real benefits in congestion savings, which means you’re giving citizens back time that has been stolen from them. Transit is also an investment in social mobility, because if you make it easier to live and work and go to school without needing your own car, suddenly you open up the ability to participate in the economy to far more people. But I think our provincial and federal governments have often seen transit as being at the bottom of the list.
You know what, if we won’t build the kind of infrastructure people want, some other city will. We have seen people leave before and they will do it again.