Building Failure: In Search of Sustainable Cities

The destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building”. Jane Jacobs.

In most major cities on the planet, the downtown core is the most intensive consumer of capital investments compared to any other part of the city. The typical downtown is often home to commercial complexes, government offices, theatres, hotels and sometimes major academic and sporting complexes.

People come to work downtown and the predominant mode of transportation is the automobile, often occupied by one person. While downtown, these automobiles need storage. And therefore, the office and commercial complexes provide parking on surface lots and above and below ground parking structures.

Morning traffic in most cities entails a mad rush of people trying to get into the downtown core followed by the same crowd trying to vacate the core at the end of the business day.

As the lights go out in the downtown core, they start to come on in the suburbs where people live. You see, we have built downtown as the place to work and the suburbs as the place to live. See the problem? By separating the two, we have created two monsters.

The first monster is the downtown core that bustles and makes good use of the infrastructure during the day, falls silent by night. We invest heavily in the downtown core and only use it on a part time basis. Every inch of pipe, cable, roadway, and parking space we create is used effectively for just over a third of a day. Add in the transit subsidies we provide to get people in and out of downtown once a day and we are spending some serious coin for part time usage of our most capital-intensive neighbourhood.

By corollary, the second monster is the separation of where we work and where we live. This requires us to physically move from one place to the other on a daily basis and thus the need for the automobiles and the roads they must travel daily just to close the physical distance between our working and living spaces. And that is why Jane Jacobs deemed us incompetent at city building. Our decisions have imposed costs we either failed to understand or choose to ignore.

These two monsters are bankrupting cities across the country. The Canadian Federation of Municipalities (FCM) and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) estimate a sustained annual investment of $20-30 billion annually to fix the backlog of infrastructure maintenance and replacement work across the country.

This raises a simple intuitive question; if we cannot keep up with maintaining what we have already built, by what right and logic are we continuing to build more suburban neighbourhoods? This is particularly problematic for cities that own half used downtown cores and suburbs demanding more land for development. Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, particularly the latter two are struggling to repopulate their downtowns while experiencing significant suburban growth.

The answer to this question is in equal part short sighted greed, desperation and a refusal to learn from past mistakes. Many cities see new development, particularly suburban, as new additions to their tax rolls and are willing to grab the revenue knowing that new developments won’t require significant maintenance dollars for some 15 to 20 years. In the short term, they get new money to deal with old problems and the equation works.

The same equation feeds the desperation and need for new revenue. Even though cities are adding to the infrastructure inventory that is already beyond their ability to maintain, stopping suburban development and growth will leave kill this stream of new revenue so they choose to mortgage their future to buy temporary solutions to today’s problems. Turning a quote from Ben Franklin, those who trade long term sustainability for short term financial relief deserve neither.

Many cities are now turning their attention to an alternative and more sustainable solution. And that is downtown densification. They are realizing that with the essential infrastructure already in place, it is cheaper and much more effective to increase their downtown populations rather than building more suburbs. Moving more people downtown does not require new roads, water and sewer pipes, gas and electricity extensions and connecting roadways that suburbs do.

Further, downtown residential units are most often multi-family high density developments. One downtown high-rise condominium development yields hundreds of residents paying taxes to support the existing infrastructure around them. One condo resident requires a small fraction of pipe and road compared to the average suburban dweller. The marginal cost of adding one more downtown residence is pennies compared to dollars for one more in the suburbs. Vibrant, well occupied downtown cores are the most rational alternative to ill-conceived urban sprawl and the only path to sustainability.

Melbourne has been named the most livable city in the world three years running. Guess what that city did to earn that distinction? Over thirty short years, it has changed its urban core from a vacant and half used space to a highly populated mixed used area with commercial, retail, arts, entertainment and housing connected by foot traffic as opposed to automobiles.

This equation is proving to be cost effective and healthier. Many studies have found that people living in well-planned, high-density communities live healthier and longer. In essence, people living in compact, densely populated neighbourhoods are more physically active than those living in suburban communities.

Canadian cities including Winnipeg need to learn from the Melbourne experience. If they want to stave off almost certain future bankruptcy, they have to pay attention to their downtowns and convert them to places where people just don’t come to work but stay to live and play. Melbourne transformed itself in less than thirty years. It took courage and foresight to start the journey to sustainability.

It is late in the day for many Canadian cities. Many are already behind the eight ball. But the effort to build cities that contribute to our long term financial and physical health is better started late than never.

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