Embracing urbanism

Here is my recent column in the TJ on urbanism.  I am particularly interested in this idea of an urban activist.  You may be surprised about this as I chafe at some of the activist movements in New Brunswick.  I don’t agree with people who want to shut down natural resources development but I admire the activist spirit.  In urban areas, the activist fights for thier neighbourhood – not just petitioning government – they actually get out there and do things to improve the lot of their neighbourhood.  We need far more of that in New Brunswick.  It’s too easy to relegate everything as a ‘governmentt problem’.    If there is garbage in the streets, go pick it up.  If you have shabby buildings in your neighbourhood, go buy a bucket of paint and slosh on a coat – a new coat of paint will do wonders to perk up a city street.  If you have crime challenges, organize a neighbourhood watch.  This is what makes livable urban neighbourhoods.  And this is what an increasing number of people want.  They are eschewing surburbia but they want livable urban neighbourhoods. 


In case you didn’t notice, New Brunswick is a very rural place by North American standards. In addition to the fact that nearly half of us live in rural areas, we don’t have a single, large urban centre like just about every other province or state across Canada and the United States.

I have written many times about the negative effects of not having a dominant urban centre. We end up with more airports, hospital, schools, etc. per 100,000 population around the province but none with the critical mass for specialization. We also end up with a lack of specialization in a wide range of business and personal services forcing this economic activity to leave the province.

We need to start taking our cities and their economic potential more seriously. The province needs urban development strategy and our cities to start acting like more than just big towns. If New Brunswick is to thrive in the 21st Century, its cities will need to lead the way.

I was thinking about this recently as I was reading a new report published by the BMW Guggenheim Lab entitled 100 Urban Trends.

The urban trends covered in the report run the gamut from ‘active transportation’ to ‘urban ugliness’ and I would argue that most are as relevant in mid-sized, up-and-coming urban areas such as Saint John or Moncton as in larger centres such as Berlin or Miami.

The Activist Citizen is one of the most important of these trends. These activists are committed to their city and their neighbourhoods and do not rely “on institutions or the government to fix things”. We need more of these activist citizens in our cities. If we want dynamic, safe and comfortable urban neighbourhoods we want citizens to take initiative and drive local change.

Number 16 on the list, Cities as Idea Generators, is another urban trend that should resonate in New Brunswick. We should be deliberate and develop spaces in the urban core for people to gather, interact and create. We need artist studios, hackerspaces and entrepreneurial incubators embedded in the urban neighbourhoods where talented professionals live and work.

Intergenerational Interaction, number 53, is one we should foster in our cities. New Brunswick’s urban areas have a higher percentage of people over the age of 55 compared than just about everywhere else in Canada. The Boomers should not ignore the young nor should the young alienate their older peers. Urban neighbourhoods provide an excellent space for intergenerational sharing of ideas and for collaboration.
Urban microhistories, urban trend number 95 in the report, are individual and collective stories that happen in neighbourhoods but go unnoticed by the mass media. They can be a powerful binding agent for neighbourhoods and for bringing people together. Social media is an excellent platform for sharing these stories.

In many ways we are still locked in an old battle that pits urban versus rural areas around New Brunswick. In urban centres, it is not unusual to hear people grumble about all the focus on rural parts of the province. In rural areas, the fact that cities get all the attention is a common refrain.

We need to get beyond this historical divide. We need cities that are magnets for talent, ideas and capital. We need to develop our rural regions around core strengths in natural resources, tourism and appropriate rural services.
If we want to grow New Brunswick and foster a sustainable economic foundation, we will need to accelerate economic growth in our urban centres. Embracing urbanism will be key to that objective.

10 thoughts on “Embracing urbanism

  1. Actually, if you are talking about activism, you should change your title to “embracing ruralism”. All those things you talk about are typically reasons why people embrace rural living.

    Some quick examples from here- although any town’s municipal laws will be the same- was years ago when I actually was involved in municipal politics, there was a story about a guy who had been charged with vandalism. The ‘vandalism’ he was committing was to paint the municipal fence next to his house which had expletive graffitti painted on it. The paint was the same paint used on all municipal fences, yet he was still charged with vandalism-and the graffitti had been there for a month.

    In a similar case, residents of a neighbourhood were told that under no circumstances were they allowed to touch the local municipal trash can near their home. The thing was emptied by the city so rarely that the entire pathway was a garbage pile. The residents took it upon themselves to empty it, and were told if they continued they’d be charged with ‘trespassing’ and theft-if the can was ever moved. They made a presentation to council, said they’d empty the damn thing everyday. In the end all that happened was that the city said they’d try to empty it more often. And now two engineers, a nurse, and an accountant sneak out at 2AM like common criminals to pick up garbage that should be the city’s job, but they can’t even do it by daylight.

    My own personal experience followed that. I should have trusted my own instinct and just gone ahead with it, however, a large phallus was spray painted on a hydro box right in our residential area, where kids saw it daily. I got a matching paint and called the local hydro company (which is municipal, not provincial like in NB) and told them I’d happily paint over it. I was told in no uncertain terms that “we now know who you are and if you proceed you’ll be charged” I said fair enough, just come and paint the damn thing. It took TWO YEARS for somebody to finally paint it.

    Picking up litter is one thing, nobody cares about that. But actually getting something done in a city is FAR more complicated than you make it sound. You can ‘throw a coat of paint’ on your OWN building (but just try picking a paint that is at all artistic), but try doing that to a derelict building owned by the city or another owner and you’ll find yourself in a world of hurt. Likewise any changes to municipal structures-city parks, recreation facilities, virtually ANYTHING within a city and you will find yourself engaged in a process that is more infuriating than any you’ve dealt with.

    Its true that municipalities will differ, but the bylaws and laws protecting city property are generally the same, and the theory goes that if you let ONE person ‘act on their own best judgement’ then you open up the city to thousands of people acting on what they may THINK is their best judgement, but the resulting anarchy would be impossible to control.

    So good luck with that.

  2. Great post David. I agree. Urban activists can play a key role in making neighborhoods and city life better and more livable. I can point to many examples here in Moncton. Perhaps the best example is the group of young citizens who recently started a bike coop. There is also a lot of work being done on urban agriculture and local food. These are the kinds of creative ideas that makes our city interesting and that are bound to attract more creative people.

  3. Good examples above, and I just wanted to apologize that my post sounded so negative to the whole issue, and thats not the intent. The reason WHY so many are turning to ‘hackerspaces’ and outside forces are because of the way politics is done in this country (and most countries).

    But I did have to laugh a bit when I read the part about ‘not waiting for government to fix things’ and then the next paragraph ‘we need a provincial policy…’ I think you missed your first point:)

    But just as an example of how bad it is in New Brunswick, at the CBC website there are two stories on prostitution, and one Saint John councillor who wants the police to use city bylaws to ‘get them off the streets’.

    That’s an example of how government sees problems and solutions-criminalize and institutionalize. Food and bike co-ops have been around for a LONG time, but they are getting increased media attention lately,on that theme, a good/bad example is the length of time its taking the Moncton council to develop a bylaw to allow chickens in people’s backyards. Yeah, I know its not a tech company, but like hackerspaces its a small step to personal empowerment,which is often the point of these things.

    Although I just have to make one more criticism in that I don’t think a blog about urban activism is entitled to include a ‘how to’ manual on RURAL development (natural resources, tourism, etc). The point of COMMUNITY development is that its done by communities, the people who live in them, NOT the government outside (or even inside) the community. I don’t like to pick on that, but again, thats one of the reasons you get all the hate email-you often come across as a shill for the natural gas sector just ‘slipping in’ comments like that which make a suspicious person think that the idea of the blog was just to justify that view. That’s probably reading too much into it, but it IS logically inconsistent with the other ideas, and really have nothing to do with them. Rural people ARE being MILITANTLY activist, in case you didn’t notice-you just don’t like what they are active about.

  4. The activist citizen is where it’s going, even in NB. Look at Saint John’s recent “What’s the Future?” exercise and Fredericton’s “Great Gathering” later this month (Nov 23-24).
    I’ve sounded off on this issue before, but I think we need to reconcieve ‘rural’, and these citizens movements may be able to addrss real community better than government-led processes. Working lives are increasingly structured around economic and social catchment areas, and current urban boundaries are not all that relevant.
    We do have a serious ‘no dominant urban centre’ problem that seems to defie solutions. We could, however, plan for a tri-city airport, or at least a common Saint John/Fredericton site, in an effort to eventually get decent service.

  5. Again, taking services away from people is hardly ‘activist’, in fact its more liable than anything else to really get people PO’d. There already IS ‘decent’ air service, particularly given NB”s size. Virtually EVERY municipality wants an airport, but the question is whether the tax base can support it.

    Just had another thought, there ALWAYS has been a strong ‘urban activist’-they run meals on wheels, food banks, etc. Go to kijiji and look in the volunteer section to see just how many organizations there are. They are ‘active’, they are even politically active. However, most have their hands full with the status quo. I may have mentioned before just how hard a time I have just getting people INTERESTED in political issues in New Brunswick. Don’t want to get too off track, but I think its relevant to the ‘activist’ issue. New Brunswick is the only province that BY LAW (not bylaw) that says you cannot ‘beg’. People are fairly often put in jail simply for panhandling, something that is completely legal in every other province. This is a GROSS human rights violation (in fact Saint John council was even told their bylaw was unconstitutional when they enacted theirs), yet its impossible to get the media to even do a story without a ‘hook’.

  6. @mikel
    “That’s an example of how government sees problems and solutions-criminalize and institutionalize.”
    > Government, especially in small jurisdictions like New Brunswick, is a good reflection of society. Politicians will do and say what they need to stay relevant and (they hope) be reelected.

  7. @David:
    I totally agree with your view that NB needs urban activism. I am just not very optimistic about the potential for success. In fact, quite the opposite. With about two thirds (or even more) of the MLAs coming from the rural areas, there is absolutely no incentive for change in the way you postulate it (“If New Brunswick is to thrive in the 21st Century, its cities will need to lead the way”). In my opinion, any improvement in NB will have to start with electoral reform, including a drastic reduction of the number of electoral zones. That would be the first step towards the reduction of unnecessary redundancies in infrastructure, services, etc. But does anybody expect the rural elected officials from the ruling party (whichever is in power at a given time) to be willing to “lose a seat” for the greater good? I know I don’t.

  8. What do you think of the Royal Oaks high-school snafu, David? Should this be an issue pertinent to urban development?

    1. I was disappointed with the Royal Oaks move. I have two kids in Moncton High and another in the pipe so it was personal for me. They are currently walking to school. In two years they will have to get on a bus and travel miles away – unless they are reschooled to another high school that is closer. Moncton High should have stayed downtown and supported the efforts to attract people to move downtown.

  9. I agree that there is an electoral component to urban development, and hence economic development. However cities should be there to weigh against provincial decisions that go against the cities best interest. In NB, any kind of opposition to provincial decisions that go against a city good interest is perceived as “biting the hand that feeds”. And the province itself runs cities (e.g. Moncton High) like it owns them. There are thus several layers to wasted resources. Waste in establishing municipal and regional plans that are overridden by the province; waste in the wrong decision itself (Moving MHS); and waste in having to live with a bad decision over a long period of time. It’s like compound (bad) interest. There is no point in municipal government if the top is micromanaging the bottom. So the question for me is why do we even both with municipal government when the province treats the whole surface area of the province like its own playing field. Of course, for those of us who believe in municipal government, this is an aberration. But there’s no point in having two authorities responsible for urban planning working against each other without planning together.

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