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.