“‘Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, come and find your kind
Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small
That we can never get away from the sprawl
Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight.”
— “Sprawl II,” Arcade Fire
There are literally thousands of songs written about cities — not quite as many as have been written about love — but the allure of bustling streets with smiling strangers might be just as romantic an idea. Unlike love, the attraction to cities can be more easily explained.
Cities inspire people. They’re a destination for shopping, culture and excitement. No one seems to dream of running away to a suburb to become an artist or a star.
Some of our best-known television shows are set in big cities, from 30-somethings talking about their love lives in a café a la “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” to “Sesame Street”’s puppets singing about letters and numbers on stoops in a cosy borough.
There’s no denying the glamour of shopping for groceries at small corner shops, meeting friends at a neighbourhood pub, or discovering your soul mate while in line for Chinese takeout.
Cities offer a seemingly unlimited number of opportunities every day. Part of the reason is the sheer number of people you encounter — density. According to Richard Florida, a leading economist in Toronto, cities are the birthplace of the so-called creative class — those young professionals who innovate, inspire and create.
Yet, in this city, we choose instead to live in the periphery; in neighbourhoods with nary a grocery store and hardly any communal space. Instead we have front lawns we never use and drive to the store when we realize we’re out of sugar for our coffee.
Just think of the feeling you have when you go to the Santa Claus Parade — running into old friends or seeing a colleague outside of work — or the excitement of sitting with a crowd in the grass at the folk Festival.
It’s these experiences with other people that make a city. Yet, in
St. John’s, those events are sporadic, not a daily occurrence like they are in well-planned cities. We consistently build our houses — only feet from one another — with the intention of achieving privacy. We force ourselves to drive and not walk.
Recent studies have shown people who walk tend to be more polite — probably because you have to look others in the eye rather than the windshield. Mixed-use neighbourhoods — typical of densely populated areas — have been proven to reduce crime and obesity-related illnesses, while driving business, employment and economic growth. Most importantly, living close to your neighbours as well as shops, parks and other spaces where you encounter people regularly, also reduces your costs.
Would you be willing to sell some of your front lawn for a tax break? That’s one of the ways to increase density in cities — living just a tiny bit smaller. It’s common sense; if you live closely you need fewer roads to be plowed, fewer garbage trucks to pick up trash, fewer power lines, fewer water mains, fewer sewage pipes. Housing prices are more affordable in places where people live closely.
It came as no surprise to learn that New York City was one of the greenest places on earth. What did come as a surprise was recent research out of the Santa Fe Institute which showed that when the population of a city doubles, economic productivity goes up by an average of 130 per cent, but that it will only require an increase in resources of 85 per cent. This means that small towns may look greener, but they’re consuming far more than those living closely together.
And if the best place to live is in a subdivision with an unused lawn in front and barbecue in the backyard, then why do we sit on our sofas and immerse ourselves in “Mad Men”? Can you imagine a Woody Allen film without New York? Whether it’s “Friends,” “How I Met Your Mother” or re-runs of “Frasier,” “Sex and the City” or “The Cosby Show,” we come to care about the people who live in these amazing cities and sometimes the cities themselves.
The trick to planning good density is not just living on top of one another. It’s about smart growth; recognizing that having a coffee shop or hardware store on your street might be a benefit rather than another parking problem.
The old saying “less is more” has never been more appropriate than in this election campaign. Residents in this city — especially those on the periphery — need to ask their candidates if parks and outdoor movie nights will be available in their neighbourhoods.
They need to ask whether there are enough taxpayers in their neighbourhoods to sustainably pay for line painting and a park, too. But mostly, we all need to ask the candidates how they plan to keep growing our city without diminishing our neighbourhoods.
Denis Mahoney is chairman
of the St. John’s Board of Trade.