The Urban Experiment Worked – Now What?

March 12, 2018

A generation ago, fleeing the cities for the suburbs characterized the story of US cities. Plagued by industrial decline, high crime and poverty, depopulation was the norm. “Clean up our cities” became a mantra and with a lot of hard work from multitudes of stakeholders, urban living became desirable once again. The trend began to shift. People and jobs moved back to the cities. Urban populations grew. Crime rates fell. The ambitious, creative, talented and affluent migrated to cities. Those rewarding their new residents with high levels of opportunity, income and productivity were reinvigorated and revitalized.
The talented, educated, ambitious, creative inhabitants of these cities are the new drivers of our economy. Most new jobs are now created within, or close to, successful urban centres. Their economic activity has largely replaced that generated from manufacturing and natural resource extraction. On the surface, these cities are safer, cleaner, healthier and wealthier than ever. However, the increasing segregation between haves and have-nots, has created a division that is driving costs higher and making housing ever more unaffordable. Our cities are once again at a crisis point. Zoning, planning, and the political will for change, is not keeping pace with the dislocation brought on by their revitalization.

Creative ways of promoting the growth of urban villages, clustering, and increased density needs to be made a priority. If not, economic growth will seize up and liveability will decline. The growing urban population, aggregating economic activity in wealthy neighbourhoods, has pushed land prices through the roof and infrastructure is strained. The middle class is being hollowed out, and economic segregation is redefining cities in a way not seen in generations.

Fixing this problem requires more, not less, clustering of housing, more urban villages and more, not less, diversity. Without this, we will lose the core that sustains our cities. The service workers, teachers, doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters will no longer be able to afford to be members of the communities they serve. The housing affordability crisis has become so bad in many cities, that they risk losing not only this core, they risk losing their competitiveness and ability to continue recruiting the best and brightest to their communities.

Restrictive zoning and planning laws, bottle-necking the construction of suitable housing, need to be completely and radically overhauled. The plethora of options suggested by politicians and self-interest groups, such as increasing funding for affordable housing, enacting rent controls, population controls, etc. will not work. These measures lack long-term viability as well as the scale required to affect the level of change needed immediately.

The single-family home with a two-car garage and backyard is no longer a viable “American Dream” in our burgeoning urban centres. Sprawl does not work. It increases segregation, reduces quality of life, strains infrastructure, increases congestion, and is harmful to the environment. For local governments, the redevelopment of inner city and peripheral suburbs, requires higher density zoning, full stop. Yes, this needs to be thoughtfully executed, but putting heads in the sand and accepting NIMBYism can only lead to failure and demise.

Urban growth is not slowing. Whether one’s perspective is that density is good, or that it is bad, that sprawl is better than tall, etc., growth will continue and our cities will get denser. Our responsibility as stewards for the next generation is not to achieve perfection, in city planning and development. Rather, it is ensuring we do our very best. Sustaining and continuing to develop our competitiveness, quality of life, and the economic clout derived from these urban centres.

Rethinking housing, infrastructure, transportation, the sharing economy, etc., provides limitless opportunities for today’s entrepreneurs. A shift in the urban dwellers focus, from yesterday’s “American Dream”, to collecting experiences, will change how our cities develop and grow.
What’s next, where do we go from here? Let’s think differently and expand on the success our cities. Let’s work together, responsibly, efficiently and effectively to make this happen. Let’s find ways to fast track rezoning and planning approvals, or work around them.

Let’s push NIMBYism aside and strive for greatness in our cities, This, is an amazing time, creating amazing opportunity for city builders and entrepreneurs. I am calling on you all to give thought and take action. Be part of creating the new “American Dream”. Don’t be a NIMBY!!