A new deal for N.B.'s largest cities
Tenth in a series of expert analysis articles on major issues in the 2010 N.B. election
Last Updated: Wednesday, September 8, 2010 | 5:22 AM ET
If the urban regions of Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John were combined to form one single economic unit, it would house one out of every two New Brunswickers, and have greater metropolitan clout over New Brunswick affairs than Halifax has over Nova Scotia, Toronto over Ontario, or Montreal over the province of Quebec.
Unfortunately, they are not one single economic unit, but instead three separate cities that spend about as much time fighting with their more affluent suburbs over shared services as they do secretly fretting that the city an hour away has more clout at the provincial cabinet table.
Instead of working together to ensure that southern New Brunswick — and by extension, the entire province — grows stronger economically, our largest cities more often behave like three cats in a paper bag. And successive provincial governments have done little to curb the territorial jealousies.
It is time that the province of New Brunswick give these cities a new deal, if only to ensure that New Brunswickers can succeed in an increasingly urban world.
On a national scale, Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John are not that large, only Moncton and Saint John are in fact Census Metropolitan Areas, and they are both among the smallest CMAs in the country.
But from a provincial perspective, these cities are fairly large, and given worldwide trends toward greater urbanization it is becoming clear that the future of this province rests almost entirely on creating a triangle of opportunity between Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John.
To highlight the importance of our urban areas, let's follow the jobs. Throughout most of the first decade of this century, the unemployment rate in New Brunswick's largest cities was generally half of what it was in the province's rural areas.
Saint John and Moncton have produced a far more resilient labour force during this recession than Toronto or Montreal. Cruise ships and airline flights into our cities are paying for health care in every part of this province.
And the jobs being created in New Brunswick's cities are far removed from the CN Shop Yards or the Winter Port work of our grandparents' generation. In the 1971 census, Saint John had 700 railway workers and no one in the still infant computer industry. Now, Saint John has fewer than 100 railway workers and more than 1,500 in the Information, Communications and Technology sector.
The Creative Class that urban thinker Richard Florida is so enthused about — the artists and IT workers, the engineers and architects — can just as easily set up shop in a loft in Saint John or a studio in Fredericton as they can search for their big break in Toronto or New York City. The rent is cheaper, and newly installed Fibre-Op high-speed internet can make it easy to showcase their product to the whole world.
Future economy in jeopardy
In large part because of a mix of residential density, local access to higher education, and a diverse mix of interesting buildings to live and work in, New Brunswick's largest cities may soon be at a tipping point. You wouldn't know it, however, by following the government of New Brunswick's near-constant focus on the province's rural economy, particularly in the halls of Business New Brunswick.
Talk of a New Deal for Cities has become a popular refrain in other parts of Canada, but very rarely do you hear such talk in New Brunswick, where the mill town still haunts our imagination.
'Short of grounding them, to keep our children here, we're going to need lots more intelligent investment in Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton.'— Kurt Peacock
I would suggest that we start holding an urban dialogue, because without a healthy debate over the future of New Brunswick's largest cities, our province's own economic vitality is in jeopardy.
If our cities can grow to be creative clusters of talent, intellect, and enterprise, then all of New Brunswick benefits. If they fail to attract more young people, new Canadians or urban seekers of the next hip neighbourhood, all of New Brunswick loses out.
The choice is simple: We can work to ensure that our children can pursue opportunity in local urban centres like Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton, or we can have them live and work in metropolitan areas like Toronto, Calgary or Montreal, and see them during the holidays.
Short of grounding them, to keep our children here, we're going to need lots more intelligent investment in Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton. Building highways that facilitate further suburban growth does little to help urban New Brunswick; nor does giving the local service districts that ring our cities a free ride.
Not only do we need to implement the recommendations of Jean-Guy Finn's report on local governance; we need to encourage a more mature relationship between our city centres and their more affluent suburbs (and nowhere is this more true than in Saint John, where inner-city neighbourhoods with high concentrations of poverty are surrounded by the province's wealthiest communities).
The next government of New Brunswick needs to undertake a series of initiatives to strengthen our largest cities, and if these initiatives are well-planned, the economic return would be of benefit to all. But what to do first?
Below are just a few ideas, to help start the urban dialogue.
Kurt Peacock argues in other areas the debate over expanding the Mackay highway would be foolhardy. (CBC)If we want a more vibrant, sustainable and prosperous New Brunswick, we need to build our cities up, and not out.
Smart urban transportation systems — be it free bus lines in our downtown core, or significant re-investments like the one proposed for Saint John's notorious Simms Corner — should take funding precedence over highway expansions that simply fuel further suburban congestion.
In many other North American jurisdictions, the proposed Mackay highway expansion would be considered foolhardy, and quickly abandoned in favour of investments that are for the benefit of citizens, and not cars.
Property Tax Reform
The three largest cities in New Brunswick are engines of the provincial economy, but they also have a higher rate of poverty than the rest of the province, and are home to the majority of New Brunswick renters.
In the north side of Fredericton or the north end of Saint John there are a number of neglected neighbourhood blocks, and the young families that reside within them pay a higher rate of property tax — as the taxation costs are passed on to them by the landlord — simply because they rent an apartment, as opposed to own a home.
In a rapidly aging province, it is ironic that the youngest urban neighbourhoods —those with the lowest median ages — are also generally the poorest. To paraphrase former U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, too many of our youngest New Brunswickers are ill-housed, ill-schooled, and ill-nourished.
Reducing the inequities in taxation between renters and owners would help regenerate economic activity in many of our province's poorer neighbourhoods, and give the young families that reside there a greater chance to succeed.
Creating urban drivers
While much of the work of Business New Brunswick is focused on strengthening traditional sectors of the New Brunswick economy, there is a great deal of talent in New Brunswick cities that is far removed from hewing wood.
We need to cultivate that talent, in large part by making New Brunswick cities more attractive places to create new ideas.
More robust supports for the renewal of heritage buildings may be one way to facilitate this — it is hard to make the economics of a loft apartment work, if the structure is more than 100 years old, is not up to code.
And successive provincial governments have shown more interest in facilitating suburban development — Quispamsis and Dieppe are two of the fastest growing communities in New Brunswick — than the renewal of city centres.
Discouraging municipal competition
The provincial government must stop the infighting between Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John, according to Peacock. (CBC)Achieving enough economies of scale and residential density to allow for innovation is what makes great cities work — it is what made New York City great, and its what is powering the economic growth of dozens of new Chinese cities.
In New Brunswick, because of the lack of one dominant metropolis, sufficient economies of scale often cannot be realized, but our cities don't make it any easier by their needless competition between themselves and their surrounding suburbs.
When one city gets an airport upgrade, the others want an airport upgrade. The same can be said for convention centres and hockey rinks, or any other civic works project our province needs to order three or more of.
At the regional level, the lack of long-term resource planning is hurting all communities — Saint John's water woes could be made a lot easier if it entered into a long-term agreement with its neighbours over a shared water system. The provincial government could help facilitate this by bringing the utilities board or some other party in to help get the dialogue started.
Regardless of the issue, the province should do all that it can to encourage intra-city co-operation, and not competition.
If amalgamation isn't the answer to finding efficiencies, our municipalities should be asked to examine whatever else works.
These are just some ideas that politicians running in this election can examine in any journal of urban affairs and find countless others.
The ideas in themselves are almost secondary — what is more important is that we fully appreciate the enormous potential of urban New Brunswick, and do all that we can to help make it grow.
We are essentially becoming an urban province, whether or not we are prepared to recognize this new reality.
And the sooner we develop policies that strengthen our own urban economy, the less likely that young Brunswickers will leave the province for the urban economies of Toronto, Calgary or Ottawa in order to pursue their dreams.
And even if they do leave, let's still create a dynamic urban province for them to return to when they're ready to come back home.