It's good that St. John's is rethinking the downtown, but its planning priorities need an overhaul

Two recent stories stand in marked contrast of the problems facing St. John's and its neighbours, writes Paris Marx, who says development goals need to be rethought with quality of life at the top of the list.
For decades we've prioritized a development model based on building more roads and more suburbs, writes contributor Paris Marx, but it came at a great (and often unacknowledged) cost to the public. (Submitted by Paris Marx)

In recent weeks, two stories have stood out as the latest evidence that Newfoundland and Labrador must change the way it plans communities.

On one hand, St. John's Mayor Danny Breen told CBC that consultations had begun to allow downtown restaurants and cafés to place tables in the street to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and later in the same week, downtown businesses indicated overwhelming support for the plan.

Images of a pedestrianized Water Street from the 1960s also made their way around social media, to positive responses from the public.

But the options released by the city didn't live up to expectations: either sections of Water and Duckworth streets would be closed for three weeks in July, or on the weekends through July and August. Needless to say, many residents and even business owners don't think that's good enough.

The second story was a provincial announcement the delay-plagued Team Gushue Highway will not be finished any time soon and will cost another $40 million to $50 million on top of the $59 million already spent.

With the province and municipalities in dire financial straits, these stories force us to reflect on the future. For decades we've prioritized a development model based on building more roads and more suburbs — but that came at a great (and often unacknowledged) cost to the public.

When people live farther apart, it becomes more expensive to taxpayers to provide and maintain the roads, services, and other infrastructure needed to serve them. And living in sprawling communities also forces families to need more cars to get around. Just one vehicle costs an estimated $8,600 to $13,000 a year when all costs are factored in.

In town, it's common to hear someone point to outport communities as the source of our budgetary problems, but that ignores the inefficient way we've planned the city itself.

St. John's council seems to recognize that things need to change. The new municipal plan designates some "intensification" areas for denser development, improvements were made to Metrobus service, and council has a cycling plan that addresses some (though not all) existing problems. But it's clear that more needs to be done.

In the summer of 1969, a section of Water Street in St. John's was turned into a pedestrian-friendly space. (Remember the Old St. John's/Facebook)

Easier to walk, cycle

We'd be smart to seize the opportunity offered by the pandemic to take more aggressive action to open more streets to people and plan for communities where it's easier to walk and cycle to stores, doctor's offices and other services — just as other cities around the country (and the world) have already started to do.

Opening more downtown space for pedestrians would be a great place to start. We could bring back the Water Street Mall by making it pedestrian-only from Queen Street to Prescott Street, then add a one-way loop on Duckworth Street and Harbour Drive to make a simple traffic pattern and provide more space for cyclists and pedestrians.

Council should also consider removing more on-street parking because waiting for people to park delays the flow of traffic and people circling to find a spot makes it worse. Instead, people should be directed to the several downtown parking garages with digital signs indicating which have available spaces, while expanding sidewalk areas, transit routes, and cycling accessibility.

This is Wellington, New Zealand, as seen from nearby Mount Victoria. Its central business district is surrounded by hills, and even though it still built many suburbs over the past half century, it still kept a lively downtown closely linked to its harbour. (Submitted by Paris Marx)

'Full of pedestrian life'

We'd also do well to take lessons from elsewhere.

Wellington, New Zealand, is a bit bigger than St. John's and doesn't get our snowfall, but it does share our high winds and frequent rain (it's nicknamed "Windy Welly"). When Wellington removed its streetcars back in the 1960s (St. John's did the same in 1948), it created a pedestrian mall on a section of one of its central streets instead of giving it all to cars.

Today, Cuba Street is a place people go to eat, shop, to have a night out, to protest, play music — it's full of pedestrian life. They even have weekly night markets throughout the year with food trucks, stalls and music. There's nothing like it in St. John's, but there should be.

A street artist entertains the public on Cuba Street in Wellington. (Shutterstock)

I can already hear the common objections that people won't spend time outside because of our weather. I've never heard anything so untrue; we just need to plan for it.

When I lived in Wellington, I noticed there were awnings on the front of almost every building in the walkable areas so people would be shielded from the rain. There are few of them in downtown St. John's.

In countries like Denmark, where cycling is common and there's plenty of pedestrian space — despite the rain, sleet, and grey skies that blow in from the North Sea — outdoor seating areas are under awnings and have umbrellas. Chairs will even have a blanket draped over the back for customers to use in the winter.

A number of streets in central Copenhagen are dedicated for pedestrians, even in the winter. As a result they’ve become busy streets for shopping, dining, and social gatherings. (Submitted by Paris Marx)

Biking in the winter

In the Nordic countries, children even bike to school in the winter because they've planned their communities to encourage it and make it safe. It's a far cry from how pedestrians are treated in the winter in St. John's — let alone cyclists.

Cities and towns in places like Denmark and the Netherlands weren't always so open to pedestrians and cycling.

After the Second World War, they started planning for automobiles (just like we did), but they started to pull back in the 1960s after traffic accidents increased and beautiful areas were replaced with roads.

In the book Happy City, Charles Montgomery explains that when Copenhagen proposed pedestrianizing a central street in 1962, people thought the area would be deserted. Planner Jan Gehl told him residents would say, "We're Danes, not Italians, and we are not going to sit around in outdoor cafés drinking cappuccinos in the middle of the freezing winter!" Sound familiar?

As Christmas approaches, markets can be found throughout central Copenhagen selling hot food and drinks, and local crafts that make great gifts. The market draws large groups of people who arrive on foot. (Submitted by Paris Marx)

After observing how people used the newly pedestrianized street, including how benches facing passing crowds got 10 times the use than those facing flower beds, Gehl concluded that, "What is most attractive, what attracts people to stop and linger and look, will invariably be other people. Activity in human life is the greatest attraction in cities."

In short, places built for people to converge attract more people. And that's exactly what we've largely eradicated throughout the St. John's metro area by building wide roads for cars but few spaces for people.

Quality of life

Taking this opportunity to change course would have many benefits: environmental, social, and financial. As our population ages, walkable communities would make it easier for seniors to maintain their independence instead of being stuck at home because they don't have or can't afford a car.

A lot of young people also want neighbourhoods where they don't have to drive everywhere, and quality of life was one of the biggest issues expatriates cited for not coming back.

We should even consider a public, provincewide bus service like the Saskatchewan Transportation Company to make it easier for people to go between communities without cars. That would benefit many of our residents, including seniors and young people, while making it easier for tourists to see more of our province once they're allowed back. We all know how hard is it to get a car rental in peak season.

The author stands on Signal Hill, with downtown St. John's in the background. (Submitted by Paris Marx)

As we come to terms with our new fiscal situation and think about the way forward, we need to accept a few hard truths: it's more expensive to build sprawling suburbs than it is to build denser, walkable communities.

It's more expensive for every family to have two or three cars than to pay a bit more in taxes for a faster, more frequent Metrobus service.

And being spread so far apart that we need to drive everywhere is hurting our communities and our quality of life.

But these are all things we can change, as long as we're open to try something new. And if ever we needed some new ideas, this is the time.

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Paris Marx

Freelance contributor

Paris Marx is a technology writer, host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, and author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.