I think of St. John’s as having gone through three major waves of design and growth. The history of development and urban design in our city is of course much more nuanced and complex than this; but, it’s a helpful paradigm in understanding motivation and priority, and end-user experience. Urban design “is about making connections between people and places, movement and urban form, nature and the built fabric. [It] draws together the many strands of place-making, environmental stewardship, social equity, and economic viability into the creation of places with distinct beauty and identity.”
First, the St. John’s that is still celebrated today—that which was built before the advent of the automobile. Downtown streets were built with the horse and carriage in mind; alleyways reflected the desire lines walked by livyers on the daily to get from home to the harbour; and housing, shops, and pubs were built in dense rows all mixed amongst one another. Development took into account the landscape, exposure to the elements, movement of surface water, and human-centred needs like quick and easy access to amenities and workplaces. St. John’s was walkable, connected, richly vibrant, and human relationships were the backbone of the community. Characters abound, and steeped in culture—it was an exciting and vibrant place to live. Streetcars proved the success of public transit. We were on par with all the other great cities of North America like San Francisco, Boston, Vancouver, and Toronto. It was by no means perfect; poverty and many other inequities were rampant. But there was beauty in the design and its impact on society; folks of different strokes crossed paths with one another very frequently.
Second, the mid-century Smallwood era of shiny new institutional expansion, master-planned, modest neighbourhoods like Churchill Park, urban trail systems, and secondary commercial areas (like malls) outside the downtown. Cars were around at this point, and not just for the very wealthy or taxi drivers. This totally revolutionized the way people were thinking about design and development. All of a sudden, it could be assumed that in order to arrive at your destination and meet any given need, you could get inside a car, or board a bus, and drive there. This led to the belief that new construction could quickly stretch outward, because paying customers didn’t have to rely on their own legs or those of a horse, to spend money and access services. In addition, the notion of single-family detached dwellings with larger lots and lawns was becoming a symbol of prosperity. The city was still easily navigated, and human-relationships were still the centre. But a shift was taking place in the development style. Present-day bedroom communities (Mount Pearl, Paradise, Conception Bay South, Torbay, Bay Bulls, and more) were still completely independent of St. John’s and had their own rural economies.
Third, enter the era of subdivisions and eventually big box stores. Exclusionary and restrictive zoning really ramped up in the ‘70s through to the 2000s, entrenching residents’ reliance on cars and the need to own one in order to meet their needs. The city started sprawling outward with low-density, one-storey buildings and wide, multi-lane arterial roads and highways. Newer parts of the city were cut up into residential, commercial, and industrial areas. Oil money started rolling in, and with it, the interest of developers. Successive City Councils of my childhood years were all too happy to greenlight American-style power centres like Stavanger Drive and Kelsey Drive. This meant gouging through the landscape with new roads like the Outer Ring Road and Team Gushue Highway to satisfy the demands of cars and their drivers (trying to meet their needs). This led to even more traffic, a culture of faster driving speeds, and worsening safety. The strength of our community’s social fabric started to fray and unravel in places. The cost of living crept upward, and community connectivity (and amenity accessibility) decreased—all of which had an impact on human relationships and the vibrancy and resilience that comes from them. People started falling through the cracks. As time went on, families started getting smaller, the immigration rate didn’t keep up, and the population tipped heavily towards seniors.
This brings us to now.
On the doors, I am hearing:
- On housing:
- Accessibility barriers and poor interior maintenance within the affordable housing stock.
- A disdain for renters and poor property maintenance—albeit often with an acknowledgement that affordability is the issue.
- An acknowledged need to help homeless people get housed.
- Seniors on fixed incomes, who’ve lived in their own homes for decades, are afraid of increases to taxes and costs of living.
- On safety:
- Frustration with frequent break and enters, and the need for security cameras on front doors.
- Drug problems, (including used syringes littered in piles on the ground in green spaces and paved areas alike), and a feeling that they are inescapable.
- Families who won’t let their kids play outdoors unless it’s in a fenced backyard because the streets (and the cars that speed on them) are too dangerous.
- On access to affordable transportation & safe streets:
- Minimum-wage workers who’ve had to move apartments in order to access their workplace, because when they changed jobs the available bus route could no longer get them to work on time.
- People who are fed up with the state of our sidewalks in winter, and the risks they must take in order to get to the bus stop, and get to work.
- Disappointment in street design choices, for example, the current configuration of Rawlins Cross and the temporary bump-outs in Kenmount Terrace.
- Worries about pedestrian safety, including that of children within the radius that do not qualify for taking the bus to school.
- A strong desire for cycling infrastructure, cyclists new and old of all ages can move through neighbourhoods and around the city.
- On the environment:
- An urgent need for serious and prompt climate action, and environmental stewardship.
- An understanding that building on wetlands doesn’t make sense and should not be happening.
- Concerns around flood risks.
- A deep care for green spaces, our City’s rivers, and trails that allow us to access them.
- On City Hall:
- Disappointment in the level and outputs of public engagement.
- Disappointment in communication style when citing offences that result from complaints (no conversation, just written orders).
- Complaints over budget prioritizations at City Hall, and the interests they reflect. In particular, the cost of operating and maintaining Mile One Stadium.
- On community:
- Struggles with inadequate access to food from food banks
- Many, many lonely people, of all ages, who are isolated in their homes in residential zones that are not within (safe) walking distance of amenities. Countless personal conversations with folks who are starved of human connection, and the sense of security and comfort, which comes from being connected with the world around you. I wish I could spend more time with them.
These are just the most prominent topics that come up over and over. They all speak to me in a way that relates directly back to the choices we have made in designing our city, as it has grown. These choices are resulting in harm, and it doesn’t have to be this way. St. John’s is still a beautiful, courageous, and resourceful city. We can repair these harms, and strengthen our urban fabric. But, the choices we make from here on out— the potential fourth wave of design in our city—will determine our success. Those choices must be reflected in policy, master-planning, regulations, development application processing and recommendations, strategic incentives and disincentives, and especially the budget.
Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation defined sprawl as, “the degenerate urban form that is too congested to be efficient, too chaotic to be beautiful, and too dispersed to possess the diversity and vitality of a great city.” And here’s the thing: the more a city sprawls, the more expensive it is to operate and maintain. Every kilometer of road and pipe we lay down (1) costs all taxpayers a lot of money to take care of, especially in our climate; and (2) increases vulnerability of public and private properties to climate change impacts. If you want lower taxes, and less risk, the answer is: end urban sprawl, the design principles, and the thinking about human relationality that comes with it.
As you know, I am a scientist focused on addressing the climate crisis; I am also a neighbour striving for safety, inclusion, and rich human connections; and, I am a 31-year-old Newfoundlander who sees the writing on the wall when it comes to the fiscal situation of our city and province. I believe that climate, social, and fiscal problems are interwoven, and the best solutions are inherently intersectional. Applying a climate action lens to the governance of our city will lead to complete neighbourhoods and streets, multi-modal active transportation, an increase in affordability, stronger social networks, an increase in physical and mental health, inclusion and accessibility, biodiverse urban ecosystems, lower expenditures, and more revenue to invest. We all deserve these things, and we owe our best effort to your children and grandchildren.
The choices I believe Council should make, in order to (re)design, strengthen, and grow St. John’s sustainably, are outlined below.
On Our Streets
- Implement a policy that requires building-back-better analysis and a shift toward complete streets each time a street is repaired or renewed. When we tear up a street due to damage or end-of-life, that is the best time to improve its function in moving people around the city safely.
- Explore reconfiguration options, costings, and planning for 5-lane streets (road diets) to include one lane of traffic in each direction, a physically separated bike lane for both directions, and boulevard strips with trees to protect pedestrians.
- Policy and action on mandatory street trees for new or re-development, while enhancing current municipal programs to support planting of street trees in existing neighbourhoods.
- Policy and action on re-wilding of concrete islands dividing traffic directions.
- Investigate alternative roadway/corridor amendments in existing subdivisions that currently feature ultra-wide streets to better facilitate sidewalk snow-clearing, and safe, protected, active transportation (driveway elongation due to road narrowing during winter is a barrier).
- Initiate permeable pavement pilot projects on city-owned parking lots, lower- and higher-traffic streets (reducing runoff from rain and subsequent flood risks, increasing localized water retention). Reach out to other Canadian municipalities for lessons learned, and install and develop a periodic assessment protocol to understand efficacy and performance. If successful, expand installations and pair with zoning by-law / development regulations adjustments for roadways and parking lots.
- Pilot engineered wetlands or bioswale installations adjacent to and up-gradient of roadways and trails that often experience flooding. Increases in-situ water and nutrient retention, erosion control, and pollutant filtering.
- Moratorium on new arterial roadways and highways within municipal boundaries. More roads does not solve traffic problems; they make them worse.
- Nighttime bus routes to get people home safely from downtown, and from work.
- More frequent transit service and smaller buses or shuttles for less popular routes.
- More road-side benches to provide rest stops for pedestrians. An end to hostile metal railings in the centre of benches.
- Taking concrete actionable steps towards a comprehensive bicycling network with physically separated lanes on the streets. Connectivity, safety, inclusion, and smooth transitions for all people of all ages who want to cycle to get around the City.
- Prioritize an increase to both the pace of sidewalk snow-clearing and the streets that receive the service, by purchasing more sidewalk plows and increasing staff as necessary. This must be included in budget 2022.
- Reassess criteria for installing crosswalks to facilitate meeting pedestrian needs.
- Investigate strategic, targeted, public transit options for work commutes into St. John’s. Can create groupings of residents heading to the same area, and offer pick-up by van or small bus. Service cost pro-rated according to equivalent gas and mileage costs incurred by groupings of personal vehicles. Advertise programs as a way to cut back to 1 vehicle per family. Champion accessibility by incrementally increasing audible pedestrian crossing signals at all lit intersections as quickly as possible.
- Collaborate with Newfoundland Power to reposition light poles out of the right-of-way (and required passable width of walkways) of pedestrians.
In Our Neighbourhoods
Designing for Quality of Life
- Develop urban design standards for new commercial areas, replacing the power centre concept with compact, walkable, mixed use neighbourhood shopping, service and public space centres. Update zoning to reflect this as a priority.
- Improve residential subdivision design standards to support a return to grid pattern development wherever feasible. This would support shorter blocks to allow frequent, safe pedestrian crossings, providing more direct pedestrian routes within and through the neighbourhood, thereby slowing vehicular traffic travelling through.
- Integrate characteristics and design principles that support aging-in-place, in analysis criteria for all new neighbourhood developments. That is. a range of housing types, year-round walkability, green space, connectivity.
- Incentives for businesses that serve as third places within existing residential-only neighbourhoods, such as coffee shops, pubs, restaurants, corner stores, independent grocers, etc.
- Begin visioning for retrofitting suburban areas to become walkable and complete.
- Demonstrate that parks are for more than traditional playgrounds: install diverse activity infrastructure like board game tables, public art that serves as usable hang-out spaces for teens, bocce courts, and electricity hook-ups for food trucks and live music.
- The Land Use Assessment Report that is required during the rezoning process should ensure that direct and convenient pedestrian access to the site is prioritized as a condition for grant approval.
- Recognize and protect desire lines through the urban fabric, and ensure they are bolstered to become barrier-free. Require desire line simulations for all new proposed developments, to prioritize the user-experience of the pedestrian.
- Introduce way-finding sign posts on city trails, green spaces, and rights-of-way to amplify awareness and usage of green space corridors.
- Ensure gaps exist in vehicle barricades (at the entrance of parks, and pedestrian malls) to allow for pedestrian and mobility aid accessibility.
- Pilot weekend neighbourhood pop-ups with busking, performing arts, life-size board games, and temporary seating areas in uptown neighbourhood parking lots like Elizabeth Ave., Torbay Road North, Bidgoods Plaza, and more.
- Season extension to Downtown Pedestrian Mall from June 1 to January 1.
- Permanent infrastructure to support the Downtown Pedestrian Mall; i.e. the redevelopment of the parking lot adjacent to Solomon’s Lane to become a public square, and gates or bollards to reduce the cost of security personnel.
- Initiate exploration of community-scale composting.
- Require site-specific climate change vulnerability assessments for any new commercial/industrial/public developments.
- Eliminate minimum parking requirements for major developments, which typically result in paved surfaces that are rarely if ever fully utilized. Trust businesses to build the amount of parking they need (but not more than the stipulated maximum), without requiring them to build unnecessary parking that they may not need.
- Firm protection of wetlands and surface waterways, as a means of eco-asset management and flood mitigation to protect private properties. Be open to exploring legal action should other levels of government contravene this.
- Increase pockets of walkable, green, and wild spaces through landscape architecture on underperforming asphalt in commercial areas.
- Amend development regulations to allow for interior conversion of multi-bedroom single-family dwellings into multi-unit affordable housing.
- Develop criteria in the development approval process to ensure that there is an adequate supply of affordable homes close to major commercial areas, so that service industry workers can access employment without the expense of car ownership or otherwise travelling long distances to work.
- Work with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and the Province to bolster existing co-op housing organizations, and facilitate the leveraging of equity by co-ops to take on debt for maintenance of units and expansion.
- Partner with social enterprises to retrofit the City’s current affordable housing stock into 1-bedroom units to better meet demand, and incorporate sweat equity of labour into a rent-to-own model.
At City Hall
- Invest in the Planning Division for a return of true master-planning and urban design, and not just development application processing.
- Update home-based business approval requirements and staff-level application processing to better support start-ups.
- Champion changes to the Municipal Plan and Regulations to encourage and incentivize smarter, sustainable development but also to discourage and prevent sprawl.
- Update bylaw 1562 to introduce a 2-year time limit on the Vacant Commercial Property Tax Allowance.
- In consultation with experts, develop metrics for rating the environmental and social impacts of development applications, capital expenditures, tenders, and RFPs. Mandate their inclusion in the assessment of budgetary and design recommendations and decision-making.
- Initiate an open-call for expressions of interests (RFEOI) for a third-party contract to operate Mile One Stadium.
- Commit to electrifying the City vehicle fleet by 2030 as vehicle renewal takes place, and federal funding becomes available.
- Link #nlwx Twitter feed to the city’s website to share real-time public updates on road conditions.
- Complete costings associated with all recommendations in the City’s Corporate Climate Action Plan published in 2021.
- Adoption of a code for building performance (supporting our transition to net-zero), for all building proposals.
- Lobby the Provincial Government to update the City of St. John’s Municipal Taxation Act, to move toward a progressive income-based taxation model that is not tethered to property assessments.
- Lobby the Provincial Government to make accessibility and barrier-free design a requirement for publicly-accessible commercial operations moving through the development application process, including decks on the Pedestrian Mall. This includes washrooms.
- Lobby the Provincial Government to move forward on demolition of the old nurse’s residence on the Grace Hospital site. Invest in master-planning a mixed-use neighbourhood that includes public and market-rate affordable housing with ground-floor commercial.
- Create a public engagement policy that is nimble, adaptive, responsive to the (often quick) turnaround time of federal funding, and inclusive for seniors and disabled people.
- Mandate transparent access to the raw data of public engagement (anonymized if desired) and a commitment to demonstrating how it informs staff recommendations and decision-making.