Columns

Battling the brain drain

Ann Dowsett Johnston September 14 1998
Columns

Battling the brain drain

Ann Dowsett Johnston September 14 1998

Urbana all over the world

Essays on the 2000 MILLENNIUM

WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI

Whenever I fly into Montreal, I am struck by what I see from the plane window. The downtown of high-rise office buildings rises between the green mound of Mount Royal and the broad St. Lawrence River. It is an attractive setting. But what impresses me is something else: the sheer expansiveness of the place. It is as if an immense carpet of houses, shopping centres, warehouses, low office blocks and manufacturing plants, crisscrossed by highways, had been unrolled across the entire island and beyond the river, north and south, as far as the eye can see.

I am looking at a city whose population is greater than that of most provinces. Perhaps “city” is not even the right word. There is a city, of course, the city of tourist brochures and postcards, the old town of grey stone architecture and public squares, of sidewalk cafés and jazz festivals. This is the place that attracts visitors and conventioneers: la belle ville. But this Montreal is surrounded by a second newer city—a city where people live in houses, not apartments and walk-ups; where urban functions are spread out; a city in which the means of travel are chiefly individual instead of communal. This is not a city that attracts tourists or conventions. Nevertheless, it is where the new jobs are, where young families buy their first homes, where corporations establish offices, and entrepreneurs start up businesses. This new city is already twice as populous as the old—and growing. It is the city that—for better and worse—we have built for our children. It is the future.

The past 100 years has been an age of unprecedented urban growth. At the beginning of the 20th century, considerably more than half of Canadians were still classified as rural, whereas today more than three-quarters are urban. And not just smalltown urban—most of us now live in very large cities. Indeed, one out of three Canadians lives in metropolitan Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa or Montreal.

Throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries, cities were centres of population largely because they were also centres of manufacturing. Manufacturing took place in multi-storey loft buildings, located within the neighborhoods where the factory workers lived. After 1950, the nature of manufacturing

changed. Trucks, not trains, became the preferred method of transporting goods, and plants were organized on one level rather than vertically, with raw materials and finished products moving horizontally between the factory floor and parked trucks. The narrow streets of the older cities could not accommodate these large vehicles, nor was expensive urban real estate suited to large, spread-out buildings. So the new manufacturing plants were built in the outlying suburbs, which were planned for automobiles and trucks. Where employment went people followed, and cars took them there.

Life in the new city does not depend only on automobiles. Fax machines, cell phones and the Internet make it possible to live almost anywhere with a min-

imal loss of work efficiency. Videocassette recorders and satellite and cable television bring sports, information and entertainment from around the world to the most distant location. The effect of this technology, coupled with catalogue shopping, decentralized merchandising and efficient goods distribution makes the entire metropolitan area—not only the central city—an attractive place to live.

Decentralizing technology encourages the farflung growth of large cities, but it also has an opposite effect. It makes new, smaller cities competitive. In the past, the big city led in entertainment, retail, health care, employment and quality of life. The biggest movie theatres, the most advanced hospitals,

the fanciest department stores, the largest libraries, the best sports teams were restricted to a handful of the largest cities. That is no longer true. Small cities are now able to offer the same multiplexes, the same national chains and the same franchises. Not that a big city doesn’t have an advantage, but it is a smaller advantage than before. Small cities often offer more responsive—and responsible—governments and a stronger sense of community. Listings of ‘The best places to live” are headed not by big cities, but by relatively small cities like Kingston, Ont., or Sherbrooke, Que., or Victoria. Airfreight has enabled manufacturers to locate plants away from large urban centres without loss of efficiency. Any cornfield not too far from a regional airport is a potential factory site.

Incidentally, air travel is yet another technological factor that encourages the new horizontal city. The railroad terminus once assured the importance of the downtown: major hotels, restaurants and entertainment spots were located around the station. A cordon of hotels and services (as well as warehouses and manufacturing facilities) likewise surrounds the airport—relatively close to the new city but miles from the old downtown.

Joel Garreau, a reporter with The Washington Post, was the first to identify the new sprawling developments in the metropolitan fringe. What was surprising about Garreau’s findings, which he discussed in his 1991 book Edge City, was that these new cities accounted for more office space, more employment and far more economic activity than traditional downtowns.

Tourists went to Manhattan and vieux Montreal, but the jobs were going to suburban New Jersey and Laval.

Garreau is the first to admit that sprawl lacks charm. In a word, it’s ugly. Yet he speculates that it is merely a matter of time before urban amenities materialize. After all, he reasons, the cities that we admire today were not always beautiful. “Time is of the essence in city building,” he writes.

“Give edge cities time before you lose your composure.” Seven years have passed since he wrote that. Some edge cities such as Mississauga are indeed maturing and sprouting civic facilities, arts centres and concert halls. But change is coming slowly. Variety is often missing. Neighborhoods built all-of-a-piece tend to be homogeneous. A shopping mall has but one owner, so, despite sophisticated management techniques, there are fewer niches for the sort of creative entrepreneurship that one finds in traditional downtowns.

We know, after centuries of trial and error, how to build good walkable cities. There is a tested lexicon of streets and blocks, of avenues and boulevards. We know how to design public spaces, make parks and set up the rules of behavior (called zoning and building regulations) that produce attractive streets. But having put aside these rules, we find ourselves at sea. We can build agreeable shopping malls, efficient office parks and comfortable houses, but we don’t know yet how to put them together. The new cities consist of buildings set far apart from each other, surrounded by parking lots. It’s hard to get from one area to another, except by car. The individual parts are attractive enough, but they don’t quite add up.

Judging from past efforts, it appears unlikely that future sprawl can be avoided by comprehensive city planning. Ottawa has many layers of city-planning bureaucracies, but that has not kept it from spreading out. The Montreal Urban Community was formed to encourage regional planning, but that did not stop Laval from growing up outside the boundaries to become the second-largest city in the province. Met-

ropolitan Toronto, despite the example of a widely admired central city, continues to expand horizontally; so do most European cities.

The chief challenge of the coming decades will not be to control sprawl but rather to add to it the ingredients of urbanity: density, walkability and variety. Large shopping malls have started to combine retail, hotels and entertainment, but they should add apartment buildings; office parks need restaurants. Residential neighborhoods should have a variety of housing, apartments as well as houses, corner stores as well as townhouses. The key to a successful urban environment is to create what real estate developers call a 24-hour place, combining residential, office, retail and entertainment uses in relatively close proximity to produce bustle and activity. That is what makes downtown Vancouver, San Francisco and midtown New York City so attractive. The town of Markham, a quintessential new urban area outside Toronto, is currently building a new town centre to create a concentrated, mixed-use downtown district. If successful, this could be the model of how to create a sense of urbanity in the new city.

Then there is the question of how we should get around. Cities have

traditionally grown up around a single mode of transportation: walking, the horse-drawn omnibus, the streetcar, the bus, or the commuter railroad. The new city has grown up around the automobile. As with every transportation technology, there are problems: chiefly, environmental pollution and congestion. Environmental pollution, already vastly reduced by catalytic converters, will cease to be an issue with a new generation of electric and energy-conserving cars. Congestion will continue, however, and while high-occupancy lanes, toll roads and parking fees may constrain traffic, the ultimate solution is to reduce automobile usage. We now have many transportation modes, and we should make use of them all. Small-scale mass transit to link shopping malls and office parks; on-demand mini-buses for longer trips; light rail to service farflung residential communities; and automobiles for the periphery. The architect and planner Moshe Safdie has suggested that instead of owning cars, people could rent utility vehicles when necessary. These cars would be activated by a credit card and widely available—picked up and dropped off like a shopping cart.

The relocation of manufacturing, the attraction of new smaller cities, and the emergence of new cities on the metropolitan fringe have had a major effect on many older cities, particularly in the United States. De spite vigorous metropolitan growth, many have lost employment, pop-

illation and wealth. As tax bases shrink, municipal services deteriorate and more people leave. Detroit, St. Louis and Newark, N.J., for example, have declined so far that entire neighborhoods resemble modern-day ghost towns.

Large cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore soldier on, but they have become concentrations of poverty rather than of middleclass prosperity. Canadian cities have been largely insulated from these trends. Uniform provincial education, a redistributive tax system and a stronger safety net have created a degree of urban stability. Consequently, our cities are safer, cleaner and better managed.

But complacency is unwarranted. The recent decline of Montreal is a cautionary example of what happens to a city when it is affected by instability—in this case, political. As the economy becomes increasingly buffeted by international forces, other Canadian cities, too, will face an uncertain future.

Cities have to adapt. Adapting does not mean reviving manufacturing—that day is past.

Rather, cities have to invent new roles for themselves. Toronto and San Francisco, for example, are important banking centres, rapidly becoming second-tier global cities; Boston specializes in financial services. In certain fields, such as banking, print and electronic media, and the creative design professions, face-to-face contact and the concentration of supporting services remain assets that downtowns can provide. And a prosperous metropolitan region can support a central city—if it is attractive enough. This has happened with Silicon Valley and San Francisco, Microsoft and Seattle, and the high-tech industries of Route 128 and Boston.

Traditional downtowns may not be the cheapest or most convenient places to do business, but their historic districts, converted waterfronts, and concentrations of cultural institutions and amenities make them not only engaging places in which to live, but also interesting places to visit. This has led to the revival of Times Square in New York, the proliferation of theatres in Toronto and the appearance of every conceivable sort of urban museum, from contemporary art to rock and roll. Some critics pooh-pooh urban tourism as if were inauthentic or insubstantial; tell that to the Venetians who have been servicing tourists for 300 years. Vancouver is a sort of playground for the Pacific Rim. If that sounds trivial, it isn’t. In many cities, tourism is currently the major industry. Even New York and London depend heavily on income from holidaying visitors; so does Paris, which attracts more than 20 million tourists a year.

Once cities made textiles, rubber tires and machine tools; exporting fun requires no less inventiveness and expertise. It is not enough merely to build a performing arts centre and hang banners from the lampposts, as many faltering downtowns do. The tourist must enjoy the entire urban experience: walking down the street, riding the subway, being in a crowd, sitting in the park. Only those cities that offer this full range of “services” in a safe, clean and pleasant environment will thrive.

Cities have always competed with each other. In the past, they did so on the basis of a good deep-water port, an advantageous geographic location, or proximity to natural resources. The competition among cities for tourists and conventioneers depends on different attractions: climate, interesting architecture, urban amenities, beautiful natural settings and charm. It is a crowded field in which there will be a few winners and many losers. Obviously, not all old cities are equally blessed. In the past, a city that could not compete nationally had at least a future as a regional centre. Today, the tourist and the conventioneer have many choices. If not Montreal, then Las Vegas; if not Vancouver, Walt Disney World.

Some cities will be prosperous, well-managed and attractive places. Many people will choose to live in cities; many more to visit them. Yet

a future decline in the importance of our cities is inevitable. Big cities no longer dominate cultural and economic life. Computers come from suburban San Jose, Calif., and software is developed in places like Redmond, Wash., a small city outside Seattle, or on the outskirts of Ottawa. The ascendant urban form is the metropolitan region, and within this region the city will be but one of many centres. No doubt, it will be advantageous for a metropolitan region to include a thriving central city, but it will not be essential. Cities will have to make their own way.

Incidentally, in making their way cities should not necessarily strive to enter the select club of what economists call global cities. Currently, there are three fully paid-up members: New York, London and Tokyo (the waiting list includes Los Angeles and Hong Kong). Global cities dominate international finance and are also leaders in high-value commercial and residential real estate, luxury hotels and four-star restaurants. They are undoubtedly centres of personal wealth. But they lead a precarious existence. Depending on financial markets is risky, as New York will find if the stock market hits an extended low. Nor does an international role insulate a city from local economic pressures, as has recently been demonstrated in Tokyo. Unlike the great trading cities of the 16th century, global cities are not independent city-states.

Urban sprawl is not only physical; it represents the sprawl of urban values. But this expansion has come at a cost—at least to the traditional city. The basis for city life was always the distinction between the city and the much more populous countryside, between urbanity and provincialism, between the city slicker and the hayseed. Big city newspapers still talk about “the city” and “the suburbs” as if they were two different worlds. They aren’t. Cities today no longer display sophistication and urbanity—the kind of glamor that signified city life in the 1920s, when gentlemen wore tuxedos to dinner and ladies wore gloves and hats in the afternoon. Elitist, you say? Of course it was. The modern city is more democratic, but it is also considerably cruder and more common. Meanwhile, edge cities spawn restaurants with extensive wine lists, art cinemas and enormous, well-stocked bookstores. A convergence is taking place in the metropolitan area.

More than 25 years ago, the American editor Irving Kristol wrote that modern life was now entirely urban—“whether this life be lived in a central city or a suburb or a small city, or even in those rural areas where something like a third of our population still resides.” This is unprecedented. There have always been cities, but there has never been a civilization that is entirely urban. We are only slowly starting to learn what that means. But one thing is certain: the 20th century will be the last age of singular cities. We are all urbanites now. □