Unrolling the Sidewalks

Prediction, as many an embarrassed economist will attest, is a mug’s game. Forecasting a real estate future that will emerge from the unpredictable stew of economic, political and social trends is hardly going to be less risky. Nonetheless, each fall the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and PriceWaterhouse Copper (PwC) issue dual Emerging Trends in Real Estate reports covering Canada and the U.S. While its 36th iterations released last October could not forsee the implications of oil’s collapse for Canadian cities, the subsequent major media buzz centred on the significance of the identified arrival of the “18-hour city”…at least in the American coverage.

Perhaps because no emerging 18-hour Canadian cities were identified in the Emerging Trends report, Canadian media coverage largely rephrased the trend as simply a movement to city living. But what is an “18-hour city” and how does the categorization apply to our Canadian context? The Canadian edition begins with the bold statement that urbanization is “part of the new normal of Canadian real estate” and posits the first of 10 trends as the coming-of-age of the 18-hour city: “Downtown transformations have combined the key ingredients of housing, retail offerings, dining, and walk-to-work offices to generate urban cores, spurring investment and development and raising the quality of life for a roster of cities.”

This model of thriving smaller and mid-size cities with growing live/work/play centres, says the report, fits between the major global 24-hour cities that ULI/PwC identified 26 years ago and the once dominate 9-5 cores. PwC’s Mitchell Roschelle has elaborated elsewhere that the three non-physical characteristics of these new centres are high residential population growths lead by, but not exclusively, millennials as well as lower housing costs and lower costs of doing business than larger cities.

Other trends in the report tie directly into the emerging 18-hour city. These include urban-centred demographics, future labour shortages with jobs chasing people, technological impact (including on retail form), the need for cost-efficient infrastructure renewal and re-emerging but more diverse residential demand. The potential for 18-hour centres, however, stretches beyond reborn urban cores to include restructured “edge cities” and intensified, redesigned and walkable suburbia.

Although these ideas are not new, they do provide support from within the development industry for the ideas of Richard Florida and others, now over a decade old, on the “new normal” relationship between the rapidly emerging creative economy and successful cities. Vancouver-based urban theorist Charles Montgomery in his eminently readable but heavily researched book Happy City (2013) believes we have reached a rare moment in history. We teeter, he says, between the status quo and a radical change in the way we live. The American census of 2010/2011 demonstrated that for the first time growth in American cites outstripped that in the suburbs, while recent polls find a majority of Americans prefer walkable live/work/play communities over typical suburbs. Maximum sixteen minute commutes are optimum. Notwithstanding its sunny title, the book’s meticulous summary of evidence-based research paints a very dark assessment of suburbia’s often severe negative impacts on health, family life, children’s development, the environment, social and political engagement as well as the economy and municipal finances. Montgomery outlines the century-long “structuring” of public policy and infrastructure to meet the needs of the automobile before debunking the myth that suburbia was and is the preferred free market option.

The Myth of the 24-Hour City

The idea of the 18-hour city is seen as a less intense version of the so-called 24-hour city, cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, Mumbai, Tokyo and, of course, New York, “the city that never sleeps.” [In fact, New York does sleep. Not only is it ranked only 32nd of all so-called 24-hour cities, other studies indicate it is one of the earliest-to-bed international centres, averages reasonable hours slept and at 2:00 am fully 93 per cent of its inhabitants are in bed.]

Will Straw, professor at McGill University and Head of the Urban Night Project, has built an international network of academics, planners and politicians examining the urban night. He agrees that outside of certain limited areas, these large cities are far from 24/7 hubs. In fact, most top 24-hour cities are in developing economies with Cairo ranked number one (even highly ranked Mumbai has a 1:30 am closing curfew). Conversely, almost all urban centres are 24-hour cities to varying degrees. Nighttime office cleaners, taxi drivers, bakers, medical professionals, industrial shift workers, as well as various elicit professions work through most urban nights. Indeed, Straw says, industrial cities like Hamilton, Ont., when the steel industry was in full swing, was very much a 24-hour working city supported quietly by many all-night support amenities.

Downplaying these “hard” nighttime economies within the 24-hour city equation stems from its focus on entertainment availability, particularly alcohol related. In a 2012 BBC report, Suemedha Sood cited Marion Robert’s findings that, “In the U.K., Europe and Australia, a lot of their ‘24-hourness’ has been about extending entertainment,” while the Institute of Alcohol Studies found that the late-night economic activity of 24-hour cities is largely tied to alcohol consumption. As a consequence, says Straw, far too little effort has been applied by politicians and urban planners to the very real needs of workers in the less glamorous components of the nighttime economy. In particular, this includes public transit, nighttime safety and availability of social services.

In some ways, many major centres are only starting to catch up with industrial cities as commercial and financial services move into a globally connected economy operating across many time zones. Richard Joy, executive director of the Urban Land Institute Toronto points out that in high cost real estate cities it can now be more productive to expand time rather than space, that there “are greater margins on either sides of the day to ensure greater productivity.” Frank Magliocco, partner at PwC Canada and advisor on the Emerging Trends report, says that generally we do not yet have the 24-hour office but there is growing connectivity that increasingly bleeds over from standard daytime working hours.

Reconsidering the Complexity of the Long-day City

Interestingly, Magliocco identifies only Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal and perhaps Calgary as 18-hour (but not 24-hour) Canadian cities. Instead, I believe it is useful to posit a more nuanced and complex “long-day/seven-day city paradigm.” First are the major, usually traditional and international cities that often escaped the full hollowing-out process of the post war period. Already they boast strong integrated residential/commercial/retail/business services/entertainment/culture forms that ensure active life extends well into, if not necessarily totally through the night. Second are dynamic urban centres, usually regional, that are consciously consolidating their status as diverse, integrated urban entities. The additional key attribute that often separates these centres from the first is their lower cost of housing and of doing business. In smaller cities, there may also be greater sector focus within their economies. Also of note, however, cities from the first category such as London, New York or Toronto continue major investments in further intensification and diversification. Finally are the many sub or edge cities surrounding larger centres that are only starting — or hoping to start — movement toward more balanced urbanization.

All three types face similar issues, although at different levels. Some include:

  • Transportation: Both taming the car and ensuring connectivity through public transit into and through the night is a challenge. Most existing and developing long-day cities in North America continue to grapple with severe congestion and appalling pedestrian landscapes. At the same time, most struggle to invest in transit infrastructure capable of handling both daytime commutes and increasingly demanded service throughout the night. Equally important has been the limited success of past transit oriented development (TOD) to produce desired development. Those edge cities that will be successful, says Magliocco will be those that are transit oriented.
  • Conflict, Regulation and Governance: Dense, mixed-use development contributes increasing conflict when noise from nighttime entertainment and traffic disrupts residential neighbourhoods. As millennials choose to retain their downtown lives as they develop families and as older baby boomers relocate from the suburbs, this will remain a contentious issue. Conflict over gentrification, says Straw, has moved from opposition to closing old shops to who owns the night. While in the past people of the night have often been invisible, underpaid and marginally governed (often only through policing), as more people work at night they are demanding their rights in terms of transportation and safety as well as recognition within legal and regulatory structures. He cites the rise of informal and formal “night mayors” in such cities as Paris and Amsterdam as well as European centres with official “night offices” as a means to handle this conflict.
  • Lighting: While improving the quality of the urban night (including safety) has initiated a revolution in how and how much we light the night, this has conversely raised the negative implications of overwhelming light pollution.
  • Density: Beyond generalities about the need for high density and intensive mixed-use development, the real unresolved debate, from London, New York and Toronto to smaller centres like Hamilton and Ottawa, is appropriate building form. Against developers and some planning departments who never reviewed a building too tall to support, are arrayed those from Denmark’s widely influential Jan Gehl, to Helsinki’s legendary planning department to the research in Montgomery’s book that find height a deterrent to successful, healthy and sustainable cities. This is currently unfolding in Vancouver where downsizing to low- and mid-rise development outside the peninsula is now mandated, and Toronto where more moderate public-led east harbour developments stand in contrast to the overpowering towers of the west rail yards.
  • Urban Form: Even existing long-day cities continue to wrestle with balancing the competing demands of automobiles, pedestrians and cyclists as well as designing dynamic public spaces and public services that work late into the night. In contrast, Strøget, Copenhagen’s weave of pedestrian streets, and the urban library renaissance in Canada are examples of successful after-hours “living rooms” for dense cities. How to design well-scaled, interactive and comfortable urban streetscapes for day and night remains a major weakness for most developers and their architects.
  • Public and Private Services: In Asia, says Straw, night markets and closing only after the last customer leaves has a long tradition. Now, in North America we see commerce from supermarkets to drug stores, from banks to personal services rapidly extending availability into and often through the night. The availability of public services, however, remain very day-oriented.

Canada and the Long-Day City

In Canada, those few cities that fall into that first category, including Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver, were relatively successful in holding their traditional integrated balance immediately following World War II. Through the last decades of the 20th century, the rate of residential, office and cultural expansion in their cores sustained healthy levels and has exploded over the past 25 years.

The third group includes municipalities around Toronto and Vancouver that are at various stages of initiating or implementing urbanization initiatives. Declines in suburban back office investment and public policies like Ontario’s Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2006 and the Greenbelt (as well as transportation gridlock and unsustainable costs of suburban sprawl) are driving edge places like Vaughan, Brampton and Mississauga toward urbanization. Joy agrees that to be competitive and economically vibrant suburban municipalities will have to transition to 18-hour cities. “In talking with officials in Brampton,” he says, “they are desperately seeking to find ways of attracting economic growth by attracting the millennial demographic. Right now they are not succeeding, unlike Hamilton.”

In B.C., limits to sprawl imposed by agricultural reserves, along with Vancouver’s explicit strategy of not facilitating easy vehicle access to its core, has placed municipalities like Richmond City and Surrey at the forefront of this transformation. (Building, June-July 2010). One problem Vancouver’s hot tech start-up sector faces is attracting technical and management talent given the inner city’s infamous house prices. But this might be resolved in part by high quality, mixed use satellite cities.

In the second group, two noticeable Canadian cities are now past the long-day cities tipping point and deserve a closer look.

 Hamilton

Hamilton represents a traditional regional city emerging as a long-day city supported by both living and business cost advantages. Frequently ranked the top Ontario location for real estate investment, a recent Colliers International Report found that Hamilton offered lower rent, taxes, development charges, and cost of living for employees as well as shorter commute times over the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). It also boasted highly skilled labour, robust industrial and office redevelopment opportunities, strong city incentives and well entrenched lifestyle amenities. Michael Marini, marketing coordinator in the Hamilton Economic Development Agency agrees. He bristles at the suggestion that Hamilton lies outside the Toronto/Waterloo “Innovation Corridor.” Instead, like Waterloo Region, a wide spectrum of creative economy professionals and their businesses find that Steeltown offers both clear cost advantages as well as top level post-secondary institutions. While no major corporate offices have yet to relocate, he points to a CBC report that found Hamilton had the most diverse economy in Canada.

This is supported by McMaster University’s heavy investment in the city’s centre including its Continuing Education Program and the David Braley Health Sciences Centre. The latter brings the university’s world renowned teaching/research/delivery family medicine program to the core while adding an impressive architectural component. The city’s Innovation Factory offers a wide range of support for small and medium-sized tech firms while The Forge, located on historic James St. North and managed in conjunction with McMaster, operates as an accelerator program and physical space that takes start-ups and fast tracks them to the point of investment and sales validation.

The David Braley Health Sciences Centre is a new $84.6-million addition to the McMaster campus in downtown Hamilton.
The David Braley Health Sciences Centre is a new $84.6-million addition to the McMaster campus in downtown Hamilton.

The Forge

Concurrently, the downtown is well past the tipping point into being a live/work/play centre. Building permits again exceeding $1 billion this year and 2,000 condominiums are under construction. In addition, say both Marini and Joy, Hamilton has a rich, developed cultural scene supported in terms of urban form by a significant endowment of extant built heritage, something lacking in other 905 centres. Hamilton is also taking a proactive role in developing the potential offered by the West Harbour area on the edge of the core. The city purchased a huge swath of land around this waterfront and is working toward well-scaled mixed-used development based on mid-rises. An eight-storey limit will preserve views, says Marini, and a spar line of the east/west LRT will hook the city into the Harbour-located terminal for the regional GO Train. Major harbor development is expected in 2017-2018 based on partnerships with the private sector. For these reasons and more, Hamilton is well on its way to becoming one of Canada’s top regional creative economy cities with an established long-day lifestyle.

the Bella Tower by Vrancor is one of several new condo projects dotting the skyline.
the Bella Tower by Vrancor is one of several new condo projects dotting the skyline.
Hamilton Waterfront Trolley Stop 2
Hamilton Waterfront Trolley Stop 2

 Calgary

As the results of the Alberta election caution, understanding Calgary’s underlying complexity rather than simply accepting a stereotype of unending, free market sprawl is necessary for predicting its future. The city has sustained a very dense and successful business core with over 160,000 well paid workers. While the oil crisis will slow growth, the city is continuing to add approximately 10 million square feet of new office space. Statistics from the Calgary Economic Development Authority demonstrate considerably “more diversity than there used to be; so that even with the low oil prices we are seeing now, we still have fairly healthy growth,” says community planner Tom Mahler. One result, he adds, is that all the historic downtown department stores are fully occupied.

Just east on the Stephen Avenue Walk is the City’s concentrated Cultural District. “The cultural sector here is quite strong and vibrant, particularly in theatre,” say Mahler, while pointing out that a few years ago a national report showed Calgary had Canada’s highest per capita expenditure on culture. The Calgary Film Centre, National Music Centre and King Edward art incubator are all part of an increasingly sophisticated professional arts community. The striking $168-million Music Centre by Allied Works Architecture will be kitty-corner to Snøhetta’s delightful $245-million library, both under construction.

in Calgary, the New Central Library by Snøhetta + DIALOG is currently under construction.
in Calgary, the New Central Library by Snøhetta + DIALOG is currently under construction.

But does this ensure Calgary’s core is really a long-day city? Yes, says Mahler. “Calgary, never truly lost its inner city communities [and over] the last 10 years there is a very strong trend for residential development within the neighbourhoods surrounding the downtown core. The Beltline [immediately south of the business core] in particular has dramatically increased in population.” Many of the buyers are younger professionals, he says, but there are also empty nesters and retirees moving to rentals and condos downtown. Other communities like Inglewood, Bridgeland, Hillhurst, Sunnyside and Mission (among others) have increasing populations but also a diversity of retail, commercial and entertainment options, in some cases re-establishing long lost tram-line villages. “There used to be two types of activities in those neighbourhoods; one was the nine-to-five and then the nine-to-one late evening,” says Mahler. “There was not a lot going on in the six-to-nine timeframe….[but now] it is about going out for dinner, walking along the sidewalk, and looking at the shops.”

Eau Claire, sandwiched between the business core and the Bow River developed as a new residential community in the 1990s. Now, Regina-based Harvard Developments has received approval for its redevelopment of the area’s existing Market Mall. The architecturally sculpted design with 2.5-million-square-foot of public plazas, bridges and five towers (Perkins+Will Canada/MBAC) will include 1,000 residential units, 800,000 square feet of office space, and 550,000 square feet for retail.

Harvard Developments is transforming the Eau Claire Market site in downtown Calgary into a primarily residential mixed-use area over several years.
Harvard Developments is transforming the Eau Claire Market site in downtown Calgary into a primarily residential mixed-use area over several years.

Also important, although most of these communities are within walking distance of the business and cultural districts, they are also interconnected to one another and to the core by LRT transit. Around the new underground Westbrook LRT station, just a couple of kilometres west of the downtown, the city has leased its land around the station to a large developer for a proper TOD project.

And forget eastern stereotypes of a strictly free market Calgary. In 2002 city council approved plans for The Bridges, a 14.9 hectare redevelopment of the Calgary General Hospital grounds and surrounding municipal-owned land just north of the Bow River. While the subsequent implementation of the award winning plan has experienced fits and starts, “the population is now growing again, there is a strong retail mix and what I would call local restaurants are increasing,” says Mahler.

An equally dramatic innovation was the creation of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) in 2007 with the city as the sole shareholder. Its activist mandate is to revitalize the Rivers District, in particular the city’s original heart known as the East Village neighbourhood. Eight years later, progress has been remarkable. With $357 million of infrastructure now in place, the massive 19.8 hectare East Village development between the business core and Fort Calgary is well into implementation. Working from the 2008 international competition winning plan by British firm Broadway Malyan, the CMLC has built public squares, overseen commercial adaptation of a major historic building and constructed RiverWalk (including the striking redevelopment of St. Patrick’s Island). The last is a major, high-end design investment along the Elbow and Bow Rivers that links Fort Calgary, inner city communities and the business core through multiple pedestrian bridges, walking/bike paths, as well as memorable riverside gathering places.

Working from the 2008 international competition winning plan by British firm Broadway Malyan, the CMLC has built public squares, overseen commercial adaptation of a major historic building and constructed RiverWalk (including the striking redevelopment of St. Patrick’s Island).
Working from the 2008 international competition winning plan by British firm Broadway Malyan, the CMLC has built public squares, overseen commercial adaptation of a major historic building and constructed RiverWalk (including the striking redevelopment of St. Patrick’s Island).
a $6-million repurposing of the 1912 Simmons Building by McKinley Burkart into gastro-retail has just completed.
a $6-million repurposing of the 1912 Simmons Building by McKinley Burkart into gastro-retail has just completed.

To date, $2.4 billion of private sector investment has been committed, which will result in approximately $725 million flowing to the city from the Community Revitalization Levy (CRL). The first of numerous mixed-used condominium projects, hotels and other commercial buildings are well into construction, many along the Riff pedestrian street that cuts diagonally across the full site’s traditional street grid. “This area,” adds Mahler, “will become a major destination area for all parts of the city.”

 A Long Day’s Journey into Night

The number of Canadian cities with cores already far from dead by 6:00pm is not insignificant; even if, as Frank Magliocco maintains, they are not yet attractive to major “institutional investors.” Victoria, with its spectacularly rehabilitated harbour neighbourhoods and growing tech sector; Winnipeg with its steady growth, cultural strengths and actively urban University of Winnipeg (Building, August/September 2011); and Waterloo Region (Building, February/March 2015) are a few creative examples. Whether speaking with Magliocco or Joy from the private side or with Mahler and Marini from the public sector, improved collaboration will be crucial. The public sector as developer-partner will likely also be a given. Rather than simply a trend, the “long-day city” is an imperative for the future if strong diverse economies within healthy sustainable cities are the objective.

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