SJ’s ‘Iron Ring’ to combat sprawl

This article originally appeared in Spacing, a national magazine about urban issues, in the spring of 2013. An updated version is re-posted here because of the ongoing debate about ZoneSJ. Council will host a “teach-in” during next Monday’s session on the zoning document that will implement the policy principles laid out in Plan SJ. It will hold a vote on the zoning plan that will guide development in the city for decades.

Saint John is a rural city in many ways, as I discovered on a bike ride outside the urban core one summer day a few years ago. Just beyond the suburban neighbourhoods in the eastern part of the city, the sidewalks disappear, the houses are set further apart, and roadways snake around small lakes and heavily forested land. On that bike ride, I passed a promotional sign for a special care home that captures the spirit of a rural area in close proximity to urban amenities: “Country living in the city.”

photo (5)For a developer, that kind of catch phrase is a sales pitch aimed at residents that want the best of city and country living. For the proponents of smart growth, it’s an obvious sign of a sprawl problem that’s actually more pronounced here than in many other cities across the country.

Sprawl is far worse than other cities

Just how much worse is the problem here? Saint John has 70,063 people (2011 census) in an area that’s about 315 square kilometres. In nearby Moncton, there are 69,074 people in an area less than half that size. In Peterborough, ON, there are 78,698 people in an area that’s even smaller – 63.80 square kilometres.

The city finally has a plan to address sprawl – a national award-winning one that’s still in the early stages of implementation. PlanSJ, which was passed by city council in 2012, creates a primary development zone that encompasses urban and suburban neighbourhoods in the centre of the city.

PlanSJ advocates tout the smart-growth, feel-good benefits of restricting development to the urban core, ideas that have taken root in cities across North America. They envision densely populated neighbourhoods where people interact at street level, and live within walking distance of everything, or have easy, affordable access to public transit.

The ‘Iron Ring’ of development

Mayor Mel Norton shares this vision; he moved to the city centre so he could walk everywhere. But he said mainly driven by the potential savings for a city that provides infrastructure and services for homes and businesses along the city’s 760 kilometres of roadways.

“One of the councillors refers to the primary development area as an ‘iron ring’,” said Norton in an interview in early 2013. “It’s meant to constrain sprawl; to grow a density that can be highly serviced at a very competitive rate.”

PlanSJ had a comprehensive public engagement process that included public meetings and workshops, and storefront office in the city centre, so Norton was confident the public would be largely onside with the new plan. I was present at many of the sessions myself, and never witnessed any opposition to the plan.

Critics emerge when ‘rubber hits the road’

The public may still be largely onside, but the critics sure came out when the rubber hit the road, so to speak, with the planned implementation of Zone SJ. At a public hearing in September, some angry residents and property developers told councillors the new city-wide zoning bylaw, which is based on the policy guidelines laid out in PlanSJ, would scuttle their plans for future development.

Council was supposed to hold a vote on ZoneSJ is mid-October, but it will now be next week before it is even debated again. Council has scheduled a “teach-in” for the Nov. 3rd session. It will then decide when to proceed with a vote.

Planning development at the local level

photo (4)If ZoneSJ is passed, the next step will be developing individual plans at the neighbourhood level; this process will involved a new round of consultations involving residents and interest groups. “It will give those folks a real voice to help shape future development in their areas,” said Norton in our interview last year.

The city will face additional challenges implementing the new plan, though. Much of the housing stock in the urban core dates back at least 100 years and is in poor condition. There are currently no plans to strengthen existing incentive programs, in the form of tax relief or increased grants, for doing costly renovations on these buildings.

However, developers like Historica are demonstrating that you can do quality, commercially viable restoration work to city-centre buildings (one on Princess St. is pictured above). Historica rents apartments in the upper end of the rental market. On the affordable housing front, there have been several new low-income or mixed-income buildings constructed in the city centre in the last decade.

Suburbs need smart-growth too

The neighbouring suburban municipalities also aren’t part of the plan to revitalize the residential neighbourhoods in the city centre, even though this would be a healthy development for the entire region. The suburbs will continue to grow unchecked at the expense of the urban core; the town of Quispamsis, for example, had a 17% population increase between 2006 and 2011.

Many cities concern themselves with sprawl in outlying suburban municipalities. Saint John obviously has that problem too, but Norton is far more concerned with the sprawl inside – not outside – the city limits.

He said the city will continue to service its established rural areas, but future development will take place primarily in the city centre. “Country living in the city” may be a nice sentiment – and an option for some residents – but it’s not a realistic growth plan for the city at large.

Chas’s Challenge: Buy Local Food, Minister

On a beautiful fall afternoon last week, I took the kids out to the Mackay Apple Orchard on the Kingston Peninsula. We picked a couple of bags of apples and played on the beach overlooking the St. John River; the kids even stripped down and went for a swim.

And as always, Chas Mackay wanted to talk a little politics. Specifically, he wanted to discuss his idea for the incoming Agriculture Minister in the Brian Gallant Liberal government, which will be sworn in Oct. 7. I turned on my iPad and recorded his two-minute pitch (you can watch it above). Mackay wants the new minister to buy food produced here as an example for people in the rest of the province.

“Maybe he could get other people doing the same thing, and he’d also have a better feel for his job,” says Mackay. “Agriculture doesn’t need money to promote food. We need a face, and that face is the Minister of Agriculture.”

In our interview, Mackay cited some statistics he’d read in an article years ago. He read that if we increased our consumption of local food by 10 per cent, we would create 3,000 new jobs. I couldn’t track down those stats through web searches and conversations with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and the provincial Department of Agriculture.

Most food came from here 40 years ago; almost none does now

But I did find an article that cited numbers which illustrated the province’s movement toward consuming mostly imported food. In the 1970s, 75 per cent of the food we consumed was produced in the province; now, 95 per cent of our food comes from outside the province.

In recent years, there has an increased emphasis on supporting local growers and producers. The Conservation Council has an ongoing Buy Local campaign, and is building an online directory of local food resources in the province. There are also a growing number of farmers markets and small stores that feature local food, and businesses like Real Food Connections that connect consumers with local producers and producers.

The provincial government has also launched its own Buy Local Initiative and made “value-added food” one of six priority growth sectors. Of course, this strategy was developed by the outgoing Progressive Conservative government, so we’ll have to see where it ranks with the incoming Liberal one. The Liberals did commit to developing a local food and beverages strategy to help growers and producers in their election platform (page 18).

Of course, for the purposes of this post, Mackay is mainly interested in the Minister setting a personal example for people to follow. He even suggests that the minister’s spouse help advance the cause by publishing on a web site recipes using mainly New Brunswick ingredients. Mackay says this most likely would be the wife of a male minister, and he may ultimately be right given that only four of Gallant’s 27 MLAs are women.

I’ll start cooking local now, get a jump on the Minister

But more men are assuming responsibility for cooking these days, including me – a stay-home-dad and, for better or worse, the primary cook in the family. I’ll take up the challenge before a new minister is even in place. For the next month, I’ll do an audit of our family’s food shopping habits, and see how we can eat more affordable, local food grown and produced here.

I have what I need for many desserts with 10 pounds of apples from Mackay’s farm. I’ll hit nearby stores, markets and our community garden plot for everything else I need, and let you know how it goes. I may even share a recipe or two with you.


Tom Connors

Out of the Cold with Stompin’ Tom

It was a March evening at the Out of the Cold men’s shelter at Grace Presbyterian Church. The guys were just settling in for the night. Volunteers had given them bedding and pillows for their cots, and served them hot coffee and a warm meal.

As was often the custom, some of them had come to the lobby before bed to chat with volunteers. We had all just learned that Saint John native Stompin’ Tom Connors had died that day.

Some of the men were old enough to remember his early years in the city, and I listened to them swap stories about seeing him in shops and on the streets.In particular I remember them talking about Connors playing guitar and singing on a bench in Queen Square.

Stompin’ Tom grew up poor in Saint John. His family was evicted from apartments for not paying rent, and his teenage mother sometimes stole or begged for food. As a struggling young musician traveling the country, he would sometimes get arrested for vagrancy, and welcome the warm place to sleep at night.

Though Connors eventually became rich and famous, perhaps these guys could relate to a man who had once struggled like they did; or maybe they were they were just like everyone else in Saint John proud of a native son who hit it big. This night was typical of many I’ve spent at the shelter over the last three years.

Yes, volunteers are mainly responsible for things like signing in the men, setting up the cots, and preparing and serving the meals. But it’s a relaxed and social environment. Over coffee and bowls of chili, we’ve talked about everything from religion, politics, good movies and books.

We still take a professional approach to the operation of the shelter, and don’t pry into personal lives of the men who stay there. But this intimate setting helps us – me, anyway – see these men as regular people, in a way that’s often not possible when they’re asking for spare change on street corners.

I don’t mean to gloss over the very real challenges these guys face – mental and physical health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, severe poverty caused by chronic unemployment or family break up – or suggest that a warm meal and a good night’s sleep in a welcoming, respectful environment will solve all their problems.

They need long-term housing options, mental health and addictions services, a job or education and training programs to help them get one. But getting them out of the cold on a winter night is a good first step.

When Stompin’ Tom Connors died last March, his family asked people across the country to donate to a local food bank or homeless shelter in his name. Out of the Cold takes financial donations, but needs people to give of their time too. It operates seven days a week for three months, and needs dozens of volunteers to cover evening and overnight shifts and prepare food.

Because I enjoyed being at the shelter, I often forgot I was providing a valuable service to someone. One night, as I was on my way out the door, one of the men called out, “Thank you for the work you do.” I didn’t know what to say. I just smiled and said, “No problem. See you next week.”

For more information about volunteering with Out of the Cold, please contact Jillian Driscoll by e-mail:


4 Reasons Why I Hope Amalgamation Never Happens (Again) in Saint John

Amalgamation of Saint John, Quispamsis, Rothesay, and Grand Bay-Westfield (itself an amalgamation as evidenced by the hyphen) is a bad idea but it keeps coming up as a cure-all for what ails us now.

I understand the logic of its proponents (and used to be one): it will bring all those suburbanites who fled for lower taxes, a monoculture of middle-class socio-economic bliss, and fog-free Junes back into the city to help solve (and pay for) our current urban problems. I think it is a blunt instrument from a Stephen Harper-like tool kit that ignores the nuances of community building and the realities of what that forced marriage would do.

1. Amalgamation is why we’re in the mess we’re now in

Simonds, Loch Lomond, Carleton, Lancaster, Fairville, and Saint John were all separate communities at one time. There may have been more, I don’t know, I’m not a historian. But I do know that our city was never meant to be this big.

Saint John is now one of Canada’s largest municipalities, geographically covering a massive footprint that takes 25 minutes to drive, end to end, at 110km/h. With a shrinking population we were stuck with supporting a sprawling infrastructure while our population shrunk (not anymore – we’re growing again now!).

We plow long rural roads, provide emergency and police services across a huge area with urban, suburban, and rural characteristics, and protect our people from some of the most sophisticated industrial assets in the world. None of these challenges exist for any of our neighbours and it is a result of amalgamation in the past. One city, many challenges thanks to our wise predecessors.

2. Suburbanites don’t seem to understand shared interest

Every second Monday night you can visit City Hall and see a collection of elected people grapple with understanding our urban vs. sprawl issues, poverty, safety, and infrastructure challenges, and above all, how to improve the quality of life for such a diverse group. What benefit would there be to add to that group a bunch of representatives of people who don’t understand the challenges of a diverse population and have not been grappling with what it takes to raise a phoenix from the ashes?

Saint Johners don’t want to isolate and marginalise our poor. We don’t want to expand roads and approve more surface parking and more drive-thrus, and we want to enable and expand our industrial base (albeit in a greener, more neighbourhood-friendly way than in the past). I’m not saying suburbanites are a cold-hearted or simple people, but solutions to city problems are not quick and easy, and the issues are layered.

For example, when our Mayor recently proposed disbanding all policing services across our region and starting fresh with a new regional force that would provide better services for all at a lower cost for all, he wasn’t just rejected by our neighbours, he was mocked. What a silly idea, they said. Why would the happy communities of the burbs join a (perceived) mismanaged police force of the City? They weren’t listening. The proposal wasn’t to “join” it was to start fresh and collaborate, but that concept was lost on our neighbours who believe our city is just too dysfunctional to be a good partner on a core service. We’re in this together but that notion seems to come quicker to urbanites.

And do you remember the old Qplex debate between Rothesay and Quispamsis a few years ago? I rest my case.

For many suburbanites, the next step beyond leaving the city is to leave the province entirely. The average human lives 80 years and not everyone wants to make the world better in that time, they just want to enjoy it. Fair enough. As any dialogue on the subject will show, the reasons why many suburbanites give for fleeing to the suburbs amount to the negatives simply outweighing the positives for them.

Simply put: renewal and rebuilding is in our DNA and not so much in our neighbours’. Those who live in the suburbs who care for the city and our challenges are here to help us now, thankfully, and don’t need a governmental union to do more.

3. Amalgamation alienates government from the people

Municipal government is the layer of government that should be closest to the people. The bigger we make our city the less familiar our representatives will be with what their constituents need and want. For the small amount that will be saved with less government we will lose other efficiencies that come with real human familiarity and communication advantages. I just don’t buy the argument that amalgamation will save us money.

4. Collaboration is best fostered by empowered parties

People work together when they are given the choice to work together. When parties are forced to work together, unpleasantness follows. Just ask Toronto and Halifax. You can’t force community, you have to foster it.

But here is one thing I am sure of and it should be a warning to all municipalities and their people: amalgamation will be forced on us if the new regional cooperation model fails. It hasn’t been in place long but, so far, who is impressed?

We’re in this together and we need our neighbours’ understanding, cooperation, and patience. The people we have working to make this city better are awesome and we’re going to blow the rest of the region away with what we achieve over the next decade.

We’ll do it with the help of some of our neighbours for sure. But forcing those who don’t care and don’t want to help to carry this weight is unwise. Amalgamation is a bad idea and I hope it never happens again.


A soundtrack for city living

Over the past few weeks, people have been complaining about the excessive noise coming from the metal recycling facility on the West Side. I agree it got pretty bad, especially for a couple of weeks there. I run a lot so I’m pretty sensitive to the mix of natural and “people-made” sounds in out urban – and suburban – neighbourhoods. Several months ago, I wrote a blog post called Sounds of the City about a run around the city centre. Last week, I recorded a commentary on a similar theme for CBC Radio. It aired September 20th on Information Morning. You can hear the commentary, archived on the CBC site. I’ve also pasted below the text of that piece, but do listen to it if you can for the background sound woven through the piece.

By Mark Leger

I recently went for a long run on a Sunday morning, from the uptown to the east side and back. Just after seven, I passed through Champlain Heights. The streets were empty except for a man walking his dog.

This is usually the time of day I can hear the birds chirp – with no trucks, cars and other sounds of the city to drown them out. But in Champlain Heights, even at the eastern-most edge, I heard a low, but steady rumble of the oil refinery in operation.

I don’t know if this noise is a regular occurrence, or if it bothers anyone who lives there. In the past, the focus has mostly been on air quality issues. But I get a lot of time to think on a two-hour-run, especially on quiet weekend mornings. And listening to the hum of the refinery made me think about the noise from recycling facility on the Lower West Side.

There have been several news stories in recent weeks about residents bothered by the racket.

And it does seem the noise has been especially bad lately. I usually tune it out myself, but couldn’t the last two weeks.

On one afternoon in particular, it was hot and sunny and I was playing with the kids in our uptown backyard. We watched the cruise ship leave the harbour and then had supper on our picnic table underneath the apple tree.

When there’s not much ambient noise, we hear the birds chirp. But that day the crushing and colliding sounds created a metal soundtrack for this otherwise idyllic scene.

A lot people say this is just part of life in an industrial city; that it will eventually become white noise – something we all tune out most of the time.

It’s true that residents have lived amongst industry for generations here. And It’s certainly part of the city’s historic character.

But the city has to think carefully about how to balance new industrial development in the core with the shifting values of the residential population.

In PlanSJ, city leaders identify rebuilding the urban core as a top priority. This can’t happen unless more middle- and upper-income earners move back into the city centre neighbourhoods.

For 50 years now, they have been leaving for the suburbs – in part, to escape the industrial activity in the city centre.

I love my neighbourhood, metal-shredding facility and all. And I’m sure most people in Champlain Heights feel the same way, even with the refinery there.

But many people in the region don’t, and it keeps them from wanting to live here.

Maybe who don’t live in Champlain Heights are ok with the refinery because they’re like me, just passing through on a morning run.

Maybe people who don’t live in the city centre are fine with the metal-shredder because they only hear it on their lunchtime walk on Harbour Passage.

Most of them return to the quiet of the suburbs at the end of the day.

Then again, the suburbs aren’t always the peaceful places I make them out to me. This past Sunday, I went for a long run to Hampton through the Kennebecasis Valley. I didn’t hear many birds chirp with the steady sound of traffic on the Rothesay Road and Old Hampton Highway.