St. John’s is taking up more and more space, but at what cost? The Walkable City author Mary Soderstrom says urban sprawl is pushing cities like St. John’s in an unsustainable direction.
By Kerri Breen
While the population of St. John’s grew 4.7 per cent between 2001 and 2006, population density per kilometre increased by just under one per cent. The city is getting geographically larger as more people are moving in, and Soderstrom thinks it’s a losing situation—and not just for those on foot.
Her new book, The Walkable City, argues that many of the problems pedestrians face in sprawling cities like St. John’s can be solved by moving closer together instead of living in suburbs.
As cities sprawl, infrastructure dollars are spread thinner. The more sidewalk you have, the more sidewalk clearing becomes difficult. The more streets, the more public transportation costs.
“You need to have a certain density to make public transportation work,” she says. “And once you go to sprawl, it’s very hard to desprawl.”
So what is a walkable city, exactly? It’s a city where the built environment—roads, buildings, landscaping—is friendly to the presence of people living, shopping, visiting, or spending time there. Walkable cities—like Toronto’s Annex—are bubbling cultural cores where people live and can do things like shop for groceries.
But here, the last of amenities such as grocery and department stores moved out of the downtown core and deeper in the city in the 90s. And in the last ten years, larger stores have been popping up in places that are difficult to get to on foot.
Walkable cities can sometimes happen by accident, and less walkable cities are sometimes made more walkable by drastic measures. Soderstrom’s book talks about Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the man who tore down Paris in the mid-1800s and rebuilt it to the walkable supercity it is today.
Just as Haussmann was motivated by Napoleon’s interest in making Paris more modern, Soderstrom sees walkable cities as necessary for modern living.
“There is an elephant in the room and that is the dependence on petroleum,” she says. “And while the pressure is off for the moment, and we aren’t thinking about this, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to live in a sprawling situation and in that case I think the attraction of living closer to together is going to make a lot of people change their minds.”
The Walkable City, which was released on Sept. 22, is Soderstrom’s third book about environmental issues.
Making cities more walkable is not always easy. “It’s a big democratic exercise and it can take a long time,” she says.
The first step is to start talking about walkable cities and how they can enhance residents’ quality of life. People need to talk about the pleasure of walking, too, Soderstrom says.
“There’s a critical mass. What you need to do is get the word out among the people about what happens if you are too dependent on the automobile and then you’ve got to educate the elected officials.”
Though St. John’s was not one of the cities she examines in the book, Soderstrom visited St. John’s in the ‘70s, and seems optimistic that the city can become more walkable.
“You’ve got some great things there, and I’m sure that you can arrange things so that you can maintain the good parts and work around the sprawl.”
“People really, really do want a little bit of nature to call their own, for all kinds of reasons which go back to our roots as human beings,” she says.
But the problem is that these things inadvertently put a strain on the environment.
“The way we’ve done it particularly in North America it’s sort of a green paradox,” she says. “In trying to have a little bit of nature for our own we tend to have paved everything over.”
“A suburban house with a garden requires a great deal of space, and to get there you need to have lots of highways and you need to have parking places where you live and parking places where you go to work, and parking places where you go to school and parking places where you shop—it’s almost counter-productive.”