The future is multi-nodal
My last Record column this year evaluates the idea of the central business district in the context of Waterloo Region, and (of course) again discusses light rail. Hopefully it isn’t too unfocused:
The Future is Multi-Nodal
Commentary on the light rail transit project reveals a common but outdated assumption that a city should have a central business district (CBD) — an area of downtown that no one lives in, but many commute to from the suburbs. A frequent argument against the project is that downtown Kitchener isn’t a large enough CBD and that there aren’t enough people commuting in. But the whole concept of a central business district is a thing of the past, and light rail does not need a large CBD to make sense. The future lies in urban areas composed of multiple dense nodes connected by high-quality transportation — which happens to be exactly what Waterloo Region is planning for.
Cities once contained housing in addition to commerce and industry. When streetcar lines were started, they moved people within the city, but they also opened up the suburbs for residential development that promised tranquility and fresh air. Later, the availability of cars and cheap fuel together with massive post-war highway and road development led to suburban flight on a larger scale. Commerce also followed the highways and set up shop in suburban malls. Only jobs remained, producing the classic CBD — where commuters stay from 9 to 5, leaving an empty city every evening. But those long commutes aren’t healthy for our cities, and an office monoculture is not conducive to urban living.
Most of Waterloo Region’s growth has occurred after the post-war years, and many jobs are located in suburban office parks. So we have no reason to cling to the notion of a CBD — it just doesn’t apply. But that’s not a bad thing. Instead of jobs clustering in any single downtown, many destinations and much employment have fortunately clustered along a reasonably dense linear corridor.
It’s not just jobs, either — many people now want to live in urban places. It turns out that the suburbs with their traffic, limited access, and manufactured sameness aren’t always so great. People don’t want to have to drive everywhere. They want to be able to walk or take the train to work, and walk to a diversity of stores and restaurants. They want lively streets and public spaces. In order to get there, we need complete neighbourhoods — areas that have different land uses in walking distance of each other.
The model is for dense, complete communities along a high-capacity transportation spine, and for buses along cross-corridors to connect lower-density areas with the spine. This is good for the environment, for taxpayers, and for quality of life. People can walk for many of their trips, using less infrastructure and contributing to better health. With people travelling in a multitude of patterns, trains don’t run empty in any direction — especially when downtowns or malls anchor the ends of the line. They have enough demand to run frequently throughout the day and evening, allowing commuters to feel confident leaving their cars at home.
Instead of new growth taking place as further sprawl or as haphazard development throughout the region, planning policy guides it to occur along major transit corridors. The growth takes place where it produces mostly transit riders on a high-capacity train instead of producing more traffic on congested roads, and where it uses existing utilities. Instead of draining the city’s resources on sprawling infrastructure, such growth benefits the city through increased liveliness and economic productivity.
I am proud that Waterloo Region is looking to the future and planning a more sustainable urban form. The Region’s new official plan, new transportation master plan, and the proposed light rail system are the key steps by which we will escape the cul-de-sac of the hollowed-out suburban ideal.
Addendum: This isn’t my last column after all. Turns out I get another column in December!