Saturday, January 7, 2012

Jan. 7: I awoke about seven.....

showered, dressed, and took the stairs down to the ground floor (I could have taken the elevator; but I wanted the exercise so I could become beautiful again); walked out the front door, hung a right for some ten metres, and turned into a supermarket to get some cereal and milk. Next door to it was my opitician's office and next to that my bank. If I had turned left I would have passed a clothing store, then a delightful boutique of toys for big boys with items like real, steam powered train sets. Like most streets in the city, it also had several restaurants.The whole street around me was as varied and handy as a shopping mall. Most streets in Hong Kong were like that, bustling with variety, interest and convenience.

I didn't notice any hockey arenas or convention centres. Most streets seemed to do very well without them. What made the "main streets" so vibrant was their density of population in high rise apartments. Few people  owned or needed cars. (There were traffic jams on the roads, but not because people needed cars. Mass transportation was cheap and efficient. But those who could afford cars drove them for prestige; and in a densely populated city of eight million or so, it doesn't take a high proportion of car owners to make a traffic jam.)

For contrast, think of how far most people in Moncton would have to stroll to do any shopping. Block after block of single family houses, duplexes and triplexes make that pretty impossible. Even on a shopping street like Mountain Road, the large areas required to park cars make a winter stroll pretty unattractive.

Moncton, like virtually all North American cities, is designed for cars. Not for people.

Have you noticed how many recent wars have been fought in countries that have oil? Noticed the eagerness of oil companies to produce oil at ever greater risks - massive pollution in Alberta? High environmental risk areas like the seas and the Arctic? Fuel sources both expensive and dangerous like shale gas?

There will come a point when we cannot pollute enough, or pay enough, or war enough to support our reliance on fossil fuels. Moncton, like other cities, is built on a plan that, whatever we want or think, is going to break down. Next rush hour while you're idling your engine in traffic, think of fuel at two dollars a ltire - five dollars -more.

The private car, always monstrously expensive as a means of transporting people will soon be, quite simply, beyond our means. Think of that on your drive back from shopping as you pass kilometres of bungalows and lawns and parking lots. Think of walking those kilometres with your month's groceries.

Think of the expense of building and maintaining all those kilometres of sewers, water mains, sidewalks and roads. Think of a future - very soon - when we simply will not be able to afford this. It's coming. In fact, it's already beginning.

You figure we have 200 million to spare? And what we need most of all is a hockey rink? With a big parking lot?  It won't work. It hasn't worked anywhere else; and it won't work here. But - spend a fraction of that on apartment housing and you'll give downtown Moncton what it needs to put shops and restaurants and move theatres on Main St. - people. You'll get people who want to use the shops and restaurants every day, people who will be happy to live on a street designed for people rather than cars.

Moncton will survive quite well without a new hockey rink. But survival will be much tougher in a city designed for cars.

I would not suggest super high-rise, egg box apartments. (I remember too well the one in Hong Kong that was reputed to be the most densely populated spot on earth.) But city council with imagination could tap into the ideas of apartment building pioneered at Expo 67, with small, private garden areas for each apartment, with community facilities, and (unlike the Expo 67 model) with ground floors designed for commerce.

Alas! Moncton's politicians and business leaders seem to be able think only of special events and a quck buck. Neither of those will solve either the problem of a sprawling city or the problem of a dying main street.

Why is their thinking so short term and so little related to the needs of the people who live here? We'll take a look at that on Monday.

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