Regina’s downtown is doomed if it goes down the familiar North American path.
Regina is a growing city. You hear this proclamation frequently from the mouths of our elected officials. As a testament to this, look no further than our growing subdivisions. I admit that I know of only two, Harbour Landing and Coopertown; I have never seen the Greens on Gardiner. Yet they all point to a fact of growth in Regina: people prefer to live outside the city. Although the push for better downtown living is being revived in major cities, that call evades Regina. Our downtown remains deserted after 5pm, with only Atlantis Coffee Island providing a beacon of nightlife in the deserted downtown ocean. I actually find it depressing that the government has to intervene to make downtown interesting rather than, say, building more low-income housing or infrastructure to support these suburbs. And yet, I cannot deny that subdivision growth is popular with people because it offers people things that they want. People want their own yard where they can set up a barbecue and a place far away from the constant traffic of Albert and Broad Streets. And yet, I believe that there is another reason that people prefer the suburbs to the city centre, and it is one that advocates of downtown living would do well to understand. I believe that the suburbs will remain popular so long as the processes of gentrification remain active.
By gentrification, I mean the processes by which developers turn the downtown core into luxurious abodes for wealthy people. By now, you know you have made it if you live in the centre of London or New York City. House prices in downtown Toronto, not to mention Vancouver, run in the millions. Part of the reason is because city centres have all that people need: good transit connections, amenities within walking distance and most of the high-paying jobs. However, these conditions place the downtown out of the reach of those who cannot afford it. In my opinion, this is a shame because urban living has become associated with a luxury and extravagance.
The basic expression of this sentiment can be found in Toronto’s recent election. Despite being less charismatic than his already troubled brother Rob, Doug Ford managed to win a majority of votes in the Toronto suburbs of Etobicoke and Scarborough. These were the places that clamored for subways and expressed alienation from the wealthy downtown core that seemed to get everything it needed to live comfortably. The residents of these suburbs are low-education and low-income people who have a hard time accessing city services. They already revolted when former Mayor David Miller tried to introduce policies such as bike lanes to Toronto because they could not see how this would ameliorate their lives. According to them, why did they have to continue paying taxes to support a transportation method that could not get them to where they need to go? It didn’t matter that the bike lanes might have made it convenient for them to bike; biking was alien to them and they didn’t want to change. All of this is just in Toronto. In San Francisco, local kids nearly got kicked off Mission Park because Dropbox employees paid for the park’s use despite this not being the common practice. The benefits we associate with city living are increasingly becoming hard to get for most people. Given this, is it any wonder they choose the suburbs?
When it comes to Regina, we don’t face these types of pressures, yet. If we grow in the wrong way, we just might. To me, city living will always be a balance between individualism and group living. The drive for suburbs came in part because urban life was nasty, brutish and miserable, though not always short. Unfortunately, we seem to forgetting why the suburbs came up as we champion the downtown. If they’re not careful, advocates of Regina’s downtown will doom it to eternal abandonment and disinterest.