The industrial revolution brought about the need for skyscrapers and densely packed city centers. Mega companies were forming which needed armies of administrators and it only made sense to set up shop in city centers. It was efficient for different departments to be able to commute floor to floor rather than across a large industrial campus. Commutes were kept short as white collar workers lived in high rise residential developments on the fringes of the business districts.
High urban density made perfect sense last century. Does it make sense now though?
The creation of the fax machine was actually the first development that really undercut the need for dense, urban business centers. For those who lived in the 80s, we all remember how city centers were busy hives crawling with bicycle and even walking couriers. It was essential for businesses to send documents from building to building in a timely manner and in a dense downtown this made it relatively easy. With the invention of the fax machine, a document could now be sent across the world in minutes, never mind across a city.
Another essential advantage of downtowns was the ability for tight networking. Business lunches were an integral part of enterprise and communications within and and between companies. While not as socially appealing as a luncheon, the internet has provided an alternative to meeting in person and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have become accustomed to digital rather than in person meetings.
With essentially every family now having at least one personal automobile, the need for an employee to live in close proximity to their workplace is gone. Why lose hours of personal time per week jammed onto a public transit system when you can have a quiet and comfortable commute where you can plan your day? COVID-19 comes into play here again as well. While businesses have been operating again, transit remains nearly empty as few people have an appetite for spending time in close quarters with strangers. The same applies to elevators.
Families have lived within the urban centers for decades simply because they had no choice. When given the option, the vast majority of families will choose to live in the suburbs where they can raise their kids on quiet streets with their own yard and away from the dense traffic and aggressive homeless people in the city core. Businesses have been responding to this demand by developing suburban business centers which gives them a strong edge when recruiting employees. Quarry Park in Calgary was drawing enterprise out of Calgary’s core well before the energy price collapse and the pandemic.
Calgary’s downtown is well over 30 percent vacant and that number is expected to grow. Other cities are experiencing similar trends as the economy contracts, dense living appears unhealthy and a new age of home offices has exploded.
Urban density has turned into something of an immutable orthodoxy for many urban planners and municipal politicians. With an almost cult-like fervor, they use every tool they can to try and force a square peg into a round hole in fighting a consumer exodus from dense, inner city living. The density zealots are losing this war but they are creating some very dysfunctional cities in battling the will of citizens. Satellite communities outside of large cities are booming as citizens and businesses flee increasingly intrusive and ideological city councils.
The era of the crowded downtown skyscrapers is done. We need to focus urban planning based on the reality of continued outward growth while trying to find creative ways to make use of decaying downtowns.
Voters in municipal elections need to flush the dinosaurs from their city councils as soon as possible. There can be no reasoning with politicians and administrators who feel that raising business taxes and hiking parking rates while jamming roads with bicycle lanes is a way to stem the outward flow of the population. These ideologues need to be replaced en masse.
Calgary and Edmonton will have that opportunity in a year. They can’t afford another four years of urban planning based on a model from the last century.