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diaryland: entry for 2002-12-24 (13:01)
In which our plucky young hero really does get it, at last.

So, I'm shortly going to enter my third month in Toronto. I think I can now finally say, with certainty, why I couldn't stay in Saskatoon any longer.

This all crystallized while I was talking with my cousins Jay and Kirk over the weekend. (They're both living in Fredericton. Which is in New Brunswick. Which is a province and a city in New Jersey and a dessert topping.) "I like living in a city," I said. "Saskatoon never really felt like a city. It felt like a town. And now it's trying to develop itself, but not by transforming into a city... more like trying to turn itself into a suburb of nowhere."

"Suburb of nowhere" is a key phrase, and I'm glad I came up with it. Saskatoon's urban development, if you can call it that, seems to focus on bringing benefits to the downtown core that just don't belong in a downtown: big box retailers, a downtown casino (cough), destroying the bus mall.

Here's a practical example. In the ground floor of my building is a small supermarket. It's much smaller than any big box grocery store (Safeway, f'rinstance) I have ever seen. Yet, it seems to serve not only everyone living in my building, but people who live in the surrounding high-rises and the area neighborhood. It does this despite its size; hell, even the grocery store on Second Avenue in Saskatoon was larger.

And yet, one of the big complaints I have heard about why there aren't people living in the Saskatoon downtown is that grocery store. It's antiquated. It's too small. It doesn't offer enough variety. How could you possibly expect people to want to live near a pathetic store like that? More than once I have heard people suggest, with a straight face, that the downtown needs a big box grocery store - a Safeway with 200 parking spaces.

Perhaps Torontonians are a hardier breed, that they are capable of buying groceries from stores without 200 parking spaces in front. But I doubt it.

The Saskatoon model of urban development isn't a city model. It's not about strengthening a city's virtues (increased density, transit accessibility, mixed-use buildings) but about bringing the suburbs right to the downtown. There may be only one construction project happening in the downtown, but dammit, there's adequate parking! (Six flat parking lots in a four-block radius.) The U of S may be starving for cash, but by God we'll put a Future Shop on property owned by the university! The transit system may treat bus travel as slightly less acceptable than leprosy, but at least there's a Toys'R'Us!

City planning, for the past however many years (at least as long as I have been there), has focused on making sure the downtown doesn't get too urban, and city complaining for at least as long has focused on wondering why nobody wants to stay in the downtown. Or, increasingly, in the city as a whole.

Saskatoon's solutions, thankfully, would never work in Toronto. Even if you wanted to build a big box retailer in the downtown, the costs would be unapproachably vast. There's no way that it could possibly make economic sense to level a building and turn the land into a parking lot. Forget social pressures, or political maneuvering; it just isn't cost-effective to bring Etobicoke to Toronto.

I like living in a city with a downtown designed for pedestrians and transit-takers. I like a city where public transit is a vital component of life for people of many different social classes, not just the pariah method of the poor and the elderly. I like parking lots to be shoved out of sight (and out of mind), and expensive to use so you're encouraged to leave the car at home. These are the marks of a great downtown. Not a big box supermarket, or a casino.

All of my other complaints about Saskatoon, from the lack of night life (which admittedly began to turn around over the past two years) to the sense of isolation to the lack of somewhere to go on a Wednesday afternoon, come from that one complaint: turning the city into a suburb of nowhere.

No, thanks. I'd rather live in a city.

And that's why I left.

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