In St. John's, Youthfulness is a Struggle

Posted by Brandon Copeland


Earlier this year, Youthful Cities, a not-for-profit focused on engaging cities on their "youthfulness", completed their first ever Canadian Index. The index aims to “create credible data for decision-makers, provide inspiration for urban innovation efforts, launch a network of young urban decoders, and creates national exposure for Canadian cities.” The index assessed and compared 13 cities across Canada, measuring how they performed in specific areas identified as important by the youth who live there. The good news is that St. John’s was included in this assessment. The sad news, unfortunately, is that our rank on the index was dead last. 13/13. The lowest ranked Canadian city in the categories that youth find most appealing.

That’s… a bummer. For a number of reasons. As Robert Barnard, co-founder of Youthful Cities, points out in the opening pages of the index, youth are needed more than ever before in our aging society. The impacts of the aging population are especially felt in Newfoundland and Labrador. Our capital city being anything other than an attractive place for youth will be to our detriment.

As the worst-ranked city, we received the benefit of a visit from Youthful Cities to discuss how we reached this point and what we can do better. I was flattered to have been invited to speak on the panel with three other engaged young people – Dave Lane (St. John’s City Council and Vision 33), Taylor Young (Enactus Memorial and CoLab Software) and Josh Smee (St. John’s Farmers’ Market Cooperative and Choices for Youth). I felt the discussion was incredibly engaging, and we tackled a number of topics related to creating places that youth want to live and work. My angle, as it so often is, quickly turned to development. How many of the areas explored in the report could be impacted with smarter development? How many problems exist because of mistakes made by building the way we did in the past? As it turns out, quite a few.

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Development Impacts How We Work

The “Work” section of the report outlined aspects of city life tied to the ability of youth to earn a living. Employment opportunities, access to financial services, education access and cost, entrepreneurship support, and overall lifestyle affordability all tie in to whether or not youth are getting what they need to out of the city.

Work was perhaps the broad category that St. John’s performed best in, ranking 2nd of the 13 cities in both Financial Services and Education. I don’t think either of these results are surprising. St. John’s boasts strong financial literacy, while also maintaining high availability of both business and personal banking. From an Educational standpoint, of course our education system held up well in the categories that are important to youth - access and affordability. St. John’s had the second highest secondary school graduation rate of the 13 cities reviewed, while also having the second lowest student debt. This is, in my opinion, entirely attributed to the structure of post-secondary in this province. Unlike Nova Scotia (as an example), which has numerous school across a fairly small population, Newfoundland and Labrador focuses resources on Memorial University and College of the North Atlantic. In turn, tuition rates are cheap, making post-secondary more accessible. There is a case study here, I think.

In the other areas that comprise “work” though, we did much worse. We were middle tier in both Affordability and Entrepreneurship, but dead last in terms of Employment. The affordability, coupled with our strong rating in financial services, makes wealth building possible here in ways it isn't elsewhere in Canada. Buying a house is a possibility for young people. While this is a positive, I think it was created by a negative, largely being attributable to the over-supply that has been created in the past decade. If our mismanaged housing supply has any benefit, this is it and I guess we should embrace it.

I think both entrepreneurship and employment could be improved with smarter development and better regulation. From an employment perspective, I’ve heard far too many cases of projects that don’t happen because of the vocal opposition to development in this city. Missing out on these projects means missing out on jobs, and after developers have been turned down enough times in a city they will simply look elsewhere and pursue projects in other jurisdictions. This opposition continues to hurt our chance to attract youth, so while there is an argument to be made about the imagination of real estate developers, we also need to be better at encouraging them to bring us quality projects. As for entrepreneurship, the lack of proper entrepreneurship infrastructure continues to hurt. Almost two years ago I wrote on LinkedIn about what can be built to actively foster innovation. In regards to built form, the physical assets that are mentioned in that article still don’t seem to have the public or private support to usher them into existence here in St. John’s. We now have plenty of vacant space in downtown to allow for some innovative ideas, with as much as 23% of our downtown currently empty. As Youthful Cities tells us, improving in these areas would help us to attract young people.

Development Impacts How We Play

The “Play” category has everything to do with entertainment options. Music, film, creative arts, fashion, sports, food and nightlife, travel, and public space are the things that define this category. While development cannot necessarily result in the creation of good restaurants, or a strong music scene, I would argue that innovation in these areas can be supported by thriving urban spaces. Suburban sprawl, and the unwillingness to consider the CMA a region as opposed to a collection of different towns and cities, is to the detriment of everyone. As Robert Barnard pointed out during the panel, youth don’t care about boarders. Living in Mount Pearl or Paradise is irrelevant… the St. John’s Census Metropolitan Area is the place young people increasingly relate to. As such, when supporting the cultural ideas that make a city great, I would love to see stronger regional cooperation.

The one area of “Play” that is entirely dictated by real estate development is the Public Space category. This also happens to be an area where St. John’s placed last. In measuring success at providing Public Space, Youthful Cities looked at Total Green Space or Public Space per capita, number of municipally maintained sports facilities or fields, number of public libraries, walkscore on, indigenous art in public space, and local indigenous land acknowledgement. When walking through St. John’s, particularly our newer neighbourhoods, our lack of thoughtful greenspace is obvious. Even much of our existing public space – our sidewalks and roadways – are not well maintained. Where is the green when walking down water street? Where are the benches? Where are the parks when walking through newer subdivisions like Kenmount Terrace? These built assets are missing, and youth are noticing this.

Development Impacts How We Live

Perhaps most impacted by how the city has developed is our struggle in the “Live” category. Of the seven topics represented in the “Live” section of the review, four areas – digital access, transit, safety, and environment – can be said to be impacted by development. Unsurprisingly, we came either last or second last in all of these categories.

Digital access is in a way tied to the public space measured earlier. Access to WiFi is in many cases a conscious decision of property owners. I can’t help but point to Atlantic Place. By having Jumping Bean at their ground level, Atlantic Place subsequently has free WiFi. I see people, particularly young people, working in this space all the time. The same goes for small businesses, like Rocket Bakery and Coffee Matters. Providing WiFi is a huge incentive for youth to visit you.

Transit and safety are linked, as one of the key aspects of Safety was “Transit and Mobility Access Scale”. This was measured per capita, against national data. Our Transit system is often bemoaned by locals – as such, our poor performance should come as no surprise to anyone. The combination of a lack of investment at a municipal level, a lack of cooperation of our Avalon municipalities, and development policy that has (intentionally or not) subsidized car-ownership, leads to a city that is not transit friendly. Young people, who are increasingly fighting back against the notion of needing to own a car, acknowledge this. Making our city less and less dense, and subsequently not investing in alternative transportation methods like bike-sharing or our bus infrastructure, is a guaranteed way to turn youth away.

Lastly, our environmental ranking. We came last – 13/13 – for Canadian cities. Worth noting is that we did place in the top three for quantity of recycled materials per capita. Call me crazy but I suspect this has to do with our high rate of drinking and subsequent bottle return. Despite this single outlier, we performed poorly. The report tells us that we have the highest number of registered vehicles per capita in all studied cities, massively ramping up our carbon emissions. Once again, we can point to the way we have built – our continued insistence on building outward instead of upward, is one reason for this unfortunate reality.

These Results Aren’t Unfixable

I opted not to dive deeply into any single topic, and instead focus at a high level on our overall result – quite simply, that we have an uphill battle when it comes to attracting and retaining youth to our city. St. John’s has many benefits, not all of them tangible or trackable, but so do most cities. As ever evolving melting-pots of ideas and activities, cities end up being defined by the people that live there and the lifestyles they lead. As we look forward, and look to attract a generation that is more mobile than any generation in history, the importance of building and maintaining the assets they desire is strikingly clear. The feelings that are tied to youthfulness – optimism and innovativeness and excitement for the future – are feelings that I also hope to have tied to my city. We have work to do, but thanks to the Youthful Cities Index, at least we have a starting point.