The Toronto architect Dermot Sweeny knows a young couple who were talking about fleeing the city and buying a house in a distant suburb, where they thought things might be more relaxed and affordable. He sat them down for a little talk.
How much do you make combined, he asked. Okay, the taxman is going to take a good chunk of that wherever you live. But living in the suburbs means owning and maintaining a car, maybe two cars. That will cost you many thousands in gas, repairs, insurance and all the rest. Much of what you save by getting a cheaper house out there will go up in smoke.
And that’s just the money side. You have jobs in the city so you will need to commute, either by car or by train. That will eat up your time – time away from your kids, if you decide to have them; time away from life. Is that how you want to live? Do you really want to leave city life behind? By the end of his talk, the woman in the couple was in tears.
Mr. Sweeny tells this story to make a point about the future of cities. Right now, that future can look bleak. The novel coronavirus hit many cities hard. Many urban dwellers are looking for greener pastures. Demand for houses outside the city is soaring. A recent headline read: Suburbs Boom, Toronto Fizzles As World’s Major Cities Witness A Pandemic Exodus.
Those who are joining the exodus imagine life will be better and cheaper away from the mad hustle of the city. And now that working online has become so common, they think they can avoid the punishing commute and work from home instead. Nonsense, says Mr. Sweeny, or a word to that effect.
Mr. Sweeny runs a firm of 55 in the city core. He has employees from every continent but Australia. They speak 23 languages among them. Their beautiful offices sit in a complex suspended on stilts over two historic buildings. Ideas percolate there like coffee on a hot stove. You don’t get that on Zoom.
In normal times many of his staff walk or ride their bikes to work. They go out to bars and coffee shops at the end of the day. They explore neighbourhood restaurants and galleries.
So, the way he sees it, the idea that cities are finished is just dead wrong. Their allure is endless, their dynamism unmatched. “Cities are the heartbeat of North America – of the world,” he says over beers at one of those curb-lane patios that Toronto has set up on main streets to allow more space for outdoor dining. As he speaks, bikes and streetcars glide by and young people enjoying a balmy evening pass on the sidewalk. The city is coming back to life.
Mr. Sweeny has tramped around many of the world’s great cities, observing and absorbing. Each has experienced a trauma of some sort, from fire to war to famine. Each has bounced back. In the months after 9/11, he recalls, it became conventional wisdom that New York was in for hard times. No one would want to build an office building in Manhattan. It wasn’t long before the jackhammers were sounding and the skyscrapers rising again. Something similar is bound to happen once the pandemic recedes.
He is surely right about that. A flight to the suburbs would worsen urban sprawl, add to traffic congestion and hurt the environment. Though millions of Canadians live happily in pleasant suburban communities, even those places are trying to remake themselves along more urban lines, reviving old downtowns, allowing more density and adding bike lanes and transit service.
The young couple didn’t move to the 'burbs. They bought a fixer-upper in a not-so-fashionable but rising neighbourhood in the city. They are renting out an apartment in the house to help with the cost. They can take transit to their work. The neighbourhood has lots of interesting little shops to explore. They don’t have to get behind the wheel to buy a litre of milk.
Life in an expensive modern city can be a struggle, Mr. Sweeny concedes, especially for young people without means. Some may never own a house; they may live in an apartment instead, as most people in Berlin or New York or Paris do.
But it’s worth it. The city is where it’s happening. The coronavirus hasn’t changed that.
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