Being July 1st, today there are festivities across Canada (it's our 4th of July-ish, founding day holiday). Fredericton is the provincial capital around here so it hosts quite the bash, in which a magical thing happens.

This waterfront highway, an extended cloverleaf/onramp for the major bridge in town, gets pedestrianized.  

The highway is not great for the city. It's noisy, high speed, and effectively cuts off the downtown from the waterfront. In order to get to the excellent trail along the river, you need to cross over an (admittedly, very nice) pedestrian bridge. Boo hoo, right?

On a daily basis, most people probably don't think about the damage the highway inflicts. It's only today, on Canada Day every year, that people see the alternative. They enjoy the direct path from the cafés on the main strip to benches along the water. They end up raising their voices over the sound of music and children rather than straining to be heard over traffic. It becomes obvious how well food trucks would do along the trail.

The City is not clueless. In fact, council recently approved a downtown plan that suggested removing the cloverleaf and turning the waterfront access road into a boulevard, inspired by the successful waterfront redevelopment of other cities. However, actually enacting this will be another story. Transforming the highway into a handful of slower-speed distributed access points could very well reduce everyone's commute and lead to happiness all around, but the perceived effect of scrapping a highway could leave the proposal dead in the water.

Two Sides of the River

Fredericton is split in two. About half the population lives on the North Side of the river in former villages that were annexed into the city. The other half of the population lives on the South Side, where most of the commerce and cultural events happen. Downtown is on the South Side, as are the museums, the university, the major mall and big box centre. As you'd imagine, the traffic flow over to the South Side for business hours is something to behold. This is a city of ~60,000 people and when the major bridge was reduced to one lane for construction, there were 2 hour traffic delays. That is Toronto-level stuff right there. Yes, you could walk or bike in that time, but crossing the river on bike or foot is not for the young, old, or unfit, unless you happen to live right next to the walking bridge. We do not live on a dainty, babbling brook. It's a big ass river. Winter complicates further.

Since crossing that bridge is such a routine and essential part of life for those on the North Side, I pass no judgement when people are nervous that the process might be delayed through some bright-eyed planning projects. The deeper problem is that so many people rely on that bridge just to get to work. Maybe the North Side needs its own anchors.

Furthermore, with about 50% voting power in council allocated to North Side constituents, it's difficult to pass anything that prioritizes a strong downtown because it's seen as favouring one side over the other. We're in a deadlock.

Age Old Tension

Cities like to form on water. It follows that there are thousands of cities out there struggling with their own version of North Side, South Side. Some of those cities have becomes so expensive and pressed for space that big money finds its way across the river. Some have suffered economically, only to see the stratification deepen. The phenomenon reminds me of Jane Jacobs on border vacuums.

She writes:

"A border-the perimeter of a single massive or stretched-out use of territory-forms the edge of an area of 'ordinary' city. Often borders are thought of as passive objects, or matter-of-factly just as edges. However, a border exerts an active influence. [...] The root trouble with borders, as city neighbors, is that they are apt to form dead ends for most users of city streets. They represent, for most people, most of the time, barriers."

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Right now, the river is a barrier in our city. The highway along the river is another layer of barrier, as is the highway bridge itself. It's unrealistic to think we'll ever be like New York, seamlessly shuttling people across the water because there is so much value and energy pulling at people from either side. The best-case scenario I can imagine is a single hub emerging directly across from downtown on the North Side, and the resurrection of the old river bridge as another bike-ped crossing with Ponte Vecchio-inspired pop-up food and retail along the way to coax people across.

That Vecchio bridge will never happen unless there's something to walk to across the river though. And while there are already dozens of wonderful businesses on the North Side near the river, there will never be a hub that's pleasant to walk to if you have to navigate a maze of highways and busy roads first.

Which increment to begin?

The which-side-of-the-river tension appears to be one of the main things holding Fredericton back. It leads to political decisions that are probably not in the best interest of the city or province as a whole.

My Strong Towns thinking leads me to believe that one could tackle this incrementally. But where to begin? I'm not the girl for this mission because it wouldn't be authentic or grassroots. I've got downtown, café going, bike riding, patio sitting South Sider written all over me. Any transformation of the North Side has to be a reflection of what residents there see as valuable. And what if the North Side doesn't want any transformation? What happens if people would prefer to just live North and work/play South? The tensions will remain and council will always be stuck prioritizing automobile traffic flow over the bridge rather than the aspirations of the city.

What are your border vacuums?

How is your city divided? What have you experimented with to try and overcome that? I always appreciate your stories and inspiration!

GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.

This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.