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Old Posted Sep 13, 2017, 8:28 AM
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The meaning and importance of city size

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Originally Posted by someone123 View Post
Pedestrian friendliness is not really something that is specific to big cities. If anything there's probably an inverse correlation. Overcrowding and giant buildings and streets are not pleasant for pedestrians. The only reason why Canadians tend not to see this is that they are used to newer and more suburban small cities.
This post made me think. Without getting into the specifics of Halifax and Toronto that are better served by that thread's discussion, I have modified my views quite substantially on the issue of city size and wonder if anyone else feels similarly.

In Canada, and the US to a big degree as well, city size and urbanity are highly correlated to the point that enjoying urbanity as a living-environment makes you a "big-city person" by default. This I think is why we have this very hierarchical and population-centric view of cities; if one prefers Victoria to Montreal or even Providence to Houston, there is the assumption that there is a divergence of opnion on cities themselves that is at root. It informs how we talk about these things to a big degree.

I notice this less here. Of course, if one moves to Paris from Copenhagen there will be some talk about improved cultural offerings, traffic and all the rest, but it is not quite the "city versus non-city" choice we often see discussed in the North American context. Conversationally, I hear people discuss city pairs like Gothenburg/Stockholm, Strasbourg/Paris, and even Lubeck/Hamburg at the extreme end without really getting into the whole "teeming metropolis" image, with one's affection for/avoidance of the type used as a personality marker.

Of course, all of those cities and towns are traditionally urban. Little Strasbourg, after all, offers streetscapes like this



which while they may give up some grandeur and busy-ness to those of Paris are still functionally urban in a fairly intense way. But even given that, Paris is a big city and Strasbourg is not, and living there you would feel that in a myriad of ways.

In Canada, I often used city size as a proxy for urbanity and preferred the country's very largest cities for this reason. I still have those preferences in Canada, but here I find I would be more interested in living in a place like Genoa, Trieste, or Strasbourg than Milan or Paris.

In the end it wasn't the sheer amount of people but the landscape and the infrastructure; yesterday I thought of this while on a commuter train into Copenhagen; passing through Charlottenlund station, I saw a patch of trees between a single-family home area and the traditionally Euro-urban little area surrounding the station and thought: in Paris there would be a tower there. And I was glad there wasn't. It was pretty and serene and still very functionally urban, little shops and big trains and pedestrians all around.

Bottom line: if Halifax, say, had a 65-station urban and commuter rail system with the TOD development that could bring, it might not matter that it has less than half a million people. If Winnipeg filled in all its parking lots, 600,000 is fine – just look at Strasbourg.

Growth will produce form eventually, but it does so inefficiently; in the extreme case of the sunbelt, the correlation breaks down entirely and you have cities of millions like Phoenix that are really not cities at all, but just settled land.

The focus should be on form and infrastructure.
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Old Posted Sep 13, 2017, 9:58 AM
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City size is important, but it's just one factor in the complex equation that determines how urban a place feels.

With many exceptions, I found cities within the size range of St. John's felt smaller in mainland Canada. I certainly didn't feel I was in a much larger city in Winnipeg, for example. On the other hand, small towns on the mainland felt much larger than any other community in Newfoundland. Our sparsely-built coastal towns strung along both sides of a single main road can hit 30,000 people before they even get a big box store area as their most urban feature. Meanwhile, little towns of a few thousand on the prairies can have proper, small-town Main Streets that are still urban. Beausejour, Manitoba with a couple thousand people has a better core than Paradise (18K), Corner Brook (20K), Mount Pearl (24K), and Conception Bay South (25K) here.

I think the main factors - especially in North America - are age, built form (especially topography and the number of building entrances per city block), function, and population.

Function is probably the most important to me, personally - the one that has the most impact. For example, it doesn't matter how big Fredericton gets, it's never going to feel as urban as St. John's because it loses functions that we have to Moncton and Saint John. And, without the combination of all those functions in a single city, you simply don't get the messy urbanity that fuels much of what makes a place feel truly urban - especially art.

A better example perhaps is Quebec City and Montreal. Quebec City loses a lot of its would-be functions to Montreal so despite having everything else meeting or exceeding my standards - age, built form, and population - it doesn't feel as urban. It doesn't have that messy urbanity.

And it's not a result of diversity. We're even less diverse - but when a city has those functions, it forces groups of residents into all of those niches regardless of their background. Every class here, from skeets to East Enders, are white. The different accents and other class identifiers are all spoken by white people. We have neighbourhoods just as different, disconnected, and ridiculed by the other as Bramladesh and Cabbagetown, but everyone is white. All those niches still exist. It's very obvious when a city is missing those because it takes on some of the more striking traits of a one-factory town.

So, yeah, function is the big one for me. Age, built form, and population are very important, but secondary, and serve to create the necessary environment for those functions to shine.
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Old Posted Sep 13, 2017, 10:24 AM
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Originally Posted by kool maudit View Post
Growth will produce form eventually, but it does so inefficiently; in the extreme case of the sunbelt, the correlation breaks down entirely and you have cities of millions like Phoenix that are really not cities at all, but just settled land.

The focus should be on form and infrastructure.
Cities are a product of their history and the ideas that have shaped them.

Once upon a time, 'urbanity' was looked down upon - the densely populated areas of a lot of cities had a lot of social/sanitation problems, not to mention pollution from the heavy industry located in the core. The suburbs were the wave of the future at the time - cleaner, with adequate space. Now that industry has usually moved out of the core of the cities and the sanitation element has markedly improved, the city is not an unpleasant place to live anymore. As well, the flaws associated with the suburbs have presented themselves.

Focusing on form is important, but not to the extent that you are trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

Interesting that you note Phoenix - I've been there and it feels like a giant suburb. Despite the metro area exceeding Montreal in population, it had nowhere near the 'urban feel' that Montreal has.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 12:34 AM
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I assumed that - at least on a forum like this - people would already know that things like walkability and the quality of the pedestrian experience depend more on age, density, and automobile accommodation than on size. I was quite surprised that this seemed to come as news to people in the other thread.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 1:32 AM
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Metrotown perfectly exemplifies how it takes far more than just density to make a place feel urban. Metrotown has about the same density as Le Plateau, but obviously they are far different feeling neighbourhoods. Fraser Street is fairly low density (mostly detached homes with secondary suites), but is far more urban feeling than than dense tower neighbourhoods like Metrotown. Go figure.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 3:48 AM
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One way I've thought about this is that the population of a city provides an upper bound to how much activity it can support. North American cities are generally far below the upper bound. Maybe they are at 5% of the upper bound as far as urban life goes. Or less in places like Phoenix. Some people never visit the urban core of the metropolitan area they live in, and others spend all of their time there. We can think of a 5% city as being a place where the average person spends about 5% of their time in the urban parts, doing things that impact what you'd care about when participating in public life in those areas.

This model is a bit oversimplified but it hints at why city size doesn't matter much. If you've got places operating at 5% or 80%, a city of 500,000 can be like a city of 8 million.

The realities in North America also explain why people think you need a metropolitan area of 5 million people to have anything interesting. You do if you only ever see 5% of those people. But that only works out to 250,000. Conversely it turns out that our North American standards are kind of low and an urban core with an effective population of 250,000 people counts as relatively large. So it's not surprising that somewhere in the world we can find mid-sized cities of 500,000 or 1,000,000 that function like large urban areas in North America.

I don't really want to get into it but there's some variety in North America too, though much less than what is found in the rest of the world. We have our 2% cities and our 20% cities. That's still a factor of 10 difference. So it's wrong to assume in general that the 2 million person North American city must have more going on than the 1 million person North American city.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 6:00 AM
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It could also be argued that this starts falling apart outside of developed North America. Mexico has many cities that are relatively small, yet highly urban, due to different history and lifestyle. Though, that being said, as in much of the developed world, the more well off are gravitating more towards indoor shopping malls.

The thing with Canada, the US, and I'd extend to Australia and New Zealand as well, is that they developed far later, with a greater wealth than much of the world, that afforded them earliest access to automobiles and that influenced our cities as most of them were still maturing.

But I mean, we do have cities like Halifax, Quebec City, Saint John, and Kingston, which feel more urban and buzzing than what I'm used to for cities of equivalent size in Western Canada (a few exceptions, like Victoria, exist). I remember in particular Halifax feeling larger than 400,000. Definitely didn't feel larger than Edmonton or Calgary, but perhaps similar to Winnipeg.

I'm less familiar with smaller US cities, outside of the West, but I suppose, at least superficially, examples like Charleston and Providence exist, even if they lack in such things as transit.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 6:27 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by someone123 View Post
One way I've thought about this is that the population of a city provides an upper bound to how much activity it can support. North American cities are generally far below the upper bound. Maybe they are at 5% of the upper bound as far as urban life goes. Or less in places like Phoenix. Some people never visit the urban core of the metropolitan area they live in, and others spend all of their time there. We can think of a 5% city as being a place where the average person spends about 5% of their time in the urban parts, doing things that impact what you'd care about when participating in public life in those areas.

This model is a bit oversimplified but it hints at why city size doesn't matter much. If you've got places operating at 5% or 80%, a city of 500,000 can be like a city of 8 million.

The realities in North America also explain why people think you need a metropolitan area of 5 million people to have anything interesting. You do if you only ever see 5% of those people. But that only works out to 250,000. Conversely it turns out that our North American standards are kind of low and an urban core with an effective population of 250,000 people counts as relatively large. So it's not surprising that somewhere in the world we can find mid-sized cities of 500,000 or 1,000,000 that function like large urban areas in North America.

I don't really want to get into it but there's some variety in North America too, though much less than what is found in the rest of the world. We have our 2% cities and our 20% cities. That's still a factor of 10 difference. So it's wrong to assume in general that the 2 million person North American city must have more going on than the 1 million person North American city.
I'm sure you're right but could you name a 1 million person city that has more going on (by that I think you mean pedestrian activity) than a 2 million city? My assumption was that 1-2 million person cities pretty much resembled each other quite closely. Vancouver (and a few others maybe) being the exception.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 7:24 AM
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Yeah it's not North America specifically, but that's my example since I grew up and lived most of my life in Canada.

I think Someone123's percentage model is useful here; as for a one million city that bests a two million city, I think Copenhagen or Zurich are functionally more intense as city experiences than Kansas City or something, although US MSA methodology comes into play here. More locally, I think Copenhagen holds its own with the significantly larger Cologne or Birmingham. Stockholm in turn feels significantly larger than Copenhagen, although it isn't.

Hamburg presents as a significantly more complex pattern of urban behaviour than does Montreal (although Montreal is still better /homer).

In Canada, I think Halifax holds its own against Edmonton and St. John's likely far outstrips St. Catherines.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 11:12 AM
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The population of a city / built up area is good quick indicator of what may be available in such general aspects as professional sports teams and major concert venues (of course there are exceptions for this).

This quick glance though quickly begins to show its cracks when one starts to explore a city or town first hand.

Population is just one of many factors that determines how lively / urban a city is.

North America demonstrates especially well how much variation in urban quality / experience there is between urban centers of similar population.

Despite their relatively small sizes (as noted on here already) cities such as Victoria / Halifax / St. John's / Quebec City offer urban experiences superior to that of cities double (even triple) their sizes elsewhere on the continent.

An extreme example of this is Nelson, which blew me away with how lively and complete its downtown core was (and how much variety in activities / eateries there were) for a town of only 10 000. It had a better urban vibe happening then many cities 10 / 20 times its population.

You can take a look at my photos of Nelson here: http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?t=229806

Bottom line, if you only use the population of the town / city as your criteria for measuring a city's worth / expected urban experience, you will miss many opportunities to visit some wonderful urban places.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 12:35 PM
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I wouldn't call Nelson an extreme example. That's pretty much how every town looks like in Southern Ontario.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 1:32 PM
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Its not just the look, its the vibe. I personally did not see any vacant street fronts (there are probably some, as everywhere has some stores opening and closing, but it was obviously under a threshold of being note worthy, unlike Granville Street in Vancouver this year where I noticed every third store front being plastered with "for lease" stickers.) All the bars / restaurants / cafes / patios were full in the afternoon and evening. People were walking / cycling everywhere. The parks were packed. I have been to several Southern Ontario towns that look like Nelson, but they didn't have the active pedestrian vibe (especially those around 10 000 people). Some of those towns were essentially dead in the cores when I visited them. It literally felt like a cleaner Gastown plopped in the middle of the mountains. And it does this without feeling like a tourist trap. It feels like a complete community. I have been to many towns far larger than Nelson in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and throughout the US that fell far short of the pedestrian experience had in Nelson.

The point is, if one looked purely at population, Nelson's with a mere 10 000 people would shock you with how busy it is and how many things there are to do, especially when compared to most other non resort towns of similar populations in North America. And yes, I have been to cities of 150 000 / 200 000 that have far less activity in their cores than Nelson.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 1:49 PM
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Nelson looks great, but I don't find it any more urban, busy or interesting than Niagara on the lake in Ontario really.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 2:02 PM
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Nelson looks great, but I don't find it any more urban, busy or interesting than Niagara on the lake in Ontario really.
I've been to both several times. Nelson is cute, but doesn't hold a candle to Niagara on the Lake, which is, as far as I've seen, one of the more vibrant small towns anywhere in Canada.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 2:17 PM
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Again kind of missing the point of the post. I don't care if this city or that city is more interesting than Nelson, that is great for those towns and further proves my point (I know some forum members seem to take this stuff really personally) which is that looking at population stats alone your view of which towns / cities must be entertaining / offer strong urban environments can become very misguided. There are tiny towns that have fantastic cores and plentiful things to explore, and there are very large cities that are surprisingly boring / devoid of social activity.

Also, Niagara on the Lake directly borders St. Catharines and Niagara Falls (almost 400 000 metro, may even be part of the metro). To me that is not far from counting Horseshoe Bay or Ft. Langley as their own little towns... (even though they are just parts of Metro-Vancouver) A little different from Nelson's far more isolated location in the Selkirk Mountains.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 4:33 PM
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I think a distinction needs to be made between the "stuff" that large population centres tend to have and urban form/heft.

Even the most sprawling decentralized North American metro areas tend to have almost all of the "stuff" that the admired European cities have. Often they actually have more "stuff"... this is part of their appeal as places to live in spite of their urbanistic shortcomings.

By "stuff" I don't just mean McMansions, etc., I mean fine dining, high-end shopping, quality education and refined cultural offerings, etc. In addition to good job prospects.

Where they come up short is that everything is often decentralized and doesn't come together in a cohesive urban whole like we are programmed to think that such things should be.

The Detroit Institute of the Arts is a better art museum than anything you'll find in any but a handful of European cities.

But a block or two away from that museum you have tons of stuff like this:

https://www.google.ca/maps/@42.36346...7i13312!8i6656

In many cities you have fine dining restaurants but they're often in car-dependent sprawl or at least deficient urban environments with ugly surface parking, or surrounded by Walmarts and Pep Boys. Or both.

In the area where I live we have a bunch of pâtisseries that wouldn't suffer a comparison with similar establishments on the Plateau Mont-Royal or even most places in Europe. But they're in strip malls.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 4:50 PM
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Nelson looks great, but I don't find it any more urban, busy or interesting than Niagara on the lake in Ontario really.
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I've been to both several times. Nelson is cute, but doesn't hold a candle to Niagara on the Lake, which is, as far as I've seen, one of the more vibrant small towns anywhere in Canada.
Really? I've never been to Nelson, but it looks amazing in photos and on Google Street View. The downtown looks charming and functional, with a commercial core of contiguous blocks in all directions. I wouldn't be surprised if there were fewer people on the streets than in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but then again, NOTL is little more than a short linear strip of candle shops and restaurants catering exclusively to the tourist trade from Niagara Falls. I have lots of relatives living nearby. There's literally nothing going on in NOTL aside from the plays at the Shaw Festival. Literally nothing.

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Also, Niagara on the Lake directly borders St. Catharines and Niagara Falls...
It doesn't directly border on St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. It's almost a half hour drive from either of those two cities. Still, it's a big part of the tourist experience in Niagara. Everyone driving their rental car from Toronto to the Falls is going to do the drive up to NOTL on the Niagara Parkway.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 5:06 PM
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The population of a city / built up area is good quick indicator of what may be available in such general aspects as professional sports teams and major concert venues (of course there are exceptions for this).
Yeah, I was going to point this out - I agree with kool on nearly everything in his post but that is the nuance I was going to bring up in defense of places like Phoenix.

Millions of people in the same area, even if it's all suburban in form, means you have things reasonably close that you wouldn't have otherwise - i.e. from St. John's you might have to go to Montreal or Boston (or Phoenix), from Strasburg you might have to go to Paris (or Phoenix).

So, numbers generally don't matter that much - most of us here know that - but they still do matter a bit as they determine what kind of big city stuff will be available in the area.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 5:07 PM
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I actually lived in Nelson for two years while going to school. I had a small suite in a 100 year old heritage home, a block from the downtown. Down the street was a butcher, green grocer and several coffee shops. They've allowed sidewalk bar patios on main street and asside for the hills it is extrmely walkable. It's got an amazing assortment of restaurants, and the architecture is really neat. It's cool and funky, and not in a contrived way like you hear people talk about ....... It's a town of patchouli, logging, pot growing, and government, more old Toyota pickups rusty Subaru wagons and hardly any BMW's or Audi's. It's probably the best example of its type in Western Canada.
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Old Posted Sep 14, 2017, 5:18 PM
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Never been. Looks great. I don't care for making comparisons but, Niagara on the Lake when you have places like Cobourg and Port Hope etc. etc. etc. to choose from?
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