Building Better Cities Series- Part 2: Micropolitan’s Changing the face of Urban Living

Genuine WealthtroyMediaRobert McGarvey

EDMONTON, AB Sept 15, 2014

The twin gods of transport and commerce have dominated urban planning for nearly a century. Today, a micropolitan revolution is sweeping across the urban landscape, challenging these deities and in the process improving the livability of our cities, large and small.

Which cities are the best examples of this phenomenon?

Vancouver and Montreal are the two Canadian cities that regularly appear in global reports as ‘best places to live’. Both these metropolises share many qualities of micropolitan communities; they rank high in terms of livability and have something unique that sets them apart from other communities.

Vancouver is a city of outstanding natural beauty with its proximity to snow capped mountains, rivers and the Pacific Ocean. Montreal, on the other hand, is known for its unique cultural blend of French and Anglo culture. Montreal’s ‘old world’ charm is immediate and captivating. Both of these cities have identifiable (and very walk-able) down town cores that create a comfortable and appealing urbanity.

But you might be surprised to learn that many smaller communities throughout North America are emerging as Best Places; they’re doing so by changing the way they organize themselves, deliberately designing along micropolitan lines.

The best micropolitan communities tend to be compact and work hard to combine a cultivated urbanity with human scale livability. Consider that the optimal size of a micropolitan community (urban neighborhood or small city) is between 15-25 thousand people.

What makes a good micropolitan community? The better micropols celebrate their history and make the arts a central part of their identity.

For instance, Stratford, Ontario (pop 30,080), ranks as one of Canada’s best micropols. The city positioned itself as the Arts Capital of Canada and has made a virtue of its connection to Stratford-Upon-Avon, home of the famous playwright William Shakespeare. The Canadian Stratford has North America’s most celebrated Shakespeare festival, it’s own Summer Music Festival, and has deliberately cultivated its central core as home to a vibrant local art scene.

Sedona, Arizona (pop 17,000) consistently ranks in the top 10 best small cities in the United States. Sedona describes itself as quiet and comfortable, but has also cultivated a world-class art scene with several classical orchestras and impressive Jazz music clubs; they have their own film school, arts center and are the home of over 500 resident artists and 40 art galleries.

The best micropols are deliberately ‘out of the box’ on civic engagement.

For example, Dickinson, North Dakota (pop 17, 010) provides its residents with a wide variety of amenities, including a new public safety center for the police and fire departments where local residents and school children go to learn about civic responsibility and to see how the various services work to protect the city.

Preserving historic buildings and creating walk-able central cores is a characteristic of micropolitan communities.

Cities as diverse as Traverse City, Michigan, Rimouski, Quebec, Dawson Creek, British Columbia rank as Best Places based on their commitment to preserving their cultural assets. Traverse City has committed to an ongoing transformation of a former state hospital into a village of shops, restaurants, homes and offices. The Village development includes the renovation of century-old buildings across a nearly 500 acre expanse of forest and meadow on the city’s western edge. Future plans for the development include turning a series of cathedral barns into concert venues, farmers markets and special event spaces.

Making a virtue of necessity is also part of the Micropolitan package. Alexandria, Minnesota (pop 11, 057) has made a virtue of its relative isolation. Instead of lamenting their isolation Alexandria, packaged its nearby woodlands and parks as opportunities for year-round recreation, including fishing, hunting, bicycling and ice-skating. The city made a commitment to recreation; cyclists, runners and inline skaters use the 55-mile Central Lakes Trail, which connects Alexandria to three nearby cities and winds past parks, farms, wetlands and lakes.

The micropolitan revolution is changing the face of urban living. Although the larger cities get most of the attention, the revolution is also taking place in smaller cities as well.

Cities like Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Sault St. Marie, Ontario and Ville-de Saint-George in Quebec are telling their stories to the world, supporting the arts and creating vibrant central cores. Rather than prioritizing transport efficiency and commercial necessity, these innovators are creating appealing living spaces on a human scale where residents can interact effortlessly as they dine, work and play.