Atlantic Canada’s Streetscape Leader

Saint John, New Brunswick is Atlantic Canada’s leading streetscape city. Since the era of Urban Renewal in the 1960s, civic leaders have made streetscaping an integral part of their vision for civic improvement.

Video: Published to YouTube Sept 10, 2014

Saint John King Street Winter 2014

Photo: King St., City of Saint John

In 1962 at the opening of the newly constructed Crown Street, local newspaper the Evening Times Globe boasted “with underground utility lines” (ETG 20 July, 1962 p.9, cs. 6-8)

Crown St 2

Photo: Crown St, Saint John 2015 AJG

In 1968, the Evening Times Globe recognized all the key elements of streetscaping claiming “New community facilities will include new streets, widened sidewalks, tree planting, new street furniture such as lights, seats and litter containers, and the removal of overhead wiring.” (ETG, 22 July, 1968 p. 11, cs. 1-8)

Germain St

Photo: Germain St., Saint John 2015, AJG

In 1982 Heritage Canada’s excellent “Main Street” program streetscaped historic King Street. “Greenspire linden trees were planted…Another point, we insisted that the trees to be planted were of mature stock, of a size and shape to register immediately with the public. Also I would like to assure the public that the hydro and telephone poles still standing on King Street will be removed next spring”. Mr. Fletcher contractor for King Street reconstruction (ETG 1 Nov 1982 9.11 cs. 1-8)

King Street 2

Photo: King St., Saint John 2015, AJG

King Street

Photo: King St., Saint John 2015, AJG

In 1984 regarding Charlotte Street and King Square; “Once again all power lines are underground and there is a definite Victorian flavour to the sidewalks and lanterns.” (ETG 6 Nov 1984, p. 2. cs.1-6)

(Newspaper articles from Evening Times Globe and quoted from Urban Renewal: Saint John, Brenda McDermott)

King Square

Photo: Charlotte St., City Market, King Square 2015, AJG

King Square 2

Photo: King Square, Saint John 2015, AJG

Today Saint John continues its streetscape leadership with its partner and wholly owned utility company, Saint John Energy.

In August 2015 SJ Energy released its 2014 Annual report.  Once again it detailed a very good year under its excellent management. It realized a $1.8 Million surplus even after investing $6.4 Million on capital projects in 2014.  It did this while providing reliable electrical service to its customers less expensively than provincially owned NB Power charges other New Brunswickers!  SJ Energy reinvests its surpluses into new capital programs which often includes undergrounding antiquated unreliable utility lines.  See link to website below.

SJ Energy consistently beats other Canadian utility companies in key metrics of reliability. In 2014 SJ Energy’s average system interruption duration was 2.12 hours/year vs. the Canadian average of 6.38.

The frequency of interruptions was 1.39 interruptions/year/customer vs. Canadian average of 2.39.

2014 even saw one of the worst weather events in recent memory with Tropical Storm Arthur. Only 15% of customers had any outage. In the August 27, 2015 Telegraph Journal, SJ Energy President Ray Robinson observed “It could have been a lot worse, but we’re fortunate because we do have a lot more underground infrastructure that wasn’t affected.”

SJ Energy HQ

Photo: SJ Energy Office and warehouse, August 2015, AJG

The photo above is of the recently completed Saint John Energy Office and warehouse.  Note the storage area with new underground utility cabinetry.

Prince William Underground Conduit

Photo:  Utility joint-trench, Prince William Street, Saint John 2014, AJG

While many civic leaders and even some utility companies dismiss the value of streetscaping and undergrounding utility lines, truly visionary leaders recognize its value. Today they are reaping its benefits. Ample studies prove conclusively that undergrounding utility lines improves reliability and reduces cost. SJ Energy’s excellent performance is proof.


Halifax UndergroundUtilities May30.13

Halifax Economic Implications of Buried Electric Utilities

Advantages of Undergrounding Utilities White Paper 05-09

In 2014 NB Power President Gaetan Thomas declared “Trees and utility lines are not compatible”.

His response was to increase NB Power’s tree cutting budget and destroy street trees! Tree cutting and maintenance budgets are doubling from $4 million in 2008  to $8.8 million in 2016.  This occurred after NB Power’s reliability slipped well below the Canadian average.  NB Power has not been supportive of undergrounding utility lines and even reimburses developers if they build new neighbourhoods with streets lined with utility lines!  If a developer wishes to underground utility lines NB Power makes it more difficult and expensive!

Streetscaping is not just “making a street pretty”. It is a vision of “doing things right the first time” and realizing the benefits for decades to come. Tree lined streets with buried utility lines are the foundation for building beautiful cities, towns, villages and communities. It is also the foundation for building safer, healthier, more reliably and more cost effectively.

The above linked “Marbek Report” commissioned by the City of Halifax in 2007 concluded undergrounding utility lines provides a per-lot net benefit of $10,000.00.  Factor in the various economic, health and societal benefits of adding trees to the streets and the increase is in tens of thousands!

Streetscaping is also an excellent example of public sector infrastructure investment fostering increased private sector investment.

Interestingly, almost all new private sector investment in Saint John is happening along streetscaped streets!  Prince William Street was streetscaped in 2014 and 2015.  Several new condo and office developments are unfolding along its beautiful new streetscape.

Pr William

Photo: Renovations on Prince William Street, Saint John 2015, AJG

Canterbury street was streetscaped in the 1990s.  Today it is witnessing a spectacular new heritage restoration and retail-condo project by Historica Developments.  See attached link to their website:

Canterbury Street 2

Photo: Canterbury Street, Saint John 2015, AJG

Streetscaping and development is not limited to the downtown.  The largest new retail investment is happening at beautiful East Point where a new flagship Sobeys and NB Liquor store will soon be open.

East Point 2

Photo: East Point, Saint John 2015, AJG

Of course, Saint John is not perfect.  There are many challenges facing this “microcosm” of urban design success and failure.  Saint John suffered a significant “flight to the suburbs” throughout the last century and continues to do so today.  Much of this is unfortunately related to weather as the towns of Rothesay and Quispamsis are located outside the “fog belt”.  Saint John’s beautiful historic downtown needs significant new investment like a flagship grocery store.  The general economy needs a significant boost from private sector investment.  Most hopes are pinned on the Energy East pipeline and all the spin off business it will create.

Despite these challenges, Saint John’s historic downtown is seeing new residential and retail development.  A vibrant cultural scene as well as ample restaurants and bars make the streets very active.

A recent innovative temporary pedestrianization of Grannan Lane was a great success and was tied to a “gallery hop” as well as street food and festivities.  See attached link to local photographer Mark Hemmings’ site.

Unfortunately official Saint John recently missed an excellent streetscape opportunity at the Waterloo Village Redevelopment.  This historic downtown neighbourhood is to be home to a significant new residential and health care cluster anchored on the historic Cathedral’s restoration.

Video: Published to Youtube Oct. 20, 2014

In the Waterloo Village restoration project City of Saint John staff did not consider streetscaping and undergrounding of antiquated and ugly utility lines.  The city tendered and contracted for street reconstruction including replacing old roads, curbs and sidewalks, as well as replacing all underground infrastructure like sanitary sewer, storm sewer and water lines.  Work crews will simply work around the crooked, antiquated utility lines.

Waterloo St 2

Photo: Waterloo St. Saint John 2015, AJG

Undergrounding these utility lines at the same time as the street reconstruction by placing them in a “Joint trench” under the sidewalks would have been very cost effective.  The incremental cost would have been minimal.  Indeed completing the “civil work” of installing plastic conduit before finishing the new sidewalks, and then leaving the more expensive rewiring to next year’s budget cycle would have been the optimal solution.

Cathedral 1

Photo:  Cathedral and Waterloo Village, Saint John 2015 AJG

Waterloo St

Photo: Waterloo St., Saint John 2015, AJG

The reason for this planning failure was a lack of visioning by professional staff and the lack of adequate public engagement.  When staff decided to hold a public meeting announcing the reconstruction of Waterloo Village, the entire project was presented fait accompli and the tenders had already been called.  Attempts by even some members of City Council to rectify this situation and have undergrounding of utility lines included in this important project were too late!  This is an extraordinary lost opportunity for this important neighbourhood.  One staff member thought undergrounding was reserved only for the Trinity Royal Heritage area.  This is simply not true as undergrounding has continued in many other areas of the city.  The recently completed Law Courts at Peel Plaza is one example.

Peel Plaza

Photo:  Peel Plaza, Saint John 2015, AJG

The entrance to beautiful Rockwood Park was also recently streetscaped.

Rockwood Park

Photo: Rockwood Park, Saint John 2015, AJG

Even in Saint John where streetscaping and undergrounding utility lines have such an excellent record, mistakes do happen.  Hopefully portions of Waterloo Village can be salvaged during future years of its planned development.

There are only 5 Elements to Streetscaping and they are not necessarily expensive:

1.  TREES AND PLANTINGS include considerations for plant species, spacing, canopy, color, root chambers, fixed or movable planters, as well as green storm water management plans.

2.  UNDERGROUND UTILITY LINES include considerations for joint trench design, at-grade or below grade equipment, Smart meters and fault detection, lamp posts, WI-FI, fibre capacity, Smart sensors etc.

3.  STREET DIMENSIONS AND PAVING include considerations for “Complete Street” designs for pedestrians and cyclists with widened sidewalks, cycle lanes, accessibility, traffic volumes and patterns, traffic calming measures, medians. parking requirements, transit requirements and surface materials and design.

4.  CURBS AND SIDEWALKS include considerations for sidewalk widths, cafe seating, bulb outs, dedicated or integrated cycle lanes, sidewalk materials, accessible curbing, storm drainage choices especially green storm water management utilizing planting swales, rain gardens and permeable surfaces.

5.  FIXTURES AND FURNISHINGS include considerations for LED lighting, Wi-Fi, Smart Sensors, flexible seating, waste receptacles, water fountains, movable planters, way-finding and signage.

Streetscaping must become “top-of-mind” for professional staff and political leaders alike if ever we are to reverse the errors of the past.  The benefits of streetscaping are profound.

On 16 September 1965, City of Saint John Common Council invoked the Athenian Pledge, “Pass on this City, greater, better, more beautiful than it came to us.” Urban Renewal, page 164.

We must invoke these words again.

Congratulations Saint John and Saint John Energy for your streetscape leadership.

Saint John citizens continue to enjoy safer, more affordable and more beautiful lives because of your vision!

Author:  A.J. Good, Streetscape Canada

2 Comments on “Atlantic Canada’s Streetscape Leader

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