View from the ‘Loo: Walking our way to growth Anthony Reinhart February 20, 2014 Communitech, View from the ‘Loo As I type these words, the chill is just starting to leave my ears, but I feel great. I’m fresh from a 20-minute midday walk in downtown Kitchener, during which I thought a lot about, well, walking. Aside from any health benefits – walking is really the only exercise I’m getting these days, with nine-month-old twins at home and a full schedule – I’ve always valued walking as thinking time, or for having meaty conversations if I’m with someone else. And so I felt a bit chuffed when my Communitech colleague, Chris Plunkett, tweeted a Fast Company piece to me one recent morning, as I strolled my way out of the cobwebs of another sleep-deprived night. Science, as the brain scans accompanying Chris’s tweet show, confirms what I’ve felt all along – that walking is good for the mind and not just the body. So, what does this have to do with Waterloo Region’s tech community? Plenty, if you look at where the growth in activity has been concentrating in recent years: in our downtowns. Where there was once only a handful of small tech companies, our cores now boast dozens of firms at various stages of development, from startups in the incubation phase, to newly minted mid-size companies ramping up their growth, to big global players. Old factories that had housed the ghosts of dead industries are not only alive again, but filling up quickly as demand for interesting workspace soars. Landlords of startup-friendly office buildings are also seeing a surge in demand. Meanwhile, pent-up demand for urban housing is fuelling construction of new apartments and conversion of old ones, which is, in turn, helping to support new restaurants, retail outlets and events in our cores. What we’re seeing here is the power of co-location, a power underpinned in large part by the ease of walking among all these places. The region’s new multi-modal transit hub at King and Victoria Streets will ratchet that power up a few more notches when it opens in a few years, by making it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to traverse the region on local transit, and to get in and out of town on inter-city trains and buses. As Highway 401 becomes increasingly choked with traffic, this ease of access will be critical to forming a reliable link between Waterloo Region and Toronto, and thus tapping the collaborative potential of both tech communities. The economic importance of walkability was underscored by Toronto’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, in a recent Waterloo Region Record story. “People are choosing to live based on the quality of life that is offered,” Keesmaat told the Record’s Terry Pender. “So there is a competition going on now among cities to attract employers and workers that will in fact be the basis of that knowledge-based economy.” The region’s light rail transit project will form the urban spine of an overhauled transit network and help concentrate higher-density development in core areas, relieving pressure on a dwindling supply of developable land on the city’s fringes. While there’s been much controversy over the $818-million cost of LRT, two-thirds of which will be borne by the provincial and federal governments, there’s been next to no discussion of the cost of suburban sprawl, as roads, sewers and other services inevitably deteriorate and need replacing. “It turns out this is a very expensive form of development that has been highly subsidized,” Keesmaat told the Record. “The first thing at stake here is that we can’t afford to be building what we have been building.” Just this week, Pender followed up with another piece that focused on a study of Waterloo Region’s walkability, led by researchers from the universities of British Columbia, Alberta and Waterloo. The study, in which 4,902 residents took part, found a high preference for walkable neighbourhoods, especially among younger people, and that walkability has a major influence on where people are choosing to live. Given that more than half of this region’s residential development is now happening in built-up areas along the LRT corridor – where most new tech activity is also concentrating – we can expect to see a lot more people walking, cycling and taking transit instead of driving in years to come. According to those colourful scans above, that means we can also expect a lot of extra brain activity – exactly the kind of fuel we’ll need to take our tech cluster to the next level. Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.