The Fourth City

The Fourth City

Student Author: 
Zak Fish
Date: 
May 2015
Supervisor(s): 
Mona El Khafif

The City of Cambridge is a polarizing figure that has seen tremendous growth in the last half century and at the same time succumb to an extremely high vacancy rate in the historic downtown core. It is simultaneously a picturesque riverside community and nightmare of suburban sprawl. Joined with Kitchener and Waterloo as a part of Waterloo Region, its Central Metropolitan Area (CMA) had the third strongest economy in the country in 2012 and yet it sharply fell to 15th in the CIBC World Markets index the following year.1 As the region works to define its place in the nation and at the world stage Cambridge must define its role in the region or risk being left behind. While the number of dwellings in the downtown have tripled in the past decade the commercial landscape remains unchanged and the commercial vacancy rate is the highest in the region. These empty spaces play a crucial role in the urban fabric and my M.Arch thesis proposes a prototype to engage the vacant space as an opportunity to instigate a new urban identity. The growth and decline within Cambridge present success and failure and highlight opportunities to define the city’s urban form. To comprehend the absence in the city this paper seeks to investigate the ecology of vacancy and growth that significantly contribute to Cambridge’s urban morphology. 

To deconstruct the spatial structure and character of the urban form I began exploring the economic data collected by government and corporate organizations. Investigating the ecology of vacant space in the city proved challenging as the Waterloo Region does not manage a vacant property database. In their book, Terra Incognita, Bowman and Pagano used American municipality’s self-reported data to define the countries vacant landscape but as comparable information was not available I had to search for new metrics to examine Cambridge’s void. The Province of Ontario collects vacancy tax rebates for vacant commercial property however this data is managed by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) who have been uncooperative and obtaining this information proved prohibitively expensive. To uncover patterns within the city I began by looking for measures of economic development. The Economic Developers Association of Canada (EDAC) lists new business opened, population, building permit issuances, and building permit closures on their top 10 measures of economic development.1 Building Permit applications for the last year was obtained from the City’s building department however obtaining historical information proved to be beyond the City’s software limitations. Receiving business information from the City also appeared impossible within the projects defined scope but the accessible Canadian Census had well documented information relating to population growth and residential dwellings. To obtain information specifically pertaining to commercial property I began searching for access to the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) which is managed by the Canadian Real Estate Association. Real Estate sales, or lack thereof, are often cited as an economic indicator and privileged access to this database provided the foundation for my research for which I am extremely grateful. Examining the attributes for commercial real estate listings provided a barometer for evaluating Cambridge’s real estate market that can define the desirability of the cities properties and reveal the trends in market conditions. These existing data sources of population demographics, real estate listings and building permits provided a framework of data that demonstrates both the expanding and contracting economies from which to analyze. Viewing the patterns of the urban morphology subsequently provides a point of departure for comparison to the existing literary discourse.