Though you wouldn’t know it from your average council meeting, St. John’s has long been home to visionary thinkers. Their ideas range from the fantastic to the structurally sound, but they all respond to the same urban problems – problems we’re still trying to solve.

While many Newfoundlanders were dreaming of an end to the Great War, James O’Neill Conroy was looking even further ahead. In December 1916 he published “The City of To-Morrow,” a futurist account of his return to St. John’s fifty years after the war’s end.

Conroy finds the harbour packed with stone piers and warehouses. Shops and homes, built mostly of fireproof limestone, fan out beyond. Gone are the steep streets – hills and valleys have been regraded and tramcars climb what’s left.

A seaside suburb at Freshwater Bay, accessible by tunnel through the South Side Hills, is the new hub of leisure and tourism, while Signal Hill is more fortified than ever, hiding two regiments and an array of “monster guns.” Conroy’s dream is mostly feasible, though it does involve redirecting cold ocean currents, botching the fishery to extend beach season.

His city reflects the hopes and fears of his time, but his bold predictions remain fiction. Half a century later, engineer Thomas Kierans developed a plan for the South Side Hills that would make Conroy proud.

In a video titled “A Plan for the Age of Inner Space,” and in a report to government, Kierans proposed tunnelling through the rock and excavating more than a square mile of space inside. The project would theoretically do the following: make room for storage, trade, research, and accommodation in a prime location; offset its own costs through mining revenue; provide access to Freshwater Bay for industrial shipping, the Hills’ slopes for surface development, and their peaks for parkland; and let us bury those darn oil tanks – all at a fraction of the cost of downtown office-space.

If Kierans’ vision sounds too good to come true, it was. Suffice to say, Irving remains the Hills’ only visible tenant. The St. John’s Heritage Foundation debuted a less daunting vision in 1979 when it published “A New Life for Old St. John’s.”

Written to encourage heritage-friendly urban development, it included a plan for a year-round pedestrian network of covered lanes and gangways connecting every major downtown block. “Interior streets” in the unused alley space between Duckworth and Water would connect shops internally while joining via skywalk with the harbour-side commercial blocks. An elevated boardwalk would provide lookouts and market space along the water.

Despite some beautifully rendered drawings and the support of downtown trade associations, this vision too was shelved. Our current system of four pedways connects approximately six buildings and zero shops.

If the City of St. John’s lacks vision, it isn’t for want of fresh ideas. Residents have imagined and re-imagined creative solutions to our tricky climate, topography, and heritage. It’s clear that our toughest urban challenges will
not be solved by new ideas, but by the will to make them happen.