"On The Cusp", an event recently held in Hamilton, turned a spotlight on Hamilton's ongoing inability to engage in the fundamental transformation it needs.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published May 06, 2012
On Thursday, May 3, the Hamilton-Burlington Society of Architects (HBSA) held an event called On The Cusp. Its theme: "We've been talking about the potential of downtown Hamilton for years. What do we need to do today to realize it?"
The event's keynote speaker was Ken Greenberg. Greenberg is an architect, urban designer, and author of Walking Home, a book about urban renewal that illuminates Greenberg's "passion and methods for rejuvenating neglected cities".
The event was held at the soon-to-be-demolished Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board at 100 Main St. W., and the house was packed.
Greenberg began his keynote address by tracing an arc from his childhood in the period after World War 2 to the present day. "The period after World War 2 was very influential," he said, describing what he called a fundamental "transformation". (Note: quotations in this article are based on my notes from the event and may not be word-for-word accurate.)
"People became infatuated with the automobile," he explained. "They wanted a separated work and home life, and they started living in auto-dependent communities. These cities were totally different from the cities we inhabited for millenia."
Cities are now undergoing a second transformation, which Greenberg dubbed a "hangover" from the first transformation. He believes this transformation is as profound as the one that took place during his childhood.
Before World War 2, cities were dense, active communities. Greenberg, who lives in Toronto, displayed a map of Toronto with a dotted line overlaid on it, describing the path of someone starting downtown and walking north up Bathurst Street. As this person walks, they travel through "concentric rings of time", starting with the original city of Toronto and then traveling through suburbs that were built in later decades.
At the beginning the street life is active, dense, and connected. Later, the environment becomes bare, inhospitable and car-dominated.
This journey is identical to the journey along James Street in Hamilton. You begin in a dense, urban, attractive environment. As you travel south the environment becomes increasingly more sparse and car-centric until you arrive in the parking-lot dominated landscape of Upper James near the Linc, a part of Hamilton with the vitality and charm of a moonscape.
James St. S, downtown Hamilton. Image Credit: Google Streetview.
Upper James St. between Fennel and Mohawk. Image Credit: Google Streetview.
Upper James St. near the Linc. Image Credit: Google Streetview.
Logically the next phase ought to be a form of urban environment where everything is paved - an endless expanse of asphalt dotted by buildings placed at great distances from one another. This would transcend the concept of roads and parking lots by merging the two into a single unified paradigm.
In other words, the new Centre Mall.
In 1996 Greenberg participated in the Downtown Ideas Charette, which was also held by the HBSA. "A lot of the ideas that we discussed in that charette are many of the ones that we are still on the cusp of realizing," said Greenberg. "When I look back on the material that came out of that charette, there was a set of powerful integrated ideas that still make sense."
Hamilton still has its strengths, but it also still has many fundamental problems. For example, "the traffic issues, with huge arteries going through the city, are still there and need to be dealt with".
From Greenberg's viewpoint, Hamilton is succeeding and failing at the same time: "you are both sucking and blowing," he remarked to laughter. There are pockets of success like James Street North, but losses in other areas and continued problems on streets like Wilson.
Hamilton is still committed to low density sprawl, and this carries risks for downtown revitalization. "If you divert your potential into areas that feed the old paradigm as opposed to the new, you're really tying your hands behind your back."
I sensed that Greenberg felt many of the solutions to Hamilton's problems were rather obvious, and where they were not, had already been examined in detail. I kept expecting him to exclaim something along the lines of, "Come on Hamilton, it's really not that complicated!"
But perhaps that was just my own frustration bubbling to the surface, an emotion I felt doubly when he described the innovative approach to transformation that was undertaken in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which now proudly describes itself as "The most livable city in America".
As Saint Paul embarked on a deliberate process of transformation and revitalization, city staff were seconded from their offices and forced to work together in shared offices with other staff from many different departments. The process brought together people with varied specialties who were not normally used to working together.
The public was also invited to participate and contribute ideas during the process, which saw city staff become passionate about a shared vision for the city that they brought back to their offices to turn into reality.
It's the kind of radical and yet common-sense idea that could work wonders in Hamilton where too often the concerns of a single department (e.g. traffic) trump others. Simply put, it's about teamwork and balance, a concept neatly summed up by Greenberg when he said, "You don't want to optimize one thing at the expense of others. You want to sub-optimize everything in order to create an optimal whole."
As I drove down Upper James today, those words rang in my head. "Sub-optimize everything in order to create an optimal whole."
That's not happening in Hamilton.
After Greenberg's keynote four panelists were invited to join him on-stage for a discussion. They were Terry Cooke, president and CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation; Jeff Paikin, president of New Horizon Homes; Mary Pocius, tireless downtown advocate and past executive director of the International Village BIA; and Lloyd Alter, professor of sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design and editor of the Design section at treehugger.com.
I won't dwell on what was discussed during the panel, partly because I stopped taking detailed notes, and partly because some of the commentary tended towards the optimistic boosterism that I'm concerned might be reducing some of the urgency Hamiltonians ought to feel about the current situation. Notable exceptions to this were Lloyd Alter (read his take on the event here) and Terry Cooke, who delivered an impassioned blast of the status quo.
"I'm not that optimistic," said Cooke. "Only once in a generation do you have an opportunity to do something like LRT." Lamenting the glacial pace of change, he pointed out that Hamilton is the "only post-amalgamation city that doesn't have an official plan, and that has a zoning bylaw in the lower city that dates back to my birth."
"In 2000/2001 we did an incremental pilot project of converting John and James to two-ways," said Cooke. "It's been totally successful. Why we haven't seen our way through to getting rid of the five-way expressways in our city defies comprehension."
His frustration was both evident and well-received. I could murmurs of assent throughout the auditorium.
My voice was among them. There is no question that things are improving in Hamilton, but we are like a race car driver who is steadily falling behind the pack that keeps pointing out that their overall speed is greater than before. They fail to notice that everyone else is accelerating faster than they are.
Gradually, cities are converging on the correct way of transforming themselves. Those transformations have unlocked thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment in places like the King and Spadina neighbourhood in Toronto. Those transformations are taking place in cities across the globe, even those who once had much in common with Hamilton.
People like Ken Greenberg have helped those transformations along. They know what Hamilton needs to do. Sadly, I still don't think we're really listening.