Urban planner Ken Greenberg calls casinos 'the perennial attraction of quick fixes' that do more harm than good by squeezing out the kinds of urban innovations that create value.
By Ryan McGreal
Published December 27, 2012
I'm currently reading the book Walking Home by Ken Greenberg, the Toronto-based architect and urban planner who was the keynote speaker at the May 2012 On The Cusp in Hamilton. The book is all kinds of wonderful, but for now I'd like to focus on one particular passage.
The thesis of Greenberg's book is that cities can only thrive when they represent the culmination of many individuals and small groups creating, interacting, collaborating, merging, bifurcating, adapting and innovating their communities, and that this process cannot be managed or mandated through mechanistic top-down rules and processes.
Hamilton, of course, has suffered more than its share of top-down, mechanistic fixes and block-busting mega-projects. Our latest fixation is a proposed downtown casino, which seems to have come out of nowhere and has several of our councillors nearly frantic with anticipation about provincial funding and the revenue stream that will come our way from our sliver of revenue from the slot machines.
Politicians and planners are ... lured into difficulties through the perennial attraction of quick fixes. If only we had a (fill in the blank with the latest and greatest silver-bullet facility), we would be a world-class city, and that would bring back tourists and provide jobs.
Casinos are a common version of this familiar litany. After working in downtown Detroit for a number of years, I had a public falling-out with the mayor when, under enormous pressure from casino interests, he publicly shifted from his stance against casinos on the river to expropriating sixty acres [24 hectares] of prime waterfront land exclusively for this purpose.
Casino Nova Scotia in Halifax perfectly illustrates how these quick fixes can do more harm than good. No doubt intended to help open up the waterfront, the building presents a bleak and lifeless presence on the harbour's edge, with blank walls and dark glass windows facing the water and a large access ramp for tour buses facing the city.
Its design understandably focuses attention exclusively on the gambling that happens inside. With absolutely no reason to occupy the valuable waterfront site on which it's located, a site that clearly called for an extroverted and publicly minded presence, the casino has probably retarded the redevelopment of what is potentially some of the most valuable real estate in Maritime Canada. [paragraph breaks added]
He goes on to argue that all the various "silver bullet" fixes for struggling cities suffer from the same fundamental shortcomings: they replace the organic evolution of urban communities with a frozen, top-down plan that leaves no room for people to participate in their own city.
As such, they represent a zero-sum game in which dollars are shifted around but no new value or wealth is created. To the extent that they co-opt money that might otherwise be invested in diverse individual enterprises, their opportunity cost is any number of missed chances to benefit from innovations.
In fact, since the allocation of money to build a project is never 100 percent efficient, "silver bullet" mega-projects actually produce a net loss of value.
In general, casinos built in downtown cores tend to have a modest negative effect on business in surrounding areas, by siphoning money out of the fixed pie of entertainment spending and funneling it out of the local economy. (And that is not to mention the social and public health costs of problem gambling, which commonly increases when a new casino opens near vulnerable populations.)
Given what we know about how cities function, how they create value and generate wealth, and what circumstances are most conducive to robust urban economies, this should come as no surprise. A casino is an expensive distraction from the less fancy but more valuable "collection of seemingly modest actions by individuals, small businesses and community organizations" (Putting People First: The New Land Use Plan for Downtown Hamilton) that is proven to foster real, sustained urban revitalization.
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