By Ryan McGreal
Published November 05, 2009
A well-meaning op-ed in today's Spectator falls victim to the same old utopian thinking that has plagued downtown revitalization for decades.
In an article recommending a new design charette - a kind of mini-conference where architects, planners, developers and so on get together and brainstorm solutions - Thomas A Beckett insists that progress in Hamilton's downtown core requires a break from "what we have been doing for the past 50 years" - but then turns around to advocate "radical surgery".
On this page in the past few years, I have suggested the creation of a grand and elegant central park, the hallmark of most great livable cities. My proposal was for a redevelopment area that might include several city blocks, east of James to perhaps Mary Street and north of King to Cannon. This would entail a massive razing and redevelopment of the downtown area.
This kind of thinking, of course, is precisely what we have been doing for the past 50 years.
It's the thinking behind the disastrous Jackson Square conglomeration, for which the city undertook "a massive razing and redevelopment of the downtown area" to, in the words of Pardon My Lunch Bucket author David Proulx, "cut away the rot of the Victorian age."
Beckett goes on:
[W]e need to immediately implement a process to create an ambitious new vision that will drive the rebirth of Hamilton's downtown core. Rebranding the city from one of smokestacks and polluted waters to a city of natural beauty, abundant waterfalls, open spaces and science would be good start.
So are we building a city or a national park? Open spaces are absolutely devastating to urban revitalization. They're the impetus behind Le Corbusier's infamous "Tower in a Park", which degraded inevitably into the shitty vertical sprawl that have characterized most postwar urban building in North America: utilitarian highrise apartment buildings and housing projects set far back from the street on useless patches of "open space" that no one would dream of using, connected by expressways since destinations are no longer within walking distance.
Above all, what Beckett seems to have missed is that parts of the downtown core are actually recovering nicely and doing quite well. The successful parts of downtown are those patches of dense, coherent, life-sized urban form that survived the "radical renewal" of the postwar period and provide precisely those benefits of urban living - density, diversity, proximity, interaction - that draw people to cities in the first place.
Incidentally, Hamilton has already played host to a Downtown Renewal Charette, sponsored by Architecture Hamilton back in 1997. The architects and planners came out of the charette with one firm recommendation: convert the downtown streets back to two-way.
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