By Ryan McGreal
Published November 23, 2009
John Dolbec, CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, makes some sensible arguments in his letter to the editor day regarding the recent tempest-in-a-teapot about whether downtown panhandlers are to blame for the state of the core.
It's encouraging that he seems to recognize the role of the downtown core in a successful city:
In any successful city, the core is high-priced prime real estate comprised of small offices, apartments and condominiums, with quality shops accessible at ground level.
This, of course, is the inverse of most North American cities, which, after decades of automobile-based planning, are characterized mainly by affluent suburbs and economically distressed centres. (Of course, this is starting to change - a notable effect observed during the recent recession is that cities with the most sprawl saw the sharpest drops in home values whereas the denser, more traditional cities were much better at preserving property values.)
Dolbec goes on to point out that the problem in Hamilton is not that there are so many panhandlers, but that they make up a "disproportionate" share of the total. He even notes, "panhandlers are not at all dangerous" and "our downtown is indeed truly safe" - but adds that these facts are irrelevant because "people feel the core is an unattractive, indeed, for many, an unthinkable place to be."
He contrasts the typical European city, in which:
there are usually more pickpockets than all of the panhandlers of southwestern Ontario combined. Yet, most have no image problem. Their streets are overflowing with residents, workers, tourists, artists and students who vastly outnumber the rest. All cities have their disadvantaged, and no one disputes that poverty is real and poverty reduction vital.
He concludes that the best way forward is not to get sidetracked in spurious debates but "to stick to the plan" - to build incrementally on postitive strategies to boostrap prosperity one step at a time.
All good, all good. My concern is that for all his enlightened urbanism, it's left unresolved whether Dolbec now comprehends the most basic instrumental aspects of healthy urbanism - in particular, the role that people-friendly streets play in making cities people-friendly.
A year ago last summer, in response to the vigorous debate over converting downtown streets back to two-way traffic flows, Dolbec wrote a letter to the Spectator pointing out that the Chamber's position on two-way street conversion is "one of benign neutrality" because its members can't achieve consensus on the issue.
This earned a withering rebuttal by Terry Cooke, who called the Chamber's position a "cop-out" and blamed its irresolution on "the most talked about local policy debate in recent memory" for its "fast becoming irrelevant to the decision-making process" at City Hall.
Dolbec is also the business advocate who, earlier that year, argued that it was unreasonable to restrict truck traffic through the city because our just-in-time economy demands it - no matter how incompatible truck traffic is with livability.
Those "successful" European cities that Dolbec admires emphatically do not sacrifice the safety, comfort or livability of their downtown streets to the expediency of through traffic - cars or trucks.
If Hamilton is to make its downtown streets desirable to people who would live, work and play there by choice, we must stiffen our resolve and commit to designing our streets to accommodate people before vehicles.
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