There is a fundamental disconnect between how Public Works views the city and how residents view the city. To Public Works, the city is infrastructure, but to citizens, it's living space.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published June 05, 2011
Walkability has emerged as a key priority for Hamilton, but the way the city currently interacts with residents could make achieving it more difficult than it needs to be. What happened when the city's Public Works department set out to repair a small pedestrian bridge near my home illustrates some potential pitfalls.
This bridge connects the two sides of Pearl Street, allowing pedestrians to travel over the TH & B railway line near Locke. Originally built to accommodate vehicle traffic as well as pedestrians, this charming wood-surfaced bridge is a vital part of the neighbourhood.
The bridge is about eight metres wide. Two pathways, one on each side of the bridge, connect to the sidewalks along Pearl. The center of the bridge, where cars once travelled, is a large rectangular area where people used to sit on lawn chairs and trainspot.
When the bridge required repair a couple of years ago, Public Works replaced large sections of the pedestrian walkways on each side. At the same time, however, they cordoned off the large, central portion of the bridge with chain link fencing, presumably so they would no longer need to maintain it.
This once-charming bridge now has a penitentiary aesthetic. The cordoned-off middle section is now a convenient trash repository for litterers and a great place for weeds to flourish. Because it's secured with a six-foot-tall chain link fence, neighbourhood residents can't clean it up.
This small example illustrates a fundamental disconnect between how Public Works views the city and how residents view the city. To Public Works, the bridge was a functional piece of infrastructure, providing pedestrians a way to travel from A to B. To residents, the bridge is part of their living space.
When people need to purchase a new couch, obtaining a large L-shaped object with padded surfaces is not their primary goal. Instead, they seek something that is comfortable and attractive, that complements the other pieces of furniture they own already, and that fits with the aesthetic of their living room.
In the case of the Pearl Street bridge, had city staff spoken with residents in the area, the disconnect between their plans and what residents actually wanted would have become apparent.
On the other hand, it's unlikely that many residents would have attended a public information session about plans for something so minor. This brings up another important issue: the way the city consults with residents is fundamentally outdated.
At the Hamilton Economic Summit, Jill Stephens, Director of Strategic Planning and Rapid Transit, lamented the fact that the "same people" show up at every information session about LRT. That's because people are busy and have little time for often boring public information sessions or always boring 60-page planning documents.
Instead, the city should become a leader in online engagement by providing citizens with simple, streamlined, and entertaining ways to judge proposals and provide comments.
In the case of the Pearl Street bridge, imagine if the city had posted signs next to the bridge that advised residents of plans for the bridge and that featured a short, memorable address to a website where residents could provide suggestions, vote for suggestions they approved of, and provide commentary on the plans.
Taking this approach would represent a sea change in the way the city collects information from residents and the way it produces plans. Instead of dictating available options to residents, the city would act like a business that seeks to satisfy the wishes of its clients, and it would interact with citizens in a profoundly more modern, accessible way than it does now.
Direct, digital democracy is not a new concept, but it is frequently criticized on the grounds that citizens are not informed enough to make wise decisions about complex issues. But no one knows neighbourhood issues better than the people who live there.
For issues like walkability that are fundamentally local, living space issues, transforming the way the city and residents communicate is essential.
This essay was first published in the June, 2011 issue of Urbanicity.
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