Special Report: Casino

Ken Greenberg on Casinos

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.

Greenberg warns:

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Kieran C. Dickson (anonymous) | Posted December 27, 2012 at 21:12:23

Windsor provides an example of what happens when a c@sino is located on prime waterfront land AND in the middle of a downtown. The resulting monolithic dead-zone clearly detracts from the city's extensive (and very costly) efforts to create a more livable urban core. While I appreciate that Windsor's problems are longstanding and complex and cannot be blamed (solely) upon a c@sino, this massive facility is an obvious impediment to developing complete and appealing neighbourhoods in its vicinity.

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By UpbeatInDowntown (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2012 at 07:21:58

The downtown councilors don't want it. The suburban councilors want it. Any bets on where it will go?

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By LovetheGore (anonymous) | Posted December 29, 2012 at 10:00:45 in reply to Comment 84492

UpBeat this is a general statement. I have emailed the suburban councillors and have emails from 2 of them (that took the time to reply) saying they are against a casino in the downtown core.

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By Blinker (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2012 at 07:56:03

"The perennial attraction" - Ken Greenberg

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By Detalumis (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2012 at 16:30:30

Casinos are a dying industry that doesn't really take in all that much money either, not sure why people don't get it. This isn't Monte Carlo with James Bond and ladies in evening gowns, go to any casino and you will think you have stepped into a retirement home. Young people have no interest in them, they are associated with being old, poor and generally geriatric. And no people don't all of a sudden decide to hang out in casinos or take up bingo and scratch tickets when they hit a certain age anymore, it's like trying to get people to have an interest in chewing tobacco or whatnot, that's the reason for a decline in gambling - the people that patronize them are dying off and nobody takes their place.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted January 01, 2013 at 22:59:22 in reply to Comment 84517

When is the last time you were in a casino? I was in Casino Niagara a couple weeks ago and there were lots of young people. Sure I didn't see any evening gowns but I saw lots of people dressed well. Lots of people in their 20' and 30's right up to people in their twilight years. It seems people of all ages love to lose their money.

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted December 29, 2012 at 09:32:10

Casinos are dying like drinking beer is dying. Heck even throw in prostitution is dying. It's an original vice. Deal with it the casino is going to happen, we already have one, the next one will likely be downtown. Don't go if you don't want to.

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By steeljim (anonymous) | Posted December 29, 2012 at 17:27:44

Exactly. But you're commenting on rth they are pro backyard urban chickens but anti c@sinos.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted January 13, 2013 at 08:05:17 in reply to Comment 84535

There's lots of opinions here. I see the most common ones written about on RTH, in a nutshell, are:

  • No to casinos
  • Yes to converting one-way streets into two-way
  • Yes to reducing vehicular traffic on roads
  • Yes to saving every old building regardless of it's use or requirements for preservation
  • No to the suburbs
  • Yes to downtown living although we don't have the density or units required
  • No to our current crop of councilors and mayor
  • No to having traffic flow freely from one end of the city to the other
  • No to big box stores and malls
  • Yes to small independent stores everywhere
  • Yes to living with a 1950s mentality to shopping and No to the 1950s car-centric mentality

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted January 14, 2013 at 13:48:23 in reply to Comment 85149

Pretty much. Anything the majority wants, single family home with a yard, easy driving, easy shopping RTH loathes and they go gaga over all the stuff most just don't care about. Preserving old outdated buildings, slowing traffic (while the rest of the world tries to figure out how to increase traffic flow), useless pointless conversion of one way streets to two way, doing away with modern power centres and forcing everyone to shop in old fashioned stores scattered all over the city, RTH is advocating.

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By AlHuizenga (registered) | Posted January 13, 2013 at 14:05:58 in reply to Comment 85149


Here's a better list, minus the silly mis-characterizations.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted January 13, 2013 at 20:49:21 in reply to Comment 85158

Well no, that's one poster's opinons. I'm talking about the articles written and the comments from posters together.

Comment edited by DowntownInHamilton on 2013-01-13 20:50:33

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