Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat shared the timeless principles of great cities, noted the classic mistakes Hamilton has made, and sketched a path to recovery.
By Ryan McGreal
Published December 04, 2013
Last night, the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce hosted a talk at Liuna Station by Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner for the City of Toronto and one of the most highly regarded planning professionals in North America.
The theme of this inaugural event was The Ambitious City, and Keesmaat distilled a set of "timeless principles of city building" for how to create a great city.
Jennifer Keesmaat speaking at The Ambitious City
Keesmaat grew up in Hamilton and spoke about waiting for the bus on the west mountain and carrying her bike up the Escarpment stairs. "Maybe this city inspired me, but it also made me tenacious, persistent, determined."
Keesmaat's first principle is that great cities design their places and streets for people, not cars. She contrasted the old paradigm of designing for cars, which simply leads to more cars, with the new paradigm of designing for people, which leads to more people.
Following from this, great cities have neighbourhoods with central main streets that provide a variety of amenities. "Places where you have multiple destinations within a five minute walk from home...give you a reason to be in public space."
To make great neighbourhoods work, people need a variety of ways to get around: walkable streets, bike lanes and good transit as well as automobile lane capacity. "If you do it right, you will encourage people to choose other ways to get around."
Keesmaat said that in her Toronto neighbourhood, "I have lots of choices [on how to get around]. Interestingly, living in a place with great choices, my car started coming in third" after walking and cycling.
In contrast, car-dependent land use reduces social inclusion. "If you're always just getting in your car and driving, you don't have a sense of value for your neighbourhood."
To achieve the diversity and scale that make great neighbourhoods, great cities need density. "You need to bring places in close to make this a viable way of life."
She noted that density does not necessarily mean towers. "Some of the densest cities in the world are midrise." Midrise density also integrates more coherently with existing lower density land use rather than towering over it.
Adding midrise density: before and after
Next, Keesmaat argued that in great cities, design matters. "The quality of our public realm says something about what we value."
Part of setting high standards is ensuring that heritage is not demolished for short-sighted interest. "In great cities, heritage preservation and restoration is recognized as adding long-term value."
She cited the famous Jane Jacobs quote, "New ideas need old buildings."
With more people living in cities, the city becomes the environment. "Great cities value clean air and water." An important way to reduce pollution is to transform how people choose to travel. "So much of our environmental footprint is generated by how we move around."
She noted that the North American city with the smallest per capita environmental footprint is New York, a dense city in which people walk, cycle and use transit for a large proportion of trips.
"Great cities treat land, air and water as precious scarce resources."
Of course, a city that follows all of these principles will become more desirable and hence more expensive. Keesmaat advised, "Great cities plan for affordable housing."
This necessarily involves public policy and public money, as market forces by themselves will not ensure that housing within a prosperous city remains affordable and accessible. "We need innovative solutions to our affordable housing problems."
Keesmaat did not shy away from a blunt and measured critique of how Hamilton has been doing on these principles. She spoke of the "classic mistakes" that Hamilton has made - classic because many other cities have made them as well.
Her number one criticism was Hamilton's ongoing commitment to designing our streets around easy motoring. "You've made your downtown streets a great place to be for cars," with the result that they are not a great place to be for people.
"Will your downtown be a place that you move through or will it be a destination - a place to go to?"
Hamilton also has a dismal record for preserving its built heritage. The audience gasped when Keesmaat showed a slide of all the downtown buildings that have disappeared since 1954:
Downtown buildings lost since 1954
She called Jackson Square a classic mistake: a mall turned in on itself that swallowed several whole blocks, created dead zones and eliminated transportation routes through downtown.
The next classic mistake is Hamilton's ongoing dedication to sprawl. "You've continued to grow out and you're continuing to grow out today."
This produces two problems. First, it means the City is spending scarce public dollars on the most expensive infrastructure that produces the poorest return in terms of new economic activity. "You've built very costly infrastructure at the edges of your city."
Second, it means the city's focus is being drawn away from the centre. "In order to make your downtown work, you need to be really disciplined about your other uses. The energy is still moving outward to the edges of the city."
The good news is that it's still possible for Hamilton to recover from these classic mistakes - but it will not be easy. "City building is difficult and it demands tenacity."
With its many assets, Hamilton enjoys a lot of potential, but we still haven't tied those assets into a coherent, strong vision that will lead to greatness. "You haven't hit the tipping point yet."
The first thing we need is to transform how the city invests in infrastructure. Specifically, the city needs to start investing in the kind of infrastructure that will attract 18-34 year olds - the people who will energize the economy for decades to come. "You choose, as a city, economic prosperity by building places that attract the coveted 18-34 demographic."
What 18-34 year olds don't want is the suburban, car-dependent lifestyle to which their parents aspired. "They want to walk, bike, take transit. They don't own cars and they don't want to mow the lawn."
Because Hamilton is still focused on sprawl, we risk missing out on attracting this demographic. "The majority of your new housing units are still single family houses. You won't attract the 18-34 demographic if you don't build the housing they want."
To achieve the political change needed to make this happen, the city needs to "widen the tent" and cultivate leadership from all sectors of the city. "It's not enough to generate great plans. It is imperative to build capacity for engagement."
This engagement needs to be creative to reach a broad section of stakeholders. "There's many people who will never show up" to a public meeting, but they need to be engaged in other ways. "We need to find new ways to bring [more people] into the conversation."
After the talk, Keesmaat sat down with moderator Martinus Geleynse, publisher of Urbanicity Magazine, for a question and answer session.
Keesmaat and Martinus Geleynse
Asked why people in suburbs should care about what happens downtown, Keesmaat replied, "There's a flaw in the question. We don't divide very well into urban vs. suburban" but rather many people live, work and play across both spaces. "When you create the downtown as a true centre, it becomes a centre for all."
Asked about Hamilton's prospects at becoming more of a bedroom community for people working in Toronto, Keesmaat replied, "It doesn't create a very high quality of life if you spend a long time commuting from city to city." She said Hamilton needs to keep cultivating diverse employment opportunities so people can find jobs here.
Keesmaat also contested the claim that the continued focus on sprawl reflects market demand. "Sprawl is not market demand, it's the result of a planning process" that incentivizes low-density greenfield development by building expensive suburban infrastructure and not charging enough in development charges and property taxes to cover it.
"You're probably subsidizing sprawl more than you're subsidizing affordable housing."
Asked whether the private sector or the public sector needs to move first toward building a great city, Keesmaat was emphatic: "It is imperative for the public sector to lead and instill confidence for the private sector" to follow.
She cited three key elements that make change possible: you need to believe in the vision, understand how great cities work and engage the broad public to realize change.
Keesmaat cited adding bike lanes and "building a culture of respect for cycling" as low-hanging fruit the city can achieve very quickly.
More low-hanging fruit can likely be found in the research, entrepreneurship and youthful energy at Mohawk College and McMaster University. "You need to connect that to city building."
A third piece of low-hanging fruit is simply getting more children to walk to school. It's no coincidence that the rise in childhood obesity exactly matches the fall in children walking to school, and reversing the trend is as simple as encouraging active transportation to neighbourhood schools.
Finally, Geleynse noted that many of the changes she recommends will take a long time. "Do we have to be patient?"
Keesmaat was adamant. "No! Don't be patient. Be bold. You have to be bold and choosy. You have to set very high standards and don't settle."
Her closing recommendation: "Go after light rail transit. It's a total game changer."
Cable 14 has posted a video recording of the event:
The full video runs an hour and 47 minutes and includes moderation by Urbanicity publisher Martinus Geleynse and an introduction by Hamilton Chamber of Commerce President Keanin Loomis.
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