Suburban Bureau

Let's Make Real Neighbourhoods

Hamilton has not built a real neighbourhood in over fifty years. While I praise Locke Street and Concession Street for making comebacks as real neighbourhoods, Hamilton can and should do more.

By Trey Shaughnessy
Published January 14, 2005

I have lived almost all my life on Hamilton Mountain, from areas known as East, Brow, Central and currently West Mountain (in that order). These areas have official neighbourhood names, Berrisfield, Sherwood, Bonnington and Gurnett, names which are unknown to anyone but a few mapmakers at City Hall. Most people will call these areas "Gage and Mohawk", "Fennell and Kenilworth", "off West 5th between Fennell and Mohawk", and "off Upper Paradise by Stonechurch".

So I live in an area defined by roads. Why is that? Our suburban areas are not real neighbourhoods, so we are forced to define them with the crossroads.

Neighbourhoods have a centre containing a local coffee shop, bookstore, bakery, library, bars, restaurants, variety stores, grocery stores, theatres, etc.

The centre defines the neighbourhood. It gives character to the area and identifies its residents - as "Westdalers", for example. Currently, the builders seem to have naming rights on neighbourhoods - "Scenic South", "Meadowlands", "Summit Park", "Paradise Heights". However, I fail to see anything scenic, meadow-like, pastoral or paradisiacal about these 'neighbourhoods'.

The Mountain only has one real neighbourhood - Concession Street (although still defined and branded by a road).

To be a real neighbourhood, the centre has to have many landlords. By contrast, Upper Paradise and Mohawk is dominated by Westcliffe Mall, where the residents are at the mercy of RioCan Inc. The parking lot anchorage destroys any fabric of a neighbourhood.

The best case is locally owned and operated establishments. 'Mom and Pop' shops provide the best scenario for establishing an identity with each centre, making them slightly different from the next. I am not totally against 'chain-stores' setting up shop in neighbourhoods, but they tend to be homogenizing.

Recall how emotional some Torontonians became about the thought of a Starbucks coming to their neighbourhood. The thought of a pad-site, run-of-the-mill, drive-through coffee shop threatened to destroy the 'brand' of the neighbourhood.

I don't blame them. I can't help but feel a little bit of one-step-forward-two-steps-backward for Concession Street, when hearing of the closure of Tim Horton's Number Two and the opening of Tim Horton Number Two Hundred and whatever, complete with a drive-thru. I thought Concession Street was complete with the opening of Movie Palace (the former York Cinemas) only to be disappointed with the news of a drive-through Tim Hortons, west of Upper Wentworth on the former Dairy Queen site.

The neighbourhood centre has to be a walkable destination. A destination must be no more than one kilometer away. In Italy these central public spaces are called Piazzas. This is where the people meet, hang out, and get to know their neighbours. (In Hamilton, by contrast, hanging out is against the law. No Loitering signs constantly remind us that ours are not public spaces but private property.)

European cities are filled with these central public spaces. These centres usually exist for every 5,000 people. That would require a population density of approximately 1,250 people per square kilometer (for a total of 5,000 people in a four-square-kilometer area around a centre).

Hamilton has a population density of 439 people per square kilometer. This density is too low. A greater intensity and variety of housing and building/land uses is required to make them viable.

The centre doesn't have a vast parking lot, because this isn't somewhere you are rushing to and from as fast as possible. Parking is usually sufficient with on-street spots and/or small lots behind the buildings. This social focal point is where we have failed miserably - not only in Hamilton, but also in most North American cities.

Real neighbourhoods are the glue to a sense of place. People feel 'at home' in them. You know your neighbours, Enzo the baker, Joe the barber, and Rudy the grocer. People are less rude to each other and more willing to lend a helping hand. People are simply neighbourly.

One reason why I feel Toronto, a city of five million people, works so well is because of its makeup of neighbourhoods: The Annex, Bloor West, Queen West, King West, St. Lawrence Market, Kensington Market, Rosedale, Yorkville, Chinatown, Little Italy, Greektown, Portugal Town, Harbourfront, Fashion District, Theatre District, Financial District, Entertainment District, Warehouse District and on and on. In a nutshell, Toronto has preserved and nurtured its neighbourhoods, so that its residents don't feel like an anonymous person among five million, but rather a resident of a neighbourhood.

Hamilton has not built a real neighbourhood in over fifty years. While I praise Locke Street and Concession Street for making comebacks as real neighbourhoods, Hamilton can and should do more. Bartonville, James North, King West, King East, King William (Theatre District), and Cannon Street (Chinatown) should be developed as neighbourhoods.

New developments should encourage a sense of place. I think City Hall should establish guidelines that promote builders to build these kinds of places. Recently, The Hamilton Spectator had a couple of articles saying how "single-family housing is still king". That doesn't mean sprawl has to be king, where weekly car trips to The Mall, The Supermarket and The Meadowlands are the only means to purchase our consumables.

The suburbs have the privilege of an identity: Dundas, Old Ancaster, Meadowlands, Stoney Creek, Stoney Creek Plateau, Mount Hope, etc., while Hamilton mountain is defined simply as East, West, Central and South. It's a non-place, with no sense of pride in where we live.

Does this sound like somewhere you want to live? I feel we can do a lot more with making Hamilton Mountain more neighbourly and more livable.

Trey lives in Williamsville NY via Hamilton. He is a Marketing Manager for Tourism and Destination Marketing in the Buffalo-Niagara Metro.

His essays have appeared in The Energy Bulletin, Post Carbon Institute, Peak Oil Survival, and Tree Hugger.

And can't wait for the day he stops hearing "on facebook".


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By Port Perry Citizen's group (anonymous) | Posted June 28, 2006 at 08:46:14

Wow, loved the article. Sounds like you are a follower of Jane Jacobs - great insight to urban planning and shaped Toronto. We are having our own small struggle here regarding a Mega Box Store development threatening the unique quality of our lovely town of Port Perry. We are the last true heritage town with every convenience downtown along with tourist shops mixed in. I will pass on the website address to others on our committee. We are having a general meeting on July 11th to try and inform the public about the threat that this will have on our community. Wish us luck!

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By ddaearegydd (anonymous) | Posted August 25, 2012 at 22:53:12

"Hamilton has a population density of 439 people per square kilometer."

Isn't that for the whole of Hamilton Region, not just the city? The city alone would surely have a much higher figure, but since Hamilton city does not technically exist as a standalone statistical unit, there are no easy figures for the actual density. Halton Region is about 500/km2 - that's Oakville and Burlington plus the rural hinterlands.

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