Downtown Bureau

The Challenge of Greening Hamilton: Building on Past Legacies of Eco-Justice

Two very different planning process went on in Hamilton during the 1950s: nature was protected in West Hamilton while being systematically destroyed in Central and East Hamilton.

By John Bacher
Published March 29, 2018

In response to my recent essay on rioting in Hamilton as a negative response to nature deficit disorder, I received a private response advising me about two positive greening projects in central Hamilton that are worth considering in more detail.

These involved two paper projects - the Gage Park Master Plan and stormwater management on Ottawa street - which have not yet been realized. Understanding this situation points to the reality that those in power have created a situation where east end and central Hamilton are trapped in a nature deficit.

Hamilton's nature deficit disorder is based on similar elements of class oppression that have been recognized by urban geographers and historians around the world.

The term "east end", describes a ghetto for those with limited financial means. They essentially cannot afford to live in the luxury of having wildlife friends, such as singing blue jays and colourful Hummingbirds around them.

This is a reality shaped by prevailing winds that disperse industrial pollutants to the east.

And it continues to this day. A terrible scheme seeking to make Hamilton the garbage-building capital of the Great Lakes was only stopped on July 22, 2017.

The slowness of paper greening schemes to come to reality in central and east Hamilton is expressive of harsh reality, shaped by narrow class oppression myopia and political corruption. Nature deficit is caused by what political scientists who value social solidarity call democratic deficit. The way out of it is to get more people involved in the democratic political process.

In this regards, Hamilton can learn much from past heroes, such as a former Mayor Same Lawrence, his close friends and park advocate, Thomas McQuesten, and a sadly obscure artist, Murray Thomson.

Gage Park and Ottawa Street North

One paper project that shows the crawling pace of change is the Hamilton's long-term plan for Gage Park. It was approved in 2010 after five years of consultations. Eight years later, nothing has come out of the more innovative aspects of this plan, which would help in restoring vanished natural diversity.

The Gage Park Master plan calls for bio-swales in the park's parking lot. Good idea, but where are they eight years later?

Another fine aspect of the Gage Park master plan is "introducing maintained meadow" as part of "a reduced lawn care program." Where are such naturalized meadows today?

The Gage Park Master plan apart from has a protection on cheap approach towards the Niagara Escarpment. It properly prevents the construction of any buildings Gage Park that would block vistas of the Escarpment. At a time of strained park budgets, however, such risks are remote.

The plan ignores pricy measures such as building an eco-passage bridge that would actually allow rabbits and hikers to connect to Gage Park without the fear of being hit by a train or truck.

Another paper project which has yet to be realized is an award winning design for bio-swales on Ottawa Street North around Argyle and Edinburgh streets. This green blessing is essentially a much-needed windfall from the corporate philanthropy of the pharmaceutical retailer, Rexall. It has plans for a new outlet here.

The rezonings needed for the Rexall development were approved three years ago.

'Utopian Days'

To understand what can be done beyond the slow-moving paper promises, it is helpful to go to a time which the great Canadian philosopher, George Grant, who spent his most productive thinking time in Hamilton, termed the "Utopian Days."

During these Utopian days, the great Stelco strike of 1946 laid the basis for collective bargaining in Canada. It was a time when there was no democratic defecit - mobilization in political struggle was at its peak.

Sam Lawrence was Hamilton's Mayor during the Utopian Days. Lawrence was part of a CCF slate that controlled City Council. He refused to call upon the army to break the Stelco strike, saying he was a labour man first, chief magistrate second.

At the same time, Thomas McQuesten served on the boards of the Hamilton Parks Commission and Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) board. This was also the most creative time for the Hamilton artist, Murray Thomson, who was a Westinghouse production worker. He also organized an artists' union.

Woodlands Park

Thomson was the product of the greatest cultural hubs of Hamilton, Woodlands Park. Dubbed "The People's Park", its giant shady tress were once part of an old growth forest called Land's Bush.

Union workers assembling at Woodlands Park (Image Credit: Workers' City)
Union workers assembling at Woodlands Park (Image Credit: Workers' City)

Located next to the Westinghouse factory, the six acre park was a venue for political discussions and protests. Some of the demonstrations there were frequently broken up by firemen and police in violation of Democratic norms. This "People's Park" was the start of a 10,000 march to Stelco at the peak of the 1946 strike.

What most distinguished the strike of 1946 was the artistic flair of the marchers who gathered in Woodlands Park. The marchers were led by Thomson, disguised in a masked effigy of the reactionary Conservative party politician, Nora Francis Henderson. Other masked marchers were linked arm and arm as the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, and a notorious capitalist called "Old Iron Jaw Hilton."

While union rights triumphed in 1946 and as Thomson banner's proclaimed labour did "knock out" their political foes, changes after 1946 were negative for central and east end Hamilton. This was during a time when McQuesten had died and Lawrence began a slow retirement from politics.

It was a downhill time for Hamilton's Centre and east end. No new nature parks blessed the city. Instead, homes were bulldozed for an asphalt sea of parking lots, many of which were subsidized by massive "urban renewal" schemes paid for by the federal government.

Slumming by Design

The efforts to try to turn much of Hamilton into a giant slum was vividly witnessed by the demise of Woodlands Park as a cultural hub. This was accomplished through the uprooting of its majestic trees. Its the landscape was converted to treeless aesthetic fields which still dominate the park. According to labour activists such as Bert McClure, this mutilation was done to prevent large-scale gatherings from being held there.

Woodlands Park with Westinghouse building in background (Image Credit: Jason Nason)
Woodlands Park with Westinghouse building in background (Image Credit: Jason Nason)

When plans emerged that would eventually multi late King's Forest Park for the Red Hill Creek expressway in the 1950s there was a very different approach taken in West end Hamilton moreover. This west end extended into the entire Halton region and to much of the adjacent lakeshore landscape of Peel.

I got a sense of the basic divisions between the West end and East end of Hamilton, when walking with Don McLean and other foes of the Red Hill Creek expressway to Toronto.

When we got to the Burlington side of the beach, we met an affluent businessman from this community. He told us why he supported the Red Hill Creek expressway but opposed the Mid-Peninsula Expressway in his home town.

Essentially, he wanted pollution to stay in the east end, away from his friends, employees and family. Fumes from east end Hamilton for the Red Hill Creek expressway would be blown away by the prevailing winds and not choke his loved ones.

Central Hamilton Under Attack

Two very different planning process went on in Hamilton during the 1950s. Downtown Hamilton became marred by one-way street expressways. This doomed an attempt at a small enclave of civility, Hess Village.

Victorian Hamilton neighbourhoods based on transit were pulverized by the demands of the automobile. New industrial areas in the east end around Stoney Creek had no aesthetic embellishments, such as trees or ponds.

Similarly, it is not surprising that the air of the east end would be toxified by the ill-fated but mercifully short-lived SWARU municipal garbage incinerator. The fumes it belched out made Hamilton's steel mills look like green wonders of design.

To this day, the Hamilton Port Authority continues its mad incineration mania, seeking to have garbage from throughout the Great Lakes region shipped in by lake freighters.

Different Planning Approach

An entirely different approach took place in the west end Hamilton, Burlington, and Oakville. Here there was a determination that even oil refineries should be built in a way that was in harmony with nature. This succeeded to a remarkable degree. The oil refineries were built with careful buffers, including complete forests, some of which provided a refuge for the endangered Red Headed Woodpeckers.

Halton Region and Peel along the lakeshore may be the only area in the world where the homes of the one percent are adjacent to oil refineries. Here the grounds of petroleum refineries are also refuges for deer and rare woodpeckers. There is no nature deficit in Halton Region, despair its plethora of heavy industry. This green pattern is clear all along the Lake Ontario lakeshore, with massive forests lining oil refineries as far as Port Credit.

Efforts to wipe out the legacy of the green planning in the west have led to protests and political organizing. This has resulted in municipal councils being controlled by the Green Party of Canada, through its regional affiliate, Halton Greens.

A critical aspect of its organizing was a campaign against the development for residential purposes of a former oil refinery buffer in Oakville on Lake Ontario, Shell Park. This political mobilization to defend the green legacy of the good planning of the past ended the democratic deficit that had allowed paving interests to dominate municipal councils in Halton.

Art Crawls Through Ugliness

Think tanks such as the Hamilton Institute are right to criticize art crawls which are disconnected from the broader landscapes. Art crawls through ugliness don't make sense.

The Pollution Crawl that helped stop schemes for making Hamilton the garbage-burning capital of the Great Lakes is helpful in showing how crawls can seek to restore beauty to our landscape. Sherman Inlet in Hamilton Harbour was to have been the site for a garbage-burning facility.

It is to be hoped that its resoration will be on a bigger scale than anticipated and that more of the buried river will be exposed and brought back to life.

Cleaning up the polluted legacy of the past is difficult for Hamilton to finance, with the decades-long struggle to clean up Randall's Reef being a vivid example. Past Pollution Crawls can be morphed into restoration crawls, on the scale of the artistic marches that were launched from Woodlands Park in 1946.

John Bacher is the Chair of the Sierra Club, Ontario Chapter. He is a member of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS) and sits on the steering committee of the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance.


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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted March 29, 2018 at 15:23:49

To be fair, it is not just Gage Park that the City is slow to invest in. Even here in the mansion district, the recent revitalization of Durand Park took approximately forever to move from paper plans to action. And we STILL do not have properly paved park paths.

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By wrcu2 (registered) - website | Posted March 31, 2018 at 10:55:45 in reply to Comment 122737

Both of you write interesting articles. John's are about restoration of the natural and Kevin's are about multiple issues but most recently he crushed cars. The underlying theme throughout both of your works feels like an affront to environmental degradation. I do not like to see this either but I wish to point out your inconsistencies.

Art Crawls Through Ugliness...don't make sense? So James Street in your opinion, John, is ugly or that the people, businesses and galleries display ugliness? There are no majestic trees; There are no beautiful blue jays, goldfinches, raccoons or rabbits to beautify that space! I'm sure there are quite a few pigeons nearby but they rest at night. Although I suppose their poop does enhance the ugliness factor somewhat, but hey, that's their paint and their canvas is wherever they perch. They are our feathery weatherlings if you will. Nocturnal creatures like some sub-humans generally do not seek out beauty at night, nocturnal creatures are usually seeking prey, but hey, why not? Just grab a few rattlers and go tagging, break a few windows or litter until your dark heart's content.

Humans, generally speaking of course, do not embellish the natural. We bury rivers beneath pavement in cold concrete tubes. We chop down trees, cut them into pieces and build square houses to live in. We place our houses in squared neighborhoods. Have you ever noticed that very little in nature is ever formed perfectly square? Man is a trigonometry genius, he can apply his point to anything and we must defend his right to do so. Artistic, testosterone packed men in post-war middle-class Hamilton did just that. And what were these rights they stood for eh? A decent wage to earn enough to raise a family, buy houses, and God Forbid, purchase the American Dream for themselves including ...CARS! These men earned the right to bury rivers, build factories and construct world waring machines to protect those rights. Everyone else be damned!

The automobile, Kevin, is the tool which enabled post-war men in their careers. It allowed family men to leave the confines of city ugliness and plant themselves within the beauty of suburban living. It gave him the opportunity to see this great country of Canada like no other generation before. He could go camping, fishing and hunting in the wilderness. He could take his son to scouts and build soapbox cars or pine wood cars for the derby. Getting a driver's license was a right of passage into adulthood for most young boys. An opportunity to finally put away the bicycle and buy a real cool machine, his first car. A chance to travel beyond the restrictions of two-wheeled, two human powered foot-pedals and see the world.

"Car drivers are poisoning and killing everyone else" is an extremely irresponsible statement. You are a trigonometrical genius with the ability to apply your point to anything! You have chosen this one elephant, ignoring the herd in the next room. Mankind is being pummeled by environmental toxins from everything around him. From the air he breaths, the water he drinks and the food he eats, to the poisonous propaganda he consumes daily from the mainstream. Everything is fake. Your numbers don't add up!

Gentlemen, nature abhors a vacuum. Man is square in his thinking and this must change. The world is well rounded, like a number, and it will fill the voids left by man given time. Look at the greening of Chernobyl and Fukushima once man left them too devastated for himself to live near.

Please do not misunderstand me, if you can. I love to ride my bicycle. Last year I got my wife on a bike for the first time in thirty five years. I took her up the escarpment to the bench to have wine and cheese at Fielding Estates. She loves to have wine and cheese. It was a lovely ride through vineyards. We had a beautiful view of the lake. There were birds and amphibians as well in the many ponds we passed along the way. Our property is just one of only two, where a buried stream emerges into daylight from the darkness of a cold concrete tube. I have been reintroducing amphibians into this environment for a few years now and last year there were tadpoles in the springtime. Tree frogs and toads sing their approval in the hot summer evenings.

I have been where you are, in Hamilton. I escaped with much suffering and expense. There is goodness there to be sure, but I had had enough of the vandalism. Now my wife and I have fruit trees, a small vineyard, vegetable and flower gardens and a babbling brook. We see squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, possums, dozens of birds including the occasional hawk hunting sparrow. Gage Park community garden was a wonderful experience for me as were a couple of other community gardens I worked in around town. All of which were accessed by my bicycle. Only you can be the change you wish to see happen. Do not expect everyone else to follow if you do not leave a good example for them to follow. Be the best role model you can be. People will look up to you. Don't be so high they can't see where you are coming from. And above all, Thanks for Sharing!


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By GWW (registered) | Posted March 31, 2018 at 08:57:12

What natural areas were destroyed in the 1950's in the east end? (There may have been farmland, that was developed for housing, but I don't consider that natural) The central part of the city? Or what areas were designated to be saved in the west end of the city? When you start talking about "Nature deficit disorder", all credibility goes out the window. The green space of the escarpment crosses the entire city and is accessible to all when I was a kid. When your older even more green space is accessible, if desired.

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