On Beggars and Choosers

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 14, 2008

I'm reading Richard Florida's new book Who's Your City?, and it's an absolute banquet of insights into how cities work and how to make them work better, backed by robust statistical data from a variety of innovative sources (yes, statistical analysis is a creative endeavour).

It's already opened up several new (to me, at least) avenues of research and focus, but I'd like to jump in with one section that seems particularly a propos given the major cusp on which Hamilton currently balances.

It's tempting to comment (snidely) that Who's Your City reads like a litany of what Hamilton is doing wrong, but aside from being trite, it's not strictly true.

Hamilton is a seething mess of ambivalence, conflict and cross-purposes between the local, regional, and global trends and movements buffeting us. Whether and how we decide to respond to these forces will go a long way toward determining whether we slide into crisis or flourish in an urban renaissance.

With that in mind, I'll quote a section (pp. 162-3) that addresses what our goals ought to be:

[S]ome urban experts and community leaders remain convinced that only basic needs matter. They key to a great community, they contend, lies in good schools, safe streets, and upt-to-date infrastructure. Anything else - parks, trails, museums, or other amenities - is a luxury, aimed at the affluent, yuppies, and the privileged classes. Or they say it's something that comes only when a community is already rich. Jobs and basic services are what's needed to generate wealth and income. The rest is what we pay for with the resources so generated.

...[T]hey're wrong. The places that make us truly happy don't get trapped in any such tradeoff. they do it all, providing great schools, safe streets, and nice parks, to boot.

Far from being the product of great communities, such amenities are actually a cause and requirement for great communities. Florida's research identified five major essential community dimensions that contribute to success (in order of significance):

  1. Basic services - schools, health care, housing, roads, infrastructure, public transportation.

  2. Beauty and aesthetics - beautiful buildings, streetscapes, trees, parks, trails, air quality, opportunities to create and share beautiful things.

  3. Openness - tolerance for and acceptance of people with various lifestyles (families with children, gays and lesbians, bohemians, seniors, people living in poverty, recent college graduates, immigrants, minorities), opportunities to meet people and form relationships.

  4. Physical and economic security - safe, clean neighbourhoods, good job opportunities, a growing economy and general optimism.

  5. Leadership - leaders are honest, accountable, positive, forward-looking, effective, and responsive, and citizens feel engaged.

To be perfectly clear, Florida argues that successful cities do well in all five of these categories, and by corollary that all five are essential to a successful city.

What do you think?

How does Hamilton measure up on these five categories? What are our strengths? What do we need to improve? What are the obstacles to progress? How do we get past those obstacles?

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 nobrainer (registered) | Posted May 14, 2008 at 15:57:23

OK I'll bite.

Basic Services - Downtown infrastructure is pretty decrepit, old sewers, epic potholes, etc. Public transit is low-order like you'd expect in a town, not high order like you'd expect in a city. schools are pretty good though we keep losing community schools and building "big box" schools in the burbs.

Beauty and esthetics - are you kidding me? We let are beautiful old buildings fall apart and don't do anything about the negligent owners. Whole swaths of the city --especially the north and east end --hardly have any trees left and the city rarely bothers to replace trees when they die, so streets look bare and harsh under the sun. Too many ugly parking lots, one story strip malls, big box stores, cookie cutter prefab houses, five lane highways cutting neighborhoods in two. We fail on beauty.

Openness - I'm a working class white guy, so I'm maybe not the best person to call this one, but I know a lot of gay people and they seem to be able to live openly, and I see a people from a lot of different ethnic groups where I live and work. The bus is awesome when it's full, because I can hear like ten different languages spoken all around me. The city is shitty for college graduates - no opportunities and we don't want all that newfangled thinkin' to go puttin' idears into peoples heads.

Physical and economic security - hit and miss. Some nieghborhoods like Westdale and Kirkendell are safe and prosperous but other parts of the city are really depressed. No jobs, no beauty, no hope. many people who live in Hamilton have good jobs, but not enough of them are in Hamilton.

Leadership - safe to say that our political and business leadership is mostly made up of people who just keep doing the same thing overa nd over again hoping for a different result. Posivie, forward-looking, accountable, effective? Fat chance.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted May 14, 2008 at 22:36:33

  1. Basic services:

Good schools, great health care, a good stock of housing at affordable prices, decent roads and more than enough of them, decent infrastructure. Public transportation is lacking but LRT is a great chance to change that.

  1. Beauty and aesthetics:

Unlike nobrainer I see a great deal of beauty in this city. We have many beautiful buildings and many trees. There are many parks and trails even in the core. The escarpment is an excellent natural asset and the trails that run through it give access to remarkable wildlife and vegetation for being directly in the middle of the city.

I also see a lot of beauty in the industrial areas of Hamilton. Fire, smoke and vapor have their own appeal. Call me a true Hamiltonian for that comment.

I do agree with nobrainer about rundown and treeless areas, strip malls, big box stores, sprawl, and so on. Hamilton suffers from two main blights when it comes to these areas, I think: economically depressed areas, and soulless suburban expanses. As a whole, the city gets a C+ on this one.


So-so, I think. There is a lot of ethnic diversity, and tolerance for it, but less so in some of the other categories. Hamilton has plenty of immigrants and minorities, but other groups are not so much tolerated as invisible.

Like many other communities, I get the sense that many parts of Hamilton do not foster opportunities to "meet people and form relationships". I think that parts of downtown do this well but that many other areas are populated by people who drive to and from work without too much interaction along the way.

Try a simple experiment: compare the number of people you can strike up a conversation with, if you try to, at the Farmer's Market, or at the grocery store. Heck, there are some stalls in the market I have to avoid if I am in a hurry because I can't get out of there without a 10-minute gab fest!

Physical and economic security:

Hamilton is deficient in this area. I think we are a physically safe city, by and large, but we are really lacking good job opportunities. Most of the best jobs for web developers like me are in cities like Toronto and Ottawa. The same goes for many other highly-skilled professions. We need more advanced industries here, especially big companies. A company like Waterloo's RIM would be fantastic.

There are a lot of factors that go into creating that type of thing but I do not feel that Hamilton's leadership is really intent on creating these types of jobs, attracting these industries, or assisting the companies that are already here. I work at a successful design firm with many clients here and internationally, but has the city ever approached us to offer any kind of economic assistance, tax breaks, or anything of that nature? No.


A major failing point for this city. Leadership in this city is weak, ineffective, short-sighted, unambitious. It is marked by squabbling, cronyism, a patronizing attitude and an apparent inability to apply the lessons of the past to present and future problems.

In some areas, progress is being made on this front. But quite frankly, Ryan, we'd be a lot better off if you were running the show.

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By trey (registered) | Posted May 17, 2008 at 11:08:53

This is very interesting because our City Management is ONLY concerned with the first point - Basic Services - regardless of their competence at providing those basic services, it IS all the care about.

When in fact the other points are what defines a city and make it livable and in return provide opportunity for employment, and pride in their city. The basic services would almost become moot if the city scored high on the other four issue.

For example: making a neighbourhood park sounds like a good idea (#2). But what good is the park with just open grass and a few twingy trees spaced out, so that the City workers have an easier time manoevering the lawn cutting machines. While making the park ugly and severly lacking in trees i.e. a functioning park -- that is trumped to make lawn cutting easier and police drive-bys looking for teen dope smokers easier, results in a useless park that is barely used.

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