Cargo Cult Urbanism

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 01, 2009

Nicholas Kevlahan has directed our attention to a compelling new essay on Hamilton published recently in the Globe and Mail.

Nicholas suggests that the essay is "maybe slightly too negative", but I find myself feeling pretty negative at times, so I can hardly fault the author for that.

In any case, to the extent that we actually are doing some of the right things, we're not necessarily doing them for the right reasons. At worst we're doing them through a kind of Cargo Cult urbanism.

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas - he's the controller - and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

That is, we're going through the motions merely because some consultant came in and said, "You need to do X to make the magic happen!"

What we're not doing is actually comprehending how urban economics works. As a result, we're not doing things in the coordinated or coherent manner that would allow our positive steps to reinforce each other.

Likewise, because we're not leveraging or even maintaining those particular qualities of cities that transform them into great innovation machines, our city continues to underperform.

The consequence, of course, is that squelchers can point to the failure of our tentative steps to achieve real transformation and insist they were right all along to oppose any change in direction.

The canonical example may be the stunted bike lanes we have installed sporadically throughout the city - lanes that start nowhere, travel for a short distance and then stop nowhere. Skeptical councillors point at them and say, "Why should we build more bike lanes? People don't use the ones we've already got!"

Missing is the crucial understanding that a transportation route that is disconnected from a bigger network is useless. No one would drive on a road that was not connected to a larger network of roads. Why would anyone expect people to ride bikes on a bike lane that's not connected to a network of bike lanes?

If we can't even figure out really basic network effects like this, how are we expected to understand the dynamic and ecological economies of density, scale, association and extension that generate wealth?

Instead, we persist in the cargo cult urbanism of building industrial employment parks next to highways and hoping the jobs will land.

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 highwater (registered) | Posted September 01, 2009 at 12:43:01

Oh I wish we were building industrial employment parks next to highways, but we can't even manage that. Instead we're building Walmarts. Those cargo cultists in the South Seas seem smart by comparison.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted September 01, 2009 at 12:50:44

scary... makes me think Hamilton will never change!

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By dave Kuruc (anonymous) | Posted September 01, 2009 at 13:39:42

Someone on another site (Mahesh maybe?) said that what would be good for Hamilton is for everyone to stop talking about it for a few years. No more consultants. No more re-branding talk. Just let the city regenerate itself as it has been doing. New people with new ideas will help to contribute to a city already changing from within.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted September 01, 2009 at 15:33:57

Dave Kuruc, It would seem most City Staffers and Politicians have already given up and look at Hamilton as you've suggested; hence why our City is stuck in status quo!

That's a terrible idea, imo!

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By Mahesh P. Butani - http://www.MetroHam (anonymous) | Posted September 02, 2009 at 01:22:59

Really... I don't think the city staffers and politicians have already given up. I saw Harlem, the Bronx and the East Village in New York City in the 80's and - that is what you would really call "giving up".

Our city is not stuck in the status quo. It is just suffering from lack of collective public and private imagination at a very critical phase of its transitioning into the early stages of a regional economy. We don't see this, because we are too caught up in the local blame game.

Strategic errors were made by dismantling the regional structure in our city in the name of efficiencies and parlaying it into a loosely cobbled amalgamation of towns with an appearance of a larger city.

What we have been experiencing in the last ten years is the outcome of that escapade. We may choose to refer to this outcome as a political mess; or choose to call our city, our politicians or council ugly names - None of which will accelerate our growth nor will it make things we don't like disappear any faster.

What we already had in place a decade ago was the structure and potential of 'Polycentricity' - a planning and spatial policy notion, which has been gaining currency over this decade in Europe and other parts of the world.

We dismantled it politically in the name of progress, and we have suffered for it since then.

We still retain the experience and expertise in our communities to build on this notion of Polycentricity to leverage our local economy into an evolving regional one that can distribute economic abundance broadly in the region and absorb many local systemic shocks.

The question is do we have the public and private imagination for making that leap?

Our public discourse would have us believe otherwise -- but already established networks such as the 'Golden Horseshoe Biosciences Network' (GHBN) are proof of the many opportunities waiting to be seized - if we can recalibrate our views of our city via Edward Said's "imagined geographies", and remain focused on the positive.

A look at GBHN's member directory and map can a be refreshing experience for all of us grasping for answers as well as those who seem to have them all.

**** some background on Polycentricity:

Monocentric Versus Polycentric Models in Urban Economics:

Polycentricity and metropolitan governance. A Swiss case study

At Google Books - Preview:
The spatial economy: cities, regions and international trade
By Masahisa Fujita, Paul R. Krugman, Anthony J. Venables

Economics of agglomeration: cities, industrial location, and regional growth
By Masahisa Fujita, Jacques-François Thisse

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By Mahesh P. Butani - http://www.MetroHam (anonymous) | Posted September 02, 2009 at 10:28:40

Hello Ryan,
Thank you and it would my pleasure! Will be in touch.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted September 02, 2009 at 16:18:55


"Instead, we persist in the cargo cult urbanism of building industrial employment parks next to highways and hoping the jobs will land."

What do you mean by "hoping the jobs will land"? Ryan, have you been to the Stoney Creek Industrial Park? This is one of the most successfull industrial parks in Ontario employing thousands of people. I took a trip to the Ancaster Industrial Park a couple of month ago and was amazed at how successful it is (though still small). All sorts of new economy industries: engineering, logistics, advanced manufacturing are locating there. Industrial parks in close proximity to highways have been hugely successful in Hamilton and we do not have enough of them. Once the Glanbrook and Airport Parks are serviced they too will become very successful at attracting industrial assessment and jobs that this city very much needs.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted September 02, 2009 at 17:41:25

Mahesh >> networks such as the 'Golden Horseshoe Biosciences Network' (GHBN) are proof of the many opportunities waiting to be seized

Proof would be businesses that earn PROFITS. Furthermore, if this GHBN is such a great sign of Hamilton's business potential, why are all the sponsors from the government sector? Not even one of the sponsors is a private business, why is this?

Here's a better idea than this government waste, cut property tax rates, abolish zoning restrictions and let the smart people who make PROFITABLE investments reinvest this money back into the economy.

If the key to producing a strong economy are businesses and people that produce PROFITS, why do we allow people who NEVER make profitable investments to invest so much of Hamilton's money?

Giving money to losers will only lead to more wasteful investments, but allowing winners to keep their money, will lead to many more successful and wealth creating investments.

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