We May Be on the Edge of an Epochal Migration

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 17, 2012

For the past several years, a number of indicators have suggested that North America may be on the threshold of an epochal migration from the suburbs and exurbs back into the cities. Like the postwar migration out of cities, this one will be driven mainly by the intersection of economics and demographics, with a generous helping of public policy.

Here's a smattering of vectors:

In short, the special set of economic, cultural and political circumstances that made mass surbanization both desirable and for the first time possible in the decades after WWII are waning.

Urban Economics

Another change is that economists have finally figured out that cities are the engines that propel economic growth and development.

That understanding, articulated in groundbreaking work by Jane Jacobs (who famously proposed in her 1969 book The Economy of Cities that the innovations powering agriculture actually originated in cities and propagated outward), is now well-supported by several avenues of research.

As this understanding migrates from academia into governance, politicians are warming to the idea that cities need to be cultivated to generate the wealth that voters expect and demand.

Suburbanization is not merely a staggering cost centre in terms of energy and infrastructure productivity. Over the longer term, it also tends to undermine economic viability by denying the kinds of personal connections and shared innovations that create value and generate employment.

Closer to Home

Here in Hamilton, the 2011 census demonstrated continued growth of the city's suburban fringe, but also a significant population rebound in several downtown neighbouroods.

For now, the city's public spending, policy and regulatory apparatus still strongly promote suburban expansion: fast approval for residential greenfield development, artificially low development charges that incentivize sprawl, labyrinthine bureaucracy and fees for adaptive reuse and infill development, a tax rebate for vacant properties, low intensification targets for the downtown compounded by anti-density FUD, hundreds of millions of dollars on a new municipal highway, and a massive boundary expansion that will also cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a potentially game-changing investment in light rail transit is clouded by provincial vacillating over its rapid transit investment strategy, compounded by mixed signals from the city.

It's entirely possible that we could continue to tread water on these issues and a continental migration of people, businesses and money back into cities could pass over Hamilton.

While sprawl apologists might console themselves that Hamiltonians don't want density and city living after all, the practical result during a period of turbulence would be a city left behind - a city resigned to missing out on the process of economic renewal as its traditional industries wane and its most ambitious residents leave for more dynamic, more promising cities.

It is not beyond the pale to imagine a possible future in which Hamilton follows the death spiral of many other rust belt cities dominated by waning industries: inefficient, crumbling infrastructure, sharp inequality, declining population, decaying social cohesion, abandonment and despair.

We're by no means circling the drain today, and we have many reasons to be optimistic about the future. Yet we absolutely cannot afford to receive the message about how urban economics work and then fail to apply those lessons to our own city governance.

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 GRMR (anonymous) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 14:47:50

I look at the last decade of population curves for Wards 7, 8, 11 and 12 and wonder whether we'll have multiple high-density nodes that serve the basic purpose of a downtown without being an historic core.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted April 17, 2012 at 21:13:56 in reply to Comment 76001

...we'll have multiple high-density nodes that serve the basic purpose of a downtown without being an historic core."

I agree with you entirely on your projection GRMR.

In my opinion, what validates your projection of multiple high-density nodes eventually serving the purpose of a downtown without a historic core -- is the existence of social & cultural ghettos formed around class/race in Ward 1 & 2

This may very well end up becoming the reality of Hamilton's future urban growth.

Whether or not one acknowledges the basis of what is shaping Canadian cites, such realities: 1 & 2, will continue to define Hamilton's larger form.

Hamilton's major future urban growth can only come primarily from immigration (from various countries), and marginally from suburb-to-core migration. The denial of this reality continues to exacerbate Hamilton's urban growth potential via its skewed marketing and messaging.

Acknowledging this reality can only help in generating strategies and public policies that create the basic pre-condition for rapid urbanization - which is that of becoming a city which is unconditionally inclusive and thus outward looking and embracing of foreign capital and foreign faces.

Currently, the mental state of Hamilton's many young minds is anything but inclusive. That is a fact borne out repeatedly via such public forums in our city, as well as displayed daily across our mainstream media via their in-bread mentality which cuts right across race lines with frequent lip-service to inclusion and fair-play.

The shocking lack of respect shown daily in this city towards new immigrants that bring initiative, ideas and investment along with a much needed cosmopolitan culture, is one of the primary reasons why there has been no major immigration rush to Hamilton in recent times. A kind of rush which has helped define the economic and cultural growth of cities such as Toronto, Vancouver or even Halifax.

The myopic behaviour of a certain privileged sections of Hamilton's younger generation who mimics their parents generation in this regards, has created the in-hospitable and relentlessly thankless image of Hamilton - which is flashed daily across the internet to prospective immigrants across the world. It is not just because of lack of jobs that immigrants don't move to certain cities, it is the kind of prevalent culture that guides their decisions to move capital.

If Hamilton does succumb on the death spiral it is presently on, it will not be on account of our politicians having not tried hard enough, but because of the total dis-ingenuity of it educated but ill-mannered younger generation which wants to make a Paris and Portland out of Hamilton, but yet fails to understand the multi-coloured economic and cultural forces that can make such a transition happen literally overnight.

A city in a death spiral looks very much like the apathetic, mono-cultural social groups that have already coalesced around Hamilton's many new-media channels. A condition that was already foretold in "The Portrait of a City" - which vainly spoke of economic success but yet shamelessly displayed the mono-culture via seductive images and narration. It is on the foundation of such cultural mis-steps that the many among Hamilton's younger generation are hell bent on reinventing their new culture of being separate but equal.

One just has to see the Kelly's, DiIanni's, the Babcock's and the plethora of cable shows, podacasts, blogs and facebook groups to truly understand the grip of the death spiral that Hamilton is already in via its unrelenting mono-cultural fetish.

The question is not whether Hamilton's younger generation will ever come to its senses - which is a foregone conclusion, but whether new immigration materializes fast enough to save Hamilton's urban Core and in turn Hamilton from itself.

The new immigrants 'choice' in settling among many dispersed and welcoming nodes which are culturally savvy, over choosing a inhospitable, mono-cultural core, is what will shape Hamilton's urban structure in the coming years.

I cry for Hamilton's urban core daily. Not for its empty parking lots or its lack of LRT, but for that twisted sensibility which has managed to hijack Hamilton's urban revitalization discourse and thus its future.

Mahesh P. Butani

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2012-04-17 21:29:19

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 24, 2012 at 16:36:53 in reply to Comment 76015

I actually agree with much of what you say here Mahesh and would include cities like: Hong Kong, Singapore and Brisbane as global examples of the point you are making. I do question your focus on the "young generation" here. I understand the younger generations are the future but it seems to me the "old guard" has and will continue to be the major cause of this issue.

Sometimes hard words many people don't want to hear (or even acknowledge) don't win you a lot of friends (or up votes) but you speak the truth as I see it. Our entire North American culture of superiority will and is ending and it will be a harsh landing for us unless we lose what I refer to as our culture of "inherent superiority." You know the one that thinks China could never compete with us because "China only builds junk." Until we can recognize and acknowledge this mental defect as bigotry, it will continue to cost us dearly in oh so many ways.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted April 18, 2012 at 13:19:32 in reply to Comment 76015

We are in fact on the edge of an epochal something in Hamilton alright! But as someone inclined to reading tea leaves, I would hesitate to suggest that we are on the cusp of an "epochal migration".

As stated above, epochal migration is simply not going to happen in Hamilton until we are willing to fix the broken spirit of inclusion in our community.

What we are in fact witnessing is the rumblings of an "epochal explosion" which has a potential to destroy what was gained in our city over the last decade.

The current push for ward boundary change in my opinion is one of the most misguided and self-centered initiatives to have been unleashed by citizen activism in Hamilton. There will be enough time on hand very soon to truly experience first-hand the unintended consequences of city building via planning-by-rage.

Cities don't grow this way, neighborhoods most definitely do not come into being this way.

Further to the three links above: How Cities Grow, Ensuring Ontario’s Economic Potential, Planners stumped by demographic surprises, here is one more below, which looks at Canadian urban realities. Hopefully this may help some in our city to realign their repressed rage and channel their energies into something more constructive:

In more ways than one, our current citizen activism is mimicking the poor politics left behind by our past mayors. The rage one sees in the current push to redraw ward boundaries is more a reaction to the debilitating political legacy of the past two mayors, than it is a product of the free-will of citizens to rebuild the culture and economy of our city, our communities, our neighbourhoods.

We have an unique chance to rebuild our city into a community of thriving neighbourhoods defined by their character and driven by real citizen power. Instead, we are about to blow that opportunity big time by giving currency to an antiquated notion of a "ward". Reshuffled any which way, we will still be left with the same politics, just new faces. It is the geographic axis and the human spirit in Hamilton that needs realignment, not its ward boundaries. Epochal migration will only being then.

Mahesh P. Butani

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By CouldaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2012 at 05:11:32 in reply to Comment 76015

I'd be very curious to hear how Hamiltonians-of-Variant-Shades would comment on this line of thinking.

I'd be very curious to know how broad the Spectrum of Shades is at each month's Art Crawl. Or at SuperCrawl.

I'd be just as curious to see a breakdown of the Spectrum of RTH readers...and commenters.

And I wonder if the same sense of urgent reaction that we see when trigger-phrases such as 'poverty industry' are uttered would ensue if you say 'mono-cultural exclusion'. Somehow I doubt it.

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By RB (registered) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 13:54:01 in reply to Comment 76021

So if a society is (mostly) made up of a single, like-minded culture, then it is doomed? Wow... then how has society survived for so many years? And continues to do so?

So if I'm in a city with a bunch of other similarly-cultred folks, we're screwed? Sounds like someone is trying to push the "if you don't attract immigrants, then you're screwed" angle quite harshly. I guess that's what happened to all the other countries that have mono-cultures...

Japan must have actually been a third-world country for centuries then... poor mono-cultural country. Must be tough not being smart enough to create any technological breakthroughs over the years... wait a minute...

I usually agree with most of the stuff you post, Mahesh (a very unpopular stance on RTH), but this is bordering on hate-speech.

Interesting how nobody else is even touching this one... very interesting...

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 24, 2012 at 16:42:42 in reply to Comment 76062

Japan must have actually been a third-world country for centuries then... poor mono-cultural country.

Japan is currently struggling because of their mono-culture. They have many health, social, and economic problems associated with them being largely a mono-culture society.

Your flippant and ignorant comment on the subject does not change that fact.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted April 19, 2012 at 18:50:16 in reply to Comment 76062

"I think diversity will be one of the most important issues facing Canadian society in this century. -- Part of my research involves looking at single-resource communities and what characteristics allow one place to successfully transcend an economic collapse, while in other cases, the community dies. The key may lie in diversity, how open the community is to outside ideas and how diverse their access is to different kinds of capital, especially intellectual capital. It may be key to competing in an interconnected global marketplace." ~ Dr. Ann Dale

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By another zookeeper (anonymous) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 14:09:22 in reply to Comment 76062

"Interesting how nobody else is even touching this one..."

Because don't feed the troll.

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By poker (anonymous) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 15:55:35 in reply to Comment 76063

...especially when the troll pulls the race card

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By RB (registered) | Posted April 20, 2012 at 13:15:53 in reply to Comment 76068

Stupid me... I think I've learned my lesson; thanks! :)

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By CouldaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 19:04:44 in reply to Comment 76068

What's the difference between 'hate speech' and pointing out painful truths?


"Madame, we've already agreed that you're a whore, we're just negotiating the price."

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By zuck (anonymous) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 19:53:01 in reply to Comment 76073

"You are probably going to be a very successful agitator. But you're going to go through life thinking that people don't like you because you're pointing out painful truths. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."

--The Social Network (edited)

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By CoulaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2012 at 13:53:11 in reply to Comment 76074

Speaking of things 'migrational'...’t-coming-to-canada

"Given that we a) need to bolster our numbers thanks to a low birthrate and an aging population; b) need to compete with other countries — including emerging markets — for top talent, it might be time to develop a more transparent, coherent and credible approach to immigration."

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 18:59:17

Having just driven to south Florida and back I must say for the first time in my life it really hit me how far behind Hamilton is when I returned home to Main and King Sts. In my 3,600 miles traveled on this trip, I didn't see a single downtown core with streets as inhospitable and 1950ish as these two. My wife commented on 'how dead' this city was as we drove down Main St upon our return. The fact that our public works staff actually considers themselves leaders and forward thinkers in 2012 as they cling to this long outdated model of urban design is the biggest worry. A morning coffee on Locke St helped balance my concern for our future by realizing that in neighbourhoods that haven't been touched by public works, we are falling in line with the trends you point out in this article. But to see such massive swaths of land wasted for the sole purpose of moving cars (York, King, Main, Queen etc...) and knowing that this land-use pattern is fiercely defended by public works and the Chamber of Commerce makes it quite easy to see where your concern of a major collapse comes from. I witnessed a city that was deader than dead until the mid 90's - Asheville, NC. Sat night we were downtown at 10:30 at night and the streets were filled with people - old, young, families, singles etc.... traffic moved very slowly, curbside parking was on both sides of the two-way streets and extended from corner to corner. There was no 30 foot empty 'buffer' zone with no parking allowed like we have in Hamilton. I witnessed the 'new downtown' in West Palm Beach - basically an outdoor mall, filled with people late at night. And of course, the rustbelt towns of the northern States along the way that have been hammered, but are doing everything possible to make life hospitable to small businesses and pedestrians in their battered downtowns. Hamilton has been given a reprieve, but I don't think it's an open-ended one. We need new blood, and quick if we expect to compete with the rest of the world's cities. Conferences and Summits are a complete waste of time. We need action.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 19:46:39

City refines LRT corridor plans

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By migrator (anonymous) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 11:40:20

Maybe we are seeing a epochal migration back to the cities or maybe not. The suburbs in most cities are doing just fine and the prices are not coming down. Sure there are exceptions like Flint but these are caused by very specific causes. In Flint's case it is the huge downsizing of the automobile production workforce. These workers literally priced themselves out of a job. This did not end the suburban way of life it just moved it around to other centres.

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By job (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2012 at 22:34:38

I see one point of optimism in your list, and that's in the US where of course people are moving out of the suburbs because they're getting foreclosed out of them!!

Optimism is nice but what's needed is a reality check on how corrosive the suburbs actually are on society. They are massive social leeches, they hold the balance of power, they keep our country in an entropic state of mediocrity, they will remain small-c conservative whether the threat is nazism or global warming, their social responsibility is limited to their front porch. If they do move back into the cities I fear we will need to sequester them in camps to teach them ethical behaviour.

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