The Successful Few

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 23, 2005

Recently, Professor Pierre Filion of the University of Waterloo delivered a lecture in Hamilton on prospects for downtown revitalization in small to medium sized cities. He explored this theme more fully in an article published last summer in the Journal of the American Planning Association, entitled The Successful Few: Healthy Downtowns of Small Metropolitan Regions [1], cowritten with Heidi Hoernig, Trudi Bunting, and Gary Sands. (Thanks to Denise O'Conner for drawing our attention to this research paper.)

The article is not available for free download, but it's definitely worth reading for its lessons in how some smaller cities have managed to revitalize their downtowns more effectively than others.

The authors start with a review of revitalization efforts through the 20th Century, noting that suburbanization has hollowed out downtown areas throughout North America. Attempts to revitalize downtowns have tended to follow three distinct phases.

In simple terms, cities concerned about the mass exodus of residents to the suburbs tried first to make their downtowns more car-friendly. When this failed, they tried to look and feel more like suburbs, replacing Victorian homes and storefronts with enclosed shopping malls (à la Jackson Square and the old Eaton Centre).

However, there was no beating the suburbs at their own game, and even economically successful urban malls had little economic spillover on their neighbours. All in all, phases one and two of the long downtown revitalization effort actually hastened the downtown decline.

Finally, cities began to explore the possibility of playing to their strengths. This was due partly to a souring of the previous infatuation with architectural Modernism and partly to the growing influence of the public over the planning process.

Increasingly [by the 1970s], planning interventions emphasized preservation or enhancement of the uniqueness of the physical features of downtowns within rapidly suburbanizing metropolitan regions and the targeting of markets where [central business districts] enjoyed competitive advantages.

Observant planners finally recognized that

downtowns could no longer compete with the suburbs on its own terms and that their salvation rested instead on their distinction from the suburban realm in terms of the nature of their activities, a more compact built environment, and the predominance of pedestrian movement for intradowntown journies.

At the same time, planning still entailed large public-private megaprojects involving the usual suspects: sports stadiums, convention centres, etc.

Ironically, the downtowns of smaller cities actually tended to survive the age of 'renewal' more intact, simply because the dearth of large capital resources and a conservative 'wait-and-see' attitude among city councils meant the traditional built environment was better preserved.

At the same time, small-metro downtowns face a number of challenges their large-metro counterparts avoid: places of employment and retail centres tend not to be distributed widely, there are few major attractions to draw visitors, the small size makes it easier to reach suburban destinations, and less total area results in fewer countervailing pressures against sprawl.

From a survey the authors conducted with planners and academics in a number of jurisdictions, they determined that over half of the respondents selected the following factors as very important in a healthy downtown: active retail scene, pedestrian environment, cultural activities, street-oriented retail, people on sidewalks, and employment.

All of these factors centre around the presence of people in public spaces - reasons for people to be there (stores, activities, and employment) and an environment that makes people feel welcome and comfortable.

When asked to supply additional factors not listed in the survey, "many respondents emphasized the importance of a resident population and of a wide variety of land uses to assure 24-hour activity." Again, the common theme is an environment that supports people.

(This may seem painfully obvious, but the megaprojects of the 1960s and 1970s were overwhelmingly celebrations of technical ability and scale, not of human needs. Individuals felt overwhelmed in the shadows of the marvels we used to show off our cleverness.)

The most common feedback the authors received from the survey was that the integration of the various factors is more important than their mere presence. That is, revitalization needs to be coordinated in a coherent plan rather than conducted piecemeal.

Another result that came out of the survey was that "all highly rated [central business districts] possess at least one of the following assets: a university that is in or close to downtown; presence in a metropolitan region with a strong visitor orientation; a well preserved historical district; and a state capital or provincial legislature."

This certainly provides lessons and demonstrates opportunities for revitalization in downtown Hamilton.


  1. Pierre Filion, Heidi Hoernig, Trudi Bunting, Gary Sands, "The Successful Few: Healthy Downtowns of Small Metropolitan Regions", Journal of the American Planning Association, American Planning Association, Chicago: Summer 2004. Vol. 70, Iss. 3; pg. 328, 16 pgs.

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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