Filling in the doughnut: a Plan to Revitalize Hamilton

We can’t treat Hamilton’s ailments without knowing what constitutes good health.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted January 10, 2004 in Essays (Last Updated January 10, 2004)


1Part 1 - The Healthy City
2Part 2 - Making Hamilton Healthy

Published in January, 2004 in the _Hamilton Spectator_

1 Part 1 - The Healthy City

Last November, I wrote about Hamilton's "doughnut politics", the planning model that has resulted in dreary suburban sprawl in a ring around a decaying city centre. It has plunged both the old and the new parts of the city into interrelated crises.

We can't treat Hamilton's ailments without knowing what constitutes good health. A healthy city embodies the following elements: functionality, accessibility, transportation choice, equity, and beauty.

The healthy city works. Residents can do and obtain most of what they need locally. This includes: homes, jobs, food and amenities, schools and day cares, health services, clubs, restaurants, theatres, libraries, recreational facilities, parks, swimming pools, hockey rinks, hiking grounds, and other public meeting places.

People can also get where they're going. The density must be high enough that a walkable area includes many destinations, but not so high that individuals feel crushed under towering skyscrapers.

Facilities are constructed on a human scale. There will always be a need for big-box stores, but most businesses and schools remain small and serve a mainly local, mainly pedestrian base. Homes and businesses coexist, instead of being segregated into different zones.

Segregation by function rationalizes space at the expense of human needs, demanding an impractical level of mobility.

The sprawl infrastructure of wide streets and huge parking lots actually spreads the various destinations still farther apart, forcing everyone to use cars if they want to get anywhere. This wastes land, causes congestion, and undermines the functionality it purports to serve.

The healthy city lets its citizens choose how to get around. Today, planners focus on moving cars efficiently through the city at the expense of all else.

Studies have shown that people drive less often when destinations are within walking distance. If residents cannot reasonably walk anywhere, it makes no sense to say they drive by "choice."

(In an elegant synergy, a walkable neighbourhood means families can sell a car and use the savings toward buying a home. A $20,000 car amortized over five years costs about $600 per month, including gas and insurance. That money would help pay for a mortgage.)

The healthy city has an equitable mix of people. While suburbs segregate residents on the basis of incremental differences in income, the healthy community brings a variety of people into contact with one another. This reduces class-based xenophobia and gives everyone a stake in maintaining the whole city.

Obviously, at any given time certain neighbourhoods will be more or less " trendy," but a healthy community combines larger and smaller houses, as well as condos and apartments, in a balance that meets people's needs at all stages of life. People can move "up" or "down" without having to move away and break community ties.

Segregation by income creates ghettoes where a critical mass of social dislocation can arise. Afraid of "the other," wealthier citizens are apt to retreat into gated communities and abrogate their civic responsibilities.

At the same time, the residents of ghettoes tend to lack political capital and have difficulty mustering support for neighbourhood renewal.

Conventional wisdom says affluent buyers won't live in mixed housing. In fact, people tend to buy houses for the neighbourhood, and a rich, livable community will attract all kinds of residents regardless of the price mix.

Sales from actual building projects with mixed housing, incorporating a common style across different building types, demonstrate that such homes actually appreciate faster than segregated, suburban housing pods. On my own street, houses range in value from $130,000 to nearly $300,000.

The challenge is keeping the smaller homes and rental properties affordable. A dignified housing subsidy for individual units spread through the city, rather than clustered in ghettoes, can keep neighbourhoods diverse and keep gentrification from crowding out less affluent residents. Housing megaprojects just overwhelm individuals and are not cost-effective in the long run.

Finally, the healthy city is beautiful, with elegant buildings, pleasing architecture, lots of trees, and useful green space. Streets are clean, well maintained, and designed for pedestrians.

Local landmarks have pride of place, at the heads of major boulevards or the crests of hills, and historical buildings are preserved as living, functional parts of the community.

The city that embodies these principles is a great place to live. It attracts creative people and the companies that seek to employ them.

It has a sustainable local economy where homes and businesses coexist to their mutual benefit.

It makes transportation simple, enjoyable, and healthy.

It brings people from different circumstances and different income levels into productive contact, which is the only proven way to reduce mistrust and conflict.

All of this lowers the cost of providing infrastructure even while it increases property values and revenue streams, which gives city council the economic stability to provide better services for everyone.

2 Part 2 - Making Hamilton Healthy

To revitalize Hamilton, we must adopt distinct programs for the two problem areas: its sprawl-prone undeveloped land and its stagnant downtown.

First, we must stop the hemorrhaging.

Hamilton needs to prevent the further proliferation of sprawl in its undeveloped land. This includes establishing firm urban boundaries, but within those boundaries the rules governing development must change. Right now, blobs of land are segregated by function (residential, retail, and office park) and linked by a few collector roads.

These arteries are easily clogged because, like Golflinks Road in Ancaster, every driver trying to get to the box-stores or the adjacent subdivision is forced through the same collector. This reduces through-traffic on the subdivision's winding lanes, but results in crippling bottlenecks.

A grid allows traffic to follow the path of least resistance through the entire neighbourhood, so drivers can avoid accidents or construction.

Planners worry that narrow, tree-lined streets with parallel parking will cause more accidents, but the opposite is true. Wide boulevards prompt drivers to speed, whereas narrow streets encourage caution.

Zoning rules must encourage homes and businesses to coexist. There's no overstating the importance of mixed use zoning in creating livable neighbourhoods.

Each area can get away with less parking and smaller streets, so space is conserved, different facilities are closer together, and residents have the option to walk or cycle.

Lifestyles are healthier and pedestrian trips reduce road traffic. Children can attend community schools within walking distance.

Mixed use allows people to work near home. At the same time, co-locating offices with shops and restaurants ensures a steady client base for the stores.

By contrast, workers in office parks have few lunching options: the cafeteria, the execrable roving lunch truck, or a drive to the nearest restaurant.

Also, commercial districts aren't deserted after business hours, so daytime customers and nighttime residents share parking space, and crime goes down.

Second, we need to implement a proactive plan for the core.

While outlying regions have been more successful at attracting prospective homeowners, the lesson for downtown is to become a better downtown, not to ape the suburbs.

The popularity of recent condo developments shows that people will return, if only we can make downtown livable.

What downtown lacks in pie-shaped lots, it compensates with a potentially vibrant social life, and the social life of every successful city is in the streets.

Revitalizing the streets requires a mixed use dynamic that keeps the neighbourhood active all day, a pedestrian-friendly environment, and vigorous attention to safety and cleanliness.

Hamilton's one-way network emulates the collector roads of the suburbs. Five-lane boulevards and timed lights manage traffic effectively, but they also encourage drivers to pass through, rather than into, the downtown, while scaring away pedestrians and cyclists with aggressive driving patterns.

The city needs to slow its drivers, with narrower streets, two-way traffic, and parallel parking wherever possible.

Two-way streets also make it easier to reach destinations downtown. Obviously, making the streets two-way will not, in itself, change anyone's choice of destination, but it belongs in our urban plan.

Both businesses and residents must return, as the one cannot survive without the other. After all, in a neighbourhood, the residents, workers, and customers are largely the same people.

Pedestrian space needs to be well defined in broad sidewalks and continuous storefronts. Currently, downtown has too much boarded up frontage, too many empty lots, and too many blank walls. Who wants to walk through that?

Merchant associations can drive business back downtown by coordinating the independent stores on a street to their mutual benefit and by regulating the mix of shops.

Business districts can present themselves as one-stop centres with the advantage of variety, character and public space, which suburban malls typically lack.

One idea is to establish a car-free zone - say, from King and James to Rebecca and John. This area is already home to a number of excellent restaurants and clubs that thrive in spite of parking that wouldn't meet suburban standards.

Parking remains troublesome. Lack of it will keep visitors away. At the same time, supply creates its own demand, and parking lots take up a lot of space.

Rules that force buildings to provide on-site parking discourage all but large towers and keep people from going outside. Instead, parking should be provided at the curbside and in small municipal lots hidden behind stores.

Downtown also desperately needs to be clean. While some graffiti murals are beautiful and add character, tag or gang graffiti, litter, broken glass, and tawdry billboards undermine pedestrian confidence.

These are just broad principles, but they may make the basis for plans that, if enacted, can stop the insanity of the doughnut city and recreate healthy neighbourhoods.