No two ways about it

City streets should foster the connections and interactions between people that add up to city life.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted November 21, 2005 in Essays (Last Updated November 21, 2005)

Published in the _Hamilton Spectator_ on November 21, 2005

The perennial Hamilton debate is in full swing as city workers convert James Street South from one way to two way. Angry motorists are already expressing outrage that they can no longer get through the city in mere minutes.

The debate is primarily over the purpose of Hamilton's streets. A recent letter writer expressed one side of the debate succinctly.

"As a lifelong Hamiltonian, I've seen my taxes spent on the Claremont Access, the Linc and now the Red Hill Expressway. All of these construction projects have had one thing in common - trying to aid the flow of motor vehicles."

One-way supporters view a street primarily as a means of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Speed and convenience define the street.

But the shopkeeper halfway down that street does not feel the same way, nor does the person living in the apartment above the shop, nor the families of children playing in the park across the street.

The shopkeeper wants people walking in front of the store so some will walk in. The person living upstairs wants street life - chances to see and interact with others. The children want to be able to run and play.

For these people, safety and proximity, not speed and convenience, define the street.

In fact, those who support one-way streets have in mind a special kind of street, as revealed by the letter writer's juxtaposition of one-way streets, escarpment cuts, and Red Hill.

In one form or another, these are all examples of expressways and not city streets.

City streets exist to encourage connections: between shopkeepers and customers, between browsers and vendors, between residents and acquaintances and among the critical mass of strangers who, by keeping an eye on each other, keep each other honest and keep the street safe and friendly for everyone.

City streets are crossroads, places where people literally cross paths and interact. Markets form at these crossroads, as vendors try to position themselves where the most people will see them.

Shoppers come to those places because of the concentration of vendors. Workers come because of the many opportunities for employment.

Artisans and craftspeople come to join and enrich the markets. Artists come to increase their chances of meeting customers, supporters, and benefactors. More people come to enjoy the artists' work.

So it goes. Gradually, the built environment comes to reflect this constellation of uses, bringing homes, shops, manufactories, art centres and so on into close proximity.

Some of the excess wealth generated by all this activity - by the synergies and economies of scale that trading produces - further enriches the public environment, encouraging more co-operation, sharing and mutual support.

It's a classic virtuous cycle. All the myriad encounters and interactions that take place in city streets collectively add up to city life, city economy, and city culture.

The logic of the expressway is exactly the opposite.

Where city streets encourage connections, expressways seek to prevent them. A connection on an expressway is called a collision. Things tend to go badly for the people who make connections on expressways.

Conventional expressways discourage connections through restricted access, multiple wide lanes, guardrails, and wide medians to separate opposing traffic flows.

Urban expressways - one-way streets - achieve this in much the same way with timed lights, multiple wide lanes and city blocks in lieu of guardrails.

By preventing connections, expressways prevent interactions, which are the very substance of city life. Urban expressways are breaks, discontinuities, tears in the fabric of city life.

With each new tear, the city further disintegrates. Areas between the tears are isolated from their surroundings.

Soon, they start to die.

Consider Main Street. It's a dead zone, devoid of street life. After receiving a recent complaint that the strip in front of City Hall is dangerous and unpleasant for pedestrians, city planners actually considered placing barriers along the curb in an unconscious echo of the guardrails that barricade expressways. The planners have lost sight of what the city street is supposed to do.

By contrast, James Street North is rapidly coming back to life. When it went two-way a couple of years ago, many people claimed it would be the street's death knell.

The street would be congested and no one would go there.

In fact, the reverse is happening. New galleries and shops, like Loose Cannon and Mixed Media, sprang to life and existing shops and restaurants receive new customers. Boarded-up buildings rejoin the street with reinvestment and new tenants.

Walk down James North and you encounter people there, a welcome return after a long absence.

Hamilton is proving remarkably resilient. We have inflicted terrible wounds on our city over the years but given a chance to heal, it recovers quickly.

One-way streets are cuts that we reopen on a daily basis. The tissues around them scar and become necrotic. All we need to do is stop inflicting those wounds and the healing process will begin.