Downtown is for living, not driving

The answer to core problems is density and diversity, not suburban values of separation and speed.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted March 30, 2007 in Essays (Last Updated March 30, 2007)


1Why two-way streets work
2Conversions compared

Published in the _Hamilton Spectator_ on March 30, 2007

Every politician since Lloyd D. Jackson has promised downtown "renewal", but their efforts have generally made things worse, not better. This is because most "renewal" efforts have been attempts to compete with the suburbs on suburban terms.

Suburbia means separation and speed. The suburbs promise privacy and quiet through aggressive segregation of uses. Houses, stores, and offices stay far apart from each other.

Car ownership is essential to get anywhere, but cars gobble space. Stores recede behind big parking lots and streets grow ever wider to accommodate more cars going farther. Only cheap, abundant, unbounded land lets the suburbs keep expanding.

If the suburbs mean separation and speed, downtown means density and diversity. Rather than making it easier to travel, a livable downtown brings many destinations together so less travelling is required.

The mix of people trying to exchange goods, services, amenities, and housing in a single place means the only way to fit everything is to maximize the use of available land.

In other words, downtown is the opposite of suburbia. Making downtown more like the suburbs is killing it.

Donald Schmitt, the architect designing McMaster Innovation Park, puts it bluntly: "While Hamilton's downtown is a quick, easy place to navigate in a car, it's not healthy in other respects.

"In an era when Canadian downtowns in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto are bursting with vitality, Hamilton has too many abandoned buildings, too many narrow sidewalks, too few trees on the street."

Separating the uses of downtown is like unscrambling an egg, but the postwar "renewal" megaprojects made a pretty good go of it by hiding destinations inside malls and plazas as if ashamed of their surroundings.

Jackson Square was supposed to "cut away the rot of the Victorian age," as David Proulx wrote in the early '70s in Pardon My Lunch Bucket, replacing it with indoor space and elevated walkways. But the new buildings never functioned properly as urban places and continue to languish.

Worse, we converted all the major streets to fast one-way traffic flows, rushing potential customers past downtown businesses. In a misguided effort to attract motorists downtown, we demolished entire city blocks to make room for parking lots, crowding out real destinations in the process.

The block framed by Wilson, John Rebecca and Hughson streets, for example, has no buildings at all, only surface parking.

Gradually, some councillors and city departments adopted the idea that downtown isn't the same as the suburbs and that suburban solutions only make things worse.

Echoing Vision 2020, the city's growth strategy extols the value of dense, mixed neighbourhoods and livable streets at providing a high quality of life.

With Mayor Fred Eisenberger's election, many urbanists heaved sighs of relief. It finally looked as though a real urban agenda might be on the table.

Unfortunately, the encouraging language has not translated into a real conceptual shift. We accept urbanism in principle but are unwilling to apply it in practice.

As The Spectator's Peter Van Harten reported on the 50th anniversary of the city's switch to one-way streets, Hamilton "had come to see that speeding traffic through the core and surrounding neighbourhoods did nothing to help them and, in fact, was hurting attempts to revive them."

Yet the city's plan to convert more streets back to two-way drags over several years. Worse, at a recent city-organized workshop on creating walkable streets, officials of the public works department explained they won't convert Main Street at all - because it carries too many cars.

The whole point of a vibrant downtown is that people don't have to drive as much.

Cities like Portland, Ore., are proof that if you put roads on a diet and improve street life and transit, people will gladly move back downtown and drive less.

Suburban thinking grips even people who should know better. The Downtown Hamilton BIA believes the best use of the south leg of King Street by Gore Park is to convert it to angled parking - as if downtown didn't already have among the cheapest parking rates in Canadian cities.

How can an organization of businesses that needs to attract people downtown to survive be so ignorant about how cities work? Downtown can have attractive destinations or abundant parking, but it can't have both.

We talk like urbanists but still can't give up the suburban values of separation and speed. Urban revitalization must still compete with suburban auto-mobility for mindshare among our leaders and planners.

If we want downtown to thrive, we have to dispense with half-measures and embrace urbanism in practice as well as principle.

People will return downtown once its streets are destinations in themselves, not merely routes to someplace else.

1 Why two-way streets work

2 Conversions compared

The two-way conversion of James and John North is a resounding success, despite the dire warnings of its opponents.

Even John Dolbec, CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and a two-way skeptic, acknowledged last September that James North's renaissance "seems to have started about the same time the city made James North into a two-way street" five years ago.

In contrast, the city punted on the James/John South two-way conversion. Instead of making them proper two-way streets, the city tried to hang on to the existing one-way traffic pattern.

Each street is three lanes in one direction and one lane in the other, and turning is restricted at many intersections. This results in bottlenecks because drivers aren't free to choose their routes the way they can in a proper grid.

Two-way streets trade speed for choice. On James and John South, drivers gave away speed, but received few choices in return.