A few months ago I was in Hamilton, Ontario, a small city 45 minutes west of my home in Toronto. Hamilton has everything a city needs to succeed: great topography, water, good connections, close to the border. Yet I was asked to be part of a panel that looked at the issue: why do we seem to be perpetually ON THE CUSP of a revitalized inner City that is living up to its potential?
Hamilton has all the attributes that should make it a great place for post-fifties to move to. It has wonderful housing stock that costs a fraction of Toronto’s, a university, a medical school, a fast train to Toronto, a trendy little James Street North that has become a focus of restaurants and art galleries that would make any denizen of the Drake on Queen West in Toronto feel at home. It has lovely old buildings, parks, the Niagara escarpment, wine country half an hour away; it has everything. Yet it feels so empty, so un-city-like, it felt more like downtown Buffalo than Toronto. Keynote speaker Ken Greenberg knew why. Ken described how we are going through a fundamental change, that the blip of automobile dependence is over whether we like it or not, and we are devolving from four wheels to two. He described how European cities worked, with a mix of cars, pedestrians, bikes and light rail transit. He showed lovely pictures of Madrid, where streets were shared among every use. But in Hamilton, a small city of half a million people, almost every street downtown is a one-way speedway. Some are five lanes wide. The sidewalks are almost vestigial, squeezed to allow more room for cars. There is no concept of shared space; It is all about the car. They are fighting the introduction of a light rail transit line, because it might slow down traffic and take space away from the car. They are tearing down yet another building, a wonderful mid-century modern confection, because there isn’t enough……parking.
In the end, all the panelists were pretty much in agreement: The creative classes and the post-fifties moving out of Toronto in search of better housing and opportunity are not going to come to a city where the streets are so uninhabitable. Where you can live in a lovely house but the nearby main street is a highway bereft of a grocery store or a coffee shop. Where the only concern of the politicians is how fast can they get back to their home in the suburbs. Until they fix this, Hamilton will remain forever on the cusp.
LLOYD ALTER is a writer for the Discovery Network Websites TreeHugger.com, past president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and teaches sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design. In 2001 he started promoting modern green prefabricated housing as an alternative method. This article originally appeared in postfifty.com. Reprinted with permission.