City Life

Open Streets Hamilton: A City Built for People

The first Open Streets on James North was an inspiring proof of concept. The next step for this city is to make Open Streets Hamilton a monthly or even weekly event.

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 06, 2010

this article has been updated

Sunday's Open Streets Hamilton was an appetizing taste of a city built, to borrow the words of Bill Davis, for people and not cars.

Inspired by Gil Penalosa's world-famous Ciclovia events in Bogota, Colombia that have already been copied in such cities as New York, Portland, San Francisco, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Barrie, a coalition of local advocates for livability launched an initiative to bring the concept of open streets to Hamilton.

From 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM today, James Street North was closed to automobile traffic between Cannon St. and Burlington St. to create a safe, welcoming space for pedestrians and cyclists to be on the street and enjoying the neighbourhood.


View Open Streets route in a larger map

And enjoy it we did! From an impromptu soccer game at James and Robert, road hockey around Colbourne, a basketball net just north of LIUNA Station, street musicians, yoga, public art, and local vendors, thousands of people enjoyed the chance to stroll along a downtown street without fear of being mowed down by a car.

Cyclists meandered among the groups of people on shank's mare (as I wove through the soccer game with my younger son behind me on a trail-a-bike, one of the players yelled, "If you run into a bike, you lose!"), while a rickshaw operator pulled his rides on a tour up and down the street.

It was hard to walk past the grill in front of Acclamation Bar at James and Mulberry without your mouth watering.

The folks at Our Corner Bar and Grill on the corner of James and Picton even gave out free ice cream while a harmonizing pair of guitarists played classic rock out front.

Free ice cream at James and Picton. (Image Credit: Joey Coleman)
Free ice cream at James and Picton. (Image Credit: Joey Coleman)

Make it Monthly or Weekly

A big thanks to the dedicated organizers from Environment Hamilton, Green Venture, Smart Commute Hamilton, Public Health and the Beasley, North End and Strathcona community associations for proving that city streets made for people are as practical as they are beautiful.

This event was an inspiring proof of concept. The next step for this city is to make Open Streets Hamilton a monthly or even weekly event.

I'm not sure how many City Councillors were present, but Mayor Fred Eisenberger was seen chatting his way down the street.

For those councillors who missed it, we need to send a clear message that Open Streets Hamilton deserves to become a permanent feature in the city's steady transformation from a 20th century, car dependent collection of segregated zones to a 21st century tapestry of dense, healthy, diverse communities with public spaces that enrich and serve the people who occupy them.

I have no doubt that someone will find a way to complain about being inconvenienced by the 'closure' of James North (I can't help but think of it not as a closure but as an opening); but we can't let the fear of inconvenience govern us any longer.

Instead, let us be governed by the hope and inspiration and innovation that only urban living in a vibrant city can afford.

We've Been Here Before

Seven years ago, The Canadian National Cycling Championships held in Hamilton changed my life.

I walked through the car-free interior of the bike route loop with my family, bumping into friends and seeing other people do the same. One guy brought a TV out onto his front lawn so passersby could watch the cyclists. A neighbour cracked open a case of beer and passed bottles around. Children ran all over the road in clusters. Cyclists were everywhere.

It was while meandering through this milieu that I had an epiphany: This is how our city should be - all the time! A city designed for people, not cars. A city designed around communities, not commuters. A city designed to promote contact, not to avoid collisions.

All of a sudden I could no longer rationalize five-lane one-way streets cleaving through the city, or highways bulldozed through biosphere preserves, or block-busting surface parking lots. The convenience came at far too high a price.

Once I started thinking about this, I couldn't stop. The Championships ended (though the World Championships would provide another brief respite) and the car was king again, and I chafed against its ruthless, uncompromising domination of my environment.

I had to get to the bottom of this. It didn't take long to discover that plenty of smart, thoughtful people had already noticed the same thing, and I spent the next several months devouring the works of the great urbanists of the twentieth century, from Jane Jacobs through Jim Kunstler. I started to build up a vocabulary of urban development, a lexicon of land use.

When the 2003 municipal election installed a council and mayor ready to approve the Red Hill Valley Parkway, I sent an op-ed to the Hamilton Spectator decrying the divisive "doughnut politics" of a city that continued to hollow itself out to chase the impossible dream of universal suburban living. Two months later I followed up with another op-ed, this time sketching a plan to fill in the doughnut.

Those op-eds put me in touch with some other people in the city who were feeling the same way, and our collective efforts to create a new platform for discussion and promotion of healthy urbanism turned into Raise the Hammer.

For the past seven years, I've been motivated by the dream of a city built for people, not cars. Today I got to experience how that city-of-my-dreams might actually look and feel.

Update: I just received a great email from W. Ian Walker, the marketing and communications manager for Open Streets Hamilton. According to the police, close to 5,000 people attended yesterday's event.

The next Open Streets Hamilton event will be on September 26, so mark your calendars.

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 writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

25 Comments

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By Papa Wheelie (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 07:16:48

A great day, to be sure.

It would be nice to see similiar closures rotated around the city during warmer months. (May through October seems reasonable... you could start with Doors Open and end with Halloween) to allow citizens to discover the vital role of neighbourhoods in their, you know, neighbourhoods. Maybe close a street for eight hours once a month in a different neighbourhood within each city ward.

Weekly would be the ideal, but you'd want that to be driven by adoption, not imposed from without. Part of the appeal of something like Ciclovia is that it's empowering, which makes it seem "of the people"... which is not without its political utility in a city like Bogotá with soaring unemployment figures.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By TnT (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 08:02:06

I believe we have an example of this already: doesn't Locke street have an amazing festival like this too? Also, what is the future of the Gore Park Master Plan?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By moylek (registered) - website | Posted June 07, 2010 at 08:04:19

I approached the event with hope but not optimism: 1) this is Hamilton, 2) cars are a normal part of life in a downtown, and 3) it's not like you can't walk around James North as it is (look at the Art Crawl). So I spent an hour or two on James North yesterday: wandering, shopping, lunch on a patio. It was wonderful and I want to do it again (though without spending so much money).

I thought I sort of knew the street, from walking and cycling it dozens and dozens of times, but I saw many things for the first time - buildings, bars, shops, architectural details. And people.

I walked more slowly and more quickly; I crossed back and forth repeatedly. I spoke to people: friends, neighbours, merchants with booths, the blind guy with the squirrel.

I was surprised to find that James North without traffic was not simply James North minus traffic. It was something more and better than its normal self. It was a destination and a place to be; it was was soothingly free of mechanized noise and bubbling with human sounds. I felt something of some other cities which have pedestrian districts, something that I thought was only for nicer towns. And I was relieved to feel that it was still very much Hamilton, not the watered-down-somewhere-better that I feared it might be.

I don't know what a monthly open James North might evolve into or feel like, but by gosh and golly I'd love to find out.

Comment edited by moylek on 2010-06-07 07:24:58

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Papa Wheelie (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 08:59:53

TnT: "doesn't Locke street have an amazing festival like this too?"

There are certainly precedents for festival-related street closures: Dundas' Buskerfest this past weekend, but also BIA fests on Concession Street (June), Locke Street (mid-Sept), Westdale (09/12/10), Ferguson Street and Ottawa Street (Sept).

Not that there's anything wrong with those events, but the great thing about Open Streets is that it's somewhat open source. There's not much in the way of predetermined rules of engagement, so you have room to interpret the environment in your own way.

A central benefit of this approach is that you get an honest reflection of the character of the street rather than an impersonation of what a successful urban neighbourhood is supposed to look and act like. Another is that it's during daylight hours, which changes the energy and personality of the street. The crawls are fine but the dusk-onward look and feel of a street is only one aspect of its personality. The open-air markets at the cathedral can be similarly revelatory.

Kudos to those who did spend money, too. Although it's not strictly necessary to having a good time with your neighbours, financial support is doubtless welcome. I'm sure James North would like to avoid being typecast as the entertainment destination of choice for the cash-strapped.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By jason (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 09:07:09

Great recap Ryan. I too hope this can become a more regular occurrence. And think of how much busier it would have been with some proper June weather! I'd love to see this route go from the Gore to the harbour and include a closure of the soon to be revamped York from James to Park with the market perhaps being convinced to open up for these special Sunday events.

I'm going to New York this week and last night decided to check online to see if they had any Summer Streets events planned. Well, to my delight, I hopped online and found that they have dozens and dozens of street closures and events like this all summer. Next week alone while I'm there I counted over 20 street fairs and Summer Streets events listed on their website.

A street like James could easily handle an event like this monthly from May-September. Locke could as well, but so far it has remained a single day, annual event.

Having been in Bogota many years ago and seen the Cyclovia, I never though I'd see one in Hamilton. It was great to experience yesterday.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By nobrainer (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 09:54:42

Had a great time on Sunday. What I really liked (and maybe this seems weird) but unlike Buskerfest or Locke Street Fest (both great events!), this was just about being on the street as an event in itself. I liked how Papa Wheelie put it above, "you get an honest reflection of the character of the street" rather than some contrived event.

If we have to call it some kind of festival, call it Flaneur Fest!

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Dave Kuruc (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 11:37:50

I'm going to share the sentiments already reflected above - Open Streets yesterday was definitely a success. The weather although not perfect - kept perhaps the larger crowds away - but that didn't keep those who showed up from having a good time. For a first time kind of event that isn't a standard and familiar set up (ie. Festival of Friends, Buskerfest or Locke Street Festival) - it really worked. What made this event special was the fact that things could happen without the hindrance of strict organization or jury. Also what I liked was the businesses along the street that decided to open were showcased in a different light without booths of crappy merchandise obstructing the view or traffic whizzing by. Open Source is exactly what Open Streets was - kind of how the Art Crawl works....you know it's happening - go to town and get involved! Mixed Media is never open on Sundays and we were pleasantly surprised by the new faces deciding to explore our street and support our neighbours. Kudos to all who participated!

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By rusty (registered) - website | Posted June 07, 2010 at 12:45:36

I second these comments about the benefit of there being no pre-determined purpose for the closures. It's been years since I went to Toronto's Taste of The Danforth. And I regularly skip all the other street festivals - they're just madness. Closing the streets for the sake of it is a great idea!

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By slodrive (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 13:57:57

I'm blown away by the number of people who participated!! Good job -- since the weather wasn't all that great -- at least early on, anyway.

They should totally do more of these. I'm bummed that I missed this one -- and, in fact, I was downtown at the time, over at Copps, but didn't realize this event was taking place.

Looking forward to venturing down with my little one to check out the next Art Crawl.

Really cool what's happening in this area of the city. All those who are a part of it should give themselves a big pat on the back. You're doing what naysayers for years said wasn't possible.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By z jones (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 14:05:06

Remember former ward 2 councilor Ron Corsini? He wrote James North off. "Forget about it. Shops and businesses are never going to return to James North. They're gone forever." That was less than 10 years ago.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By highwater (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 14:46:05

I was speaking with one of the organizers and their attendance estimate was 3,000! They had been hoping for 2,000, so to get 3,000 out in dicey weather is a huge testament to the pent-up demand for the kind of giddy, spontaneous coming together facilitated by opening our streets to pedestrians and cyclists.

I also suggested to her that this be a more frequent event, say every Sunday in August, something like they have in NY. She informed me that it cost them $10,000 for permits, barricades, police, etc. to close off the street for a day, so to do a month of Sundays, they would have to find $40,000. This would obviously require major sponsors, then you get into commercializing the event which would change its wonderful free-wheeling character. I guess I'm naive. I was astonished at the cost. These are small, non-profit community groups putting this on. I can't understand why the city itself isn't doing this and absorbing the cost. Cities like Bogota and NY are not relying solely on the resources of grassroots groups for their open streets events.

I worry that Open Streets Hamilton might become a victim of its own success. The city is very likely to conclude that the first event was such a success, that they don't need to step forward and make this a city initiative as it is in other cities, that community groups and corporate sponsors are willing to continue to assume all the risk and do all the work. I don't see how Open Streets Hamilton can expand and be what we would all like it to be, if it remains solely volunteer-based.

One of the things that made the NY Open Streets so amazing was having the Mayor and Transportation Commissioner get up at a press conference and declare that they were committed to treating their streets as public spaces and damn the inconveniences. Open Streets Hamilton has shown that it can be done, and that there is widespread public support. Now the city needs to find the courage to stand up and take on the bulk of the responsibility for making sure that OSH continues and expands, or we will have to be content with only two relatively small events per year, at least until the volunteers and sponsors burn out.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 07, 2010 at 14:56:30

I was speaking with one of the organizers and their attendance estimate was 3,000!

According to the marketing and communications manager for Open Streets Hamilton, the police reported attendance of close to 5,000 people.

Edit - in this comment, I had previously expressed astonishment that the organizers should have to cover the cost of the Open Streets Hamilton event. Thankfully, I was incorrect about that.

I just received an email from Peter Topalovic, project manager, transportation demand management, in the public works department in which he affirmed that the costs of the event were covered by Smart Commute Hamilton, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, the Public Works Department and Public Health, which were all part of the organizing committee in addition to the NGOs and community associations. The $10,000 street closure cost was covered by a grant from the City.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-06-07 15:23:53

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By JonD (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 15:39:45

Wish I could have attended this event. My wife and 8 month old son are moving from downtown Toronto to Hamiltons north end on July 1st . Hearing of events like this makes me think we've made a great decision. Keep this up Hamilton! Considering the affordability of Hamilton and its beautiful parks and architecture I'm sure that if you allow vibrant neighbourhoods to take root many others will follow us!

Comment edited by JonD on 2010-06-07 14:41:15

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 15:42:46

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By anon (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 16:27:10

yep- charge admission - for everyone - including people diving, cycling and walking on all of the other streets in the city on every day of the year. what's fair for open streets is fair for all other streets too, no?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By zookeeper (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 16:28:47

Anon, we've learned that it's better to just downvote A Smith's comments and move on. There be dragons at the bottom of a "debate" with him.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted June 07, 2010 at 17:04:42

I thought it would be pretty good, but my expectations were blown away.

That said, I could live with it being on a Saturday since I work pretty much every Sunday morning and evening ;)

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 17:33:33

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By gsl (registered) - website | Posted June 07, 2010 at 18:06:17

I moved here from Montreal last August. In 1987 St. Laurent Boulevard was closed for the first time. Now it is closed twice a year for 4 days at a time and attracts hundreds of thousands of people. It is so successful that other streets in other parts of town are doing the same. St. Catherine is closed for the entire summer through the Gay Village, opening for deliveries before 11 am. It will work here and should be done as often as possible. Because the streets in Montreal are closed for more than just one day, the bars and restaurants erect patios in the street and it becomes one big party. Let's do it here as well.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By JM (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 22:47:54

I'm sure there will be a few more "open street" events on James North before September 26.... maybe within the next few weeks! One World Cup game win can shut the street down instantly - regardless if the city allows it or not!

What a great time that was back in '06.......

JM

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By TnT (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 22:58:05

Patios in the street? Oh no, cue the "not another Hess Village" cries. In all seriousness I went out to the event just briefly to buy an espresso and for the thrill of walking straight down James. The happy glow is fading a bit upon hearing that 10,000$ price tag. Why couldn't the cross streets just been rerouted like they do for a parade?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 07, 2010 at 23:37:54

My old camera wasn't working when I went to this event, but there's a great collection of photos on facebook.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By ceesvang (registered) | Posted June 08, 2010 at 16:42:44

For some really nice photos of the Hamilton "OPEN STREETS" event please watch - http://ceesvang.zenfolio.com/p169268063/...

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By slodrive (registered) | Posted June 10, 2010 at 17:11:52

Really great photos ceesvang! Imagine how alive that street could be on Tiger-Cats gameday!

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By BEE (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2010 at 10:25:02

I attended the open streets last Sunday and enjoyed it. It made me think about how Hamilton has come along since the not so far away days when Transportation for Liveable Communities did small scale parking meter parties and started the first car free day celebrations in the community; participants would put money in the parking meters, throw down the sod, drag out the couches and have a party! Jugglers, music, dance card games. One of my fondest memories of these was the time kids were invited to decorate a car with paint! All this was carried out with no funding whatsoever. Just goes to prove that you don't need money or even permission to make social change happen-just audacity and a sense of fun!

Three cheers to TLC-pioneers in guerrilla transportation action. Grassroots rock!

Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools

Feeds