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
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.
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)
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.
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.
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