Special Report: Walkable Streets

No Two Ways About It

All the myriad encounters and interactions that take place in city streets collectively add up to city life, city economy, and city culture.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 10, 2005

Donald Schmitt of Diamond and Schmitt Architects (http://www.dsai.ca) is designing McMaster's Innovation Park on the former Camco site at Dundurn and Longwood. Last night, Schmitt delivered a presentation on Imagining Hamilton's Future for the Friends of Red Hill Valley's first annual Spirit of Red Hill lecture. (I was honoured to be a member of the panel discussion that followed his presentation.)

Schmitt argued forcefully that architecture is not about building uses but about connections - between the people who use buildings and between buildings and their surroundings. In response to a question about how best to address the hopelessness that sometimes seems to hang over our city, Schmitt suggested that the city should make its streets two-way, "overnight" as he put it.

An audience member disagreed, saying that the convenience of Hamilton's one-way street network is one of its great strengths and predicting that the city will decay if people can no longer move through it quickly. I didn't take the opportunity last night, but I'd like to respond to his argument.

The one-way supporter sees the street as a means of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. For him, that purpose defines the street. However, the shopkeeper halfway down that street does not feel the same way; nor does the person living in the apartment above the shop, or the families 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 streetlife - chances to see and interact with others. The families want to be able to run and play in the peace that comes from knowing the street is safe.

In fact, the audience member who supports one-way streets had in mind a special kind of street, which we normally call an "expressway".

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

City streets are cross-roads, places where people literally cross paths and interact. Markets form at these cross-roads, 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.

And 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 further cooperation, 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 opposite. Where city streets encourage connections, expressways seek to prevent them. A connection on an expressway is called a "collision", and tends to bode very badly for the people brought into contact so abruptly.

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 dis-integrates. Areas between the tears are cut off, 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 St. North is rapidly coming back to life. When it went two-way a couple of years ago, many people claimed, as last night's audience member did, that 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, spring to life, and existing shops and restaurants receive new customers. Boarded-up buildings rejoin the street with reinvestment and new tenants. Walk down the street 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 re-open 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.

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. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. Ryan also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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By Vic (anonymous) | Posted June 19, 2008 at 15:24:47

Well said! Especially: "Hamilton is proving remarkably resilient". It really is a City with so much potential, that even after all the waste, there is still enough useful vibrancy that the City survives.
Now, let's get people to stop harming it, and start helping!

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