City Life

Urbanism is a Toolkit, Not a Wedge

The principles and benefits of good urban design are not limited to downtown.

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 04, 2014

During the past several years, urbanism has entered the mainstream as shorthand for a set of ideas about how cities function and how to govern them.

Urbanism is the study of how people interact in cities: how our actions and relationships are influenced by the shapes and sizes of buildings, the designs of streets and other public spaces, and the rules that govern our conduct.

Urbanists believe cities are more successful when policy decisions are based on what the evidence tells us about how cities work and how they can work better.

Perhaps inevitably, "urbanist" has turned into a rhetorical hook on which commentators have hung all sorts of claims, some fair and some pejorative.

At worst, it has been inserted into the old fault lines that run between the upper and lower city, between the old city and its amalgamated suburban communities, and between the urbanized and rural parts of the city.

I want to dispel some of the more inaccurate and divisive caricatures I've seen lately.

Divisive Caricatures

First, urbanists don't think everyone should move downtown. We believe more people should live downtown and, most crucially, that more people will happily choose to do so once Hamilton gets better at understanding what makes urban neighbourhoods desirable.

This is happening in cities all across North America. It's also starting to happen here, but a legacy of bad postwar ideas is still holding us back.

Second, urbanists don't think everyone should give up their cars. We believe more people should have the opportunity to choose walking, cycling or transit for more trips.

Surveys consistently find that people want to walk and cycle more, but our transportation system is designed to make it easy to drive and difficult to walk, cycle or take transit. We need a better balance.

Third, urbanists don't believe people who live in suburbs are evil. However, suburbs are expensive to build and maintain, and Hamilton needs to do a better job of leveraging the unique qualities of cities that make suburbs affordable.

Essential Urban Economies

For more than half a century, Hamilton has focused on building low-density, single-use, car-dependent subdivisions to the almost total exclusion of other forms of development. As a result, we are missing what cities do best: bringing lots of people into the kinds of productive contact that generates economic value.

Urbanists favour land use, transportation and regulatory policies that support the essential economies by which cities create wealth.

Most people are already familiar with the economy of scale, in which a larger market means fixed costs of production are divided among more customers. However, cities also provide economies of agglomeration, density, association and extension, which we need to understand better so we can take advantage of them.

The economy of agglomeration, also known as the clustering effect, is the tendency for multiple businesses in an industry to locate close together. Competition raises productivity, and added gains accrue from sharing a larger pool of skilled workers, creating a market big enough for specialty suppliers, training partnerships with local schools, and faster transfer of innovations and best practices.

The economy of density is twofold: the same land supports more uses, while the distance between destinations gets smaller. This increases choice and accessibility and reduces transportation costs. Infrastructure costs go down while per capita economic output goes up.

The economy of association is simply that people are more innovative when they encounter more people in their daily lives. More chance encounters translate directly into faster cross-fertilization of ideas and new business partnerships.

The economy of extension is the tendency for good ideas developed in one city to expand into other cities. Urbanists are always looking for successful lessons that we can apply here in Hamilton.

Good Urban Design is City-Wide

Even if you live in the suburbs and never go downtown, it is still in your interest for the downtown to thrive. If nothing else, it means more economic opportunity, lower social service costs and higher property tax revenue.

But the principles of good urban design — higher-density land use, mixed-use buildings, walkable (and bikeable) streets, high-quality transit — are not limited to the downtown.

Indeed, many of the neighbourhoods now considered urban were originally built as suburbs. My own neighbourhood was a streetcar suburb built 100 years ago on what was then the edge of the city.

It is encouraging that councillors Terry Whitehead and Scott Duvall are talking about adding sidewalks in Mountain neighbourhoods that were built without them (at the time, residents didn't see the point), because it indicates Hamiltonians are recognizing that calmer, safer, more pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods make sense.

Instead of yet another wedge to fracture our big, messy, complicated city, let's use urbanism as a toolkit to ensure the entire city provides more opportunity and a better quality of life for more people.

This article was first published in the Hamilton Spectator on February 3, 2014.

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.

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