Never doubt that you can make a difference, even if you seldom hear the stories of regular citizens getting organized and standing up to powerful interests.
By Ryan McGreal
Published March 01, 2016
This week I was invited as a guest speaker in a planning class at York University to talk about civic engagement. The following essay is adapted from my speaking notes.
I got my start in urbanism during the 2003 Cycling Championships in Hamilton. A chunk of the city inside the cycling route was closed to automobile traffic for two weekends during the summer and we lived a couple of blocks from the route. We jokingly referred to it as the "lockdown zone".
2003 Cycling Championships route map (Image Credit: Google Maps)
All kinds of people were out enjoying the break from traffic. One person brought out a case of beer and passed cans around, while another person wheeled their TV onto the porch so we could all watch the helicopter footage when the cyclists were on another part of the route.
Groups of kids were playing together right in the middle of the street, and their parents weren't in a state of terror.
Every time we turned around, we ran into friends and acquaintances we hadn't seen in a while and enjoyed a succession of stop-and-chats.
I couldn't believe how quickly and enthusiastically people reclaimed their own public space once it was no longer roaring with dangerous traffic.
I was struck with an epiphany: why isn't city life more like this all the time?
I hadn't really thought about this stuff before but it was too stark not to notice how different it felt to be on a street for people rather than for cars.
That got me started thinking about city life as we actually live and experience it, and it turns out I was I little late to this particular party.
So I got to work plowing through a fifty-year backlog: books by Lewis Mumford, Donald Appleyard, James Howard Kunstler, Richard Florida, Andres Duany, Richard Register - and of course, Jane Jacobs.
Jane Jacobs fighting to save Washington Square Park
Jacobs was one of the first people to notice these things, right at the height of the Urban Renewal movement when the entire continent was hell-bent on demolishing all that rotten Victorian architecture and replacing it with towers in parks connected by highways.
She was an amazingly lively writer, and it's almost impossible to read her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities without wanting to move into a neighbourhood like the one she describes.
But she wasn't just a commentator. She was also a community activist, having gotten started by organizing a campaign to save Washington Square Park from Fifth Avenue, then another campaign to save Greenwich Village from the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and then, after moving to Toronto to keep her kids away from the Vietnam War, yet another campaign to save Bloor West Village from the Spadina Expressway.
And while almost everyone at least knows about her first book, she never stopped observing, thinking, researching and unpacking cities and city life.
She was one of the first people to argue that cities are the main engines of economic growth and development, an idea that has since become mainstream.
Economists today who study the essential economies of cities - the economies of scale, agglomeration, density, association and extension - owe a huge debt to the work Jacobs was already doing in the 1960s.
But what may be the most inspiring about Jacobs, at least for me, is that she was not a professional. She didn't have a degree in architecture or engineering or planning or economics, even though her work has sparked transformations in all these fields.
Now, I am certainly no Jane Jacobs, but I have had the huge advantage of being able to stroll down the trail she blazed for everyone who cares about their city and wants to get involved, somehow, in making it more successful.
I consider myself an "amateur urbanist", a delightful term I wish I could take credit for, but it was coined by my friend Nicholas Kevlahan in 2006. He wrote:
By amateur I mean that I am passionately interested and concerned about the urban environment but I don't claim any special knowledge or training in urban design. I am simply an interested and curious observer of urban life and design, particularly in Hamilton because that is where I live.
Like any part of culture, a vibrant and inventive city requires professionals, connoisseurs and amateurs: people who care passionately about their city.
After my Cycling Championships epiphany, I submitted a utopian op-ed to the Hamilton Spectator, our daily newspaper, and it was published. A few more op-eds followed over the next year.
Through that writing, I connected with several other Hamiltonians who felt the similarly, and we formed a loose organization to try and figure out what we could do.
We felt that the public discourse on Hamilton - and especially its downtrodden core - was really missing the urbanist dimension.
The mainstream view seemed to be that what downtown Hamilton needed was to be more like the suburbs - wide streets, free parking and shiny new buildings - or else was simply beyond saving and should just be demolished altogether.
One former downtown councillor actually stood up at a public meeting to talk about James Street North and said, "Forget about it. Shops and businesses are never going to return to James North. They're gone forever."
Ironically, that was right around the time James North was converted from a one-way traffic sewer into a slow, urban two-way street in 2003.
Supercrawl 2014 crowd on James North
A litany of letters to the editor, op-eds and statements from high profile politicians and civic leaders were predicting chaos and disaster for the two-way conversion.
But downtown was in such dire straits, and Council was so desperate, that they took a chance and went through with it.
That conversion set the stage for a slow, incremental urban revival that is now an amazing success story getting national attention. Groups of planners come to Hamilton on field trips to study James North, something that former Councillor probably couldn't have imagined.
But despite the sky not falling when James was converted, the overwhelming thrust of the public discussion remained profoundly anti-urban. Too many Hamiltonians regarded downtown at best as a shortcut to drive through as quickly as possible en route to somewhere else.
We felt we needed to widen the conversation, but the mainstream discourse was dominated by a reactionary mid-century mindset about urban development.
I was working as a website developer and, on the principle that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, I proposed that we start a website. (Back in 2004, launching a website was still kind of an exciting event.)
So we designed and built a website, pulled together a group of people willing to write articles, and launched quietly in December 2004.
I think we had the naive idea that if we could just explain what needed to happen, the city would immediately recognize our brilliance and start changing its policies.
It didn't quite work out that way. We've been at it for over 11 years and the inner city is still awash in wide one-way streets and parochial, one-way thinking.
Main Street West, the "Gateway to Downtown"
Many Hamiltonians still regard the downtown as a dumping ground. Just last week, a typical letter to the editor in the city's daily paper admonished Council to "Tear down abandoned buildings and make parking lots. Obviously they are needed."
You know, because that's been working so well for us up to now.
Surface parking in downtown Hamilton (Image Credit: Anita Thomas)
But some things have definitely changed, too. Ideas that seemed quite marginal when we started writing about them have moved well into the mainstream, even if they are not universally accepted.
This city is now openly discussing, debating and arguing over issues like two-way conversion, complete streets, bike lanes, transit investment and urban land use, whereas formerly they were scarcely on people's radar at all.
A decade ago, Council was afraid downtown Hamilton would go the way of collapsed inner cities in American rustbelt cities. Now the big debate is how to ensure housing remains affordable amid skyrocketing property values.
Another thing that has changed is that media coverage of local civic issues has gotten a lot better at giving people the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. When we started out, the media were notorious for not covering an issue until after Council had voted on it, turning local democracy into a spectator sport.
I remember sitting on a media panel at a public event in 2008, and when someone in the audience pointed this out, the traditional media representatives replied, "We don't do process."
It was really important for us at Raise the Hammer to do process. As much as possible with our limited resources, we tried to write about issues when they were still at the committee stage - or even earlier, with initiatives that the city was not yet considering.
We would link directly to staff reports (before the City made that impossible to do), announce when meetings were happening and share contact information for councillors and staff representatives so people could make their voices heard.
At the same time, other groups, like Citizens at City Hall and, later, independent reporter Joey Coleman, started making a point of attending every committee and council meeting they could, record the proceedings, and either transcribe, livestream or post the entire event.
I'm happy to report that today, even though the Spectator has faced the same cuts as other newspapers and has fewer reporters, they get to a lot more committee meetings than they used to and report on stories when they are still in play, not just after the final vote.
I'd like to think that we played a role in helping raise the bar for mainstream coverage of civic issues and making it a bit easier for people to find out what's going on to get involved.
In a few cases, where we have noticed that an issue really resonates with people, the loose group of Hamiltonians connected to Raise the Hammer have formed or facilitated the formation of ad hoc citizen groups to organize and advocate around that specific issue.
We've tackled small issues like a group of neighbours trying to get a crosswalk installed at a dangerous intersection.
And we've tackled larger issues like trying to convince the City to get behind a Provincial proposal to build a light rail transit line in the city.
Rendering of light rail transit on King Street
In the latter case, we formed Hamilton Light Rail in 2007 after the Province promised two light rail lines in Hamilton as part of its MoveOntario 2020 plan (later renamed The Big Move).
We engaged with the City about partnering with the Province on this and were told there was no plan for LRT, just bus rapid transit - eventually. Council didn't seem interested in the provincial announcement either, though the Mayor was savvy enough to rename the city's Bus Rapid Transit office to the Rapid Transit Office.
We started holding monthly planning meetings and developed a presentation explaining what LRT is and why Hamiltonians should support it. We went to every group that would have us - neighbourhood associations, business groups, service clubs, you name it - to explain and promote the concept.
In early 2008, Council agreed to do a rapid transit feasibility study looking at bus rapid transit and light rail transit. We worked closely with the staff doing the report, including challenging their initial conclusions, and encouraging people to come out to public meetings and get more involved.
Metrolinx told us the level of engagement and support in Hamilton was unprecedented compared to other municipalities.
Over the next several months, the Rapid Transit staff had engaged with close to 2,000 people and presented a final report to Council that strongly recommended moving quickly to plan and build two LRT lines, starting with the east-west line.
Council approved it unanimously and staff got to work. At this time, the project manager came to our group and asked us to stop holding meetings and talking to community associations, because they were on top of it and our efforts were confusing people. Foolishly, we agreed, believing the project to be in good hands.
Unfortunately, after the 2010 municipal election we got a new mayor who had campaigned in support of LRT but started undermining it soon after the election, spreading a constant stream of misinformation and telling the province that LRT was not a priority.
We did our best to keep the pressure up, reaching out to the thousands of supporters who had connected with us and asking them to keep reminding the City and Province why they should support LRT.
Staff finally presented their LRT plan in early 2013 and Council unanimously approved it, including the Mayor - but he then started claiming that the LRT plan was not actually an LRT plan.
It was all very confusing and discouraging, and it was clear the Province did not want to wade into the middle of it.
Meanwhile, Queen's Park was also confusing the issue with a lot of mixed messaging on both the preferred technology and funding model. LRT opponents took this to mean the Liberals didn't want to fund LRT after all, further dampening the hopes of LRT supporters.
It's fair to say that by 2014, we really believed that LRT was well and truly dead, but we kept advocating anyway so that at least we would be able to look back and say we did everything we could.
It wasn't until after the 2014 municipal election, when we once again got a Mayor who supported LRT, and then the 2015 provincial election, when the Liberals won a surprise majority, that the Province finally announced they would keep their commitment for 100 percent capital funding for LRT.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne at Hamilton LRT funding announcement (Screen capture from video by The Public Record)
The funded route is slightly different from the plan that was completed in 2013, and so Metrolinx and the City are in a race against time to finalize the new plan, submit an RFP and sign a contract before the 2018 elections. That way, the plan gets locked in and can't easily be torn up if the government changes hands.
More recently, a new citizen group called Hamilton LRT has formed to continue advocating for the best outcome as Hamilton's LRT plan comes together.
But probably the most white-knuckle campaign I've been a part of was Our City, Our Future. This was a citizen campaign to locate a new sports stadium on abandoned industrial brownfield land in the city's West Harbour, rather than on a wheat field next to the highway on the edge of town as the owner of our football team wanted.
The city's old stadium, Ivor Wynne in the east end, was at the end of its life, and the City saw the 2015 Pan Am Games as an opportunity to get higher level funding to build a new stadium.
By putting it in the West Harbour, the investment could also support city building by remediating an industrial brownfield, boosting nearby depressed property values, connecting with the planned GO Train service expansion and bringing large groups of people downtown to enjoy its restaurants and other amenities.
Proposed East Mountain stadium location
This was Pro Sports Extortion 101: sports team owners are used to getting what they want from their host cities. But something was different this time: a large number of Hamiltonians felt outraged and betrayed by the move. People kept contacting us and asking what they could do about it.
Recognizing the scale of this upwelling of energy, we formed Our City, Our Future to stand up to the football team and challenge Council to do the right thing, instead of caving into the owner's demands.
We presented all the evidence in support of the city's preferred location, interviewed key players, broke news - everything we could to expand the public discussion and help shape the media coverage.
Over a period of several months, thousands of people signed onto the campaign and spoke up. They wrote letters and emails, made phone calls and attended rallies.
The team fought back, of course, and they had more money and insider influence than us. At one point the Feds announced that they would only fund the stadium if it was where the team wanted it, before quickly backtracking and saying it was up to the city to decide.
The conflict ended in a draw. In January 2011, the newly elected mayor brought forward a compromise to build the new stadium on the site of the old stadium, which was in the middle of an old urban neighbourhood.
Rebuilt Stadium at Balsam and Cannon
The surrounding neighbourhood has less redevelopment potential than the West Harbour, but it wasn't nearly as bad as the suburban location.
In fact, building the new stadium in its original location didn't meet any of the owner's demands for highway access and acres of parking, but it did allow him to save face after insisting the team would "never" play at a West Harbour stadium.
One interesting thing I've learned from these exercises is that change happens in the space where people's interests and passions overlap.
A successful civic campaign is a movement of many people who care enough to participate, and who are supported by leaders who facilitate and organize their participation.
There are lots of issues I care passionately about, but for one reason or another they don't resonate with a lot of other people. Trying to push an agenda on an issue that doesn't resonate with people is like pushing on a piece of string.
Another thing I've noticed is that the official story tends to write engaged citizens out of the narrative. Instead, these stories are generally framed in corporatist terms of a conflict between various institutional entities.
I don't want to go all Howard Zinn here, but having been close to the centre of some of these campaigns, it feels surreal to read a summary report that makes it seem as if the public just stood by and passively watched the events unfold, like mortals keeping their heads down while the gods clash.
Setting aside the demands of my own ego, I think this does democracy a real disservice: the active civic engagement of organized groups of residents is in many cases central to how these stories play out - without that citizen pressure, many of these stories would play out much differently.
But most people who weren't directly involved are told a story of what happened that overlooks the role of regular citizens. That, in turn, discounts every person's potential to make a positive difference in their community.
Jane Jacobs showed us that a sufficiently organized community can stand up to a juggernaut that starts out looking inevitable and unstoppable from the outside.
She taught us that observant, impassioned amateurs can sometimes contribute a vital understanding of community needs and opportunities that complements and adds to the expertise of the professionals.
And finally, she also demonstrated us that with a little help from passionate and motivated citizens, it is possible for civic leaders to find a path through the policy minefield and ultimately do the right thing.
Back in 1971, after the coalition of Spadina Expressway opponents succeeded in convincing the Ontario Government to back down on its plan to extend the expressway through Bloor Village, then-premier William Davis famously stated:
If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop.
Never doubt that you can make a difference, even if you seldom hear the stories of regular citizens getting organized and standing up to powerful interests.
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