By Ryan McGreal
Published April 03, 2013
If you haven't been following the series of op-eds in the Spectator by Paul Shaker and David Premi, you really should. Their latest essay, Say Hello to Hamiltonism, draws inspiration from Vancouver's leadership in urban development and invites Hamilton to take the lead in its own development.
These days, Vancouver looms tall (ahem) as an example of urbanism done mostly right. While other cities decanted aggressively into their hinterlands and crisscrossed their built areas with highways, Vancover followed a much different growth strategy. Urban planners, theorists and observers increasingly recognize that the Vancouver model, often called "Vancouverism" of late, hews pretty closely to urbanist recommendations.
In the last twenty years I have returned to Vancouver every few years and have been fascinated by its transformation from a sleepy (almost too laid-back) backwater to a vibrant, urban 'world class' city. This transformation has been remarkably rapid.
The city today is globally recognized for its excellent quality of life because of choices it made 20, 30 and 40 years ago. Engaged citizens resisted the postwar plan to build a network of expressways through urban neighbourhoods - much like Toronto resisted the urge to build the Spadina expressway.
It was at this time that Vancouver and Hamilton diverged - as, indeed, Vancouver diverged from most of the rest of North America.
Its urban communities saved from destruction, Vancouver invested in rapid transit, building the Skytrain system that was offered to Hamilton in the early 1980s but which Hamilton rejected. (Instead, we eventually built a new urban expressway!)
It's also worth pointing out the particular building form made popular in Vancouver: a podium-and-pedestal model in which a building provides a coherent two- to four-storey urban streetwall to the sidewalk with a tall, slender tower that emerges from inside the building.
A great article in Urban Toronto on Vancouverism showcases this building form:
Coal Harbour condo tower podium lined with retail and residential units. Image by Dumitru Onceanu.
This model provides high quality density without sacrificing a coherent pedestrian experience at street level. (As such, Vancouver condo buildings function more effectively for pedestrian life than downtown Toronto's condos, many of which are a compositional disaster at street level and amount to vertical sprawl.)
The essay by Shaker and Premi is particularly frustrating in light of the missed opportunities for Hamilton to make some of the same choices Vancouver has made. Indeed, Vancouver took its seminal leaps of faith in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, but our continued reluctance today to start making good urban development choices comes in the face of decades of evidence that our trajectory leads to ruin.
As many locals can attest to, progress in The Hammer tends to go in fits and starts. Sometimes we start to stray outside our comfort zone on issues, and we sabotage our wins through retreat into the safety of old thinking.
This is where we can take inspiration from Vancouverism - to stay focused on a goal and become leaders in urban thinking even when this means we are doing things differently than other cities. That's what it means to lead.
I would love for Hamilton to be a leader in urban development, but we can scarcely bring our city to be a follower in the urban development we already know will work.
Hiding behind the exceptionalism of its unique geographic constraints, Hamilton ironically uses them as a lame excuse to maintain exactly the same pattern of suburban sprawl as every other unexceptional city in North America.
Vancouver, in sharp contrast, has regarded its unique geographic constraints as an opportunity to do things differently - to cultivate and leverage the distinctly urban economies that produce innovation and growth.
Vancouver took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
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