Hope for the Golden Horseshoe

By Jason Leach
Published November 15, 2006

One exciting theme that has come out of this week's municipal elections across the Golden Horseshoe is the very clear and obvious demands of residents to start building our towns and cities properly.

Runaway sprawl has turned Canada's most prosperous region into a laughingstock for folks in Vancouver and Montreal. The suburban growth surrounding Hamilton and Toronto has been devastating to the area's agriculture industry, quality of life, air, water and soil quality (essentials of life), and the resulting huge impacts on human health - obesity, cancer, respiratory disease, heart disease, and so on.

The billions of dollars spent in Ontario each year trying to treat these ailments is stunning. Add to all this the toll on our cities. Urban infrastructure is imploding while urban taxpayers subsidize shiny new infrastructure out in far-flung sprawl projects.

As the world's energy resources begin to dwindle and become more expensive, I shudder to think of how folks are going to afford their mega-homes out in treeless regions that surround our two main cities.

It seems people have finally realized that we going the wrong way - and fast. Of course, we could have simply learned these lessons 25 years ago from cities like Detroit, Buffalo and LA, but instead we've chosen to learn - and now attempt to fix - the hard way.

Here in Hamilton, Fred Eisenberger campaigned heavily on curbing sprawl and growing our city from within. He will be held to that platform and needs to show the rest of council the immediate need to change our patterns of growth.

RTH will have more policy papers and working documents coming in the next few weeks, but I would suggest to our new mayor that one of his first orders of business should be taking one final look at Hamilton's GRIDS planning process.

There is much to like in our city's new plan, but one huge mistake being made is the watering down of urban infill requirements. The province has mandated that cities plan to house 40 percent of their new growth within the already-urban area.

Hamilton has managed to squeeze this down to around 32-34 percent by fudging numbers and including empty swaths of land such as those found south of Rymal Rd as our "current built up area". Yes, those lands are in the current urban boundary, but are still empty fields. They should not be included in the "current built up area".

I'm no expert, but I do know that the city of Toronto is planning to house all of their next two million residents within the current built up area. That's right - 100 percent of their growth is targeted for the city.

Hamilton certainly won't be seeing two million residents, yet we are planning to open up a huge swath of land south east of the city for more sprawl. I think Hamilton should strive to house 70-80 percent of new growth within the current built-up area.

There is plenty of undeveloped land in Hamilton as well as far too many massive one-storey plazas and strip malls. By simply encouraging these building owners to add two or three stories of residential and commercial space to their buildings, we could see tens of thousands of new residents housed along main arteries and begin to use our land better.

Planning and public input is essential, but I don't think we'd see a huge outcry if the local Fortino's added three floors of condos above it. We've mentioned this before in RTH, but it's worth repeating - smart growth and infill does NOT require 140 Century 21 Towers to be built in Hamilton.

Paris, France was built with most buildings topping out at seven floors. The result: a bustling, vibrant city that practically defines "world class".

Hamilton's plan to allow 60-68 percent of new growth to take place outside of the urban area is more bad planning. I don't think Mayor Fred wants to revise the entire GRIDS plan, but increasing the amount of urban growth is essential to our future success.

The nodes and corridors plan chosen is perfect for intensifying main roads, which house most of our parking lots and one-story plazas. The Bus Rapid Transit plan and bicycle plans put forth in GRIDS should also be ramped up and made a near-term priority. This will allow our city to grow in size but give people alternative ways of getting around.

Downtown streets need to be calmed and switched to two-way as much as possible and Hamilton must begin to demand excellence in new architecture. I was in Buffalo recently (a more in-depth report on this remarkable city will come later next week) and was stunned at the vibrancy of their downtown Allentown neighbourhoods and the cleanliness of the streets and excellence in new architecture.

That city is at the early stages of a major rebirth. Hamilton could be as well.

On a lighter note, mayor Fred should encourage a "Colour Hamilton" initiative that sees building owners spruce up their buildings with vibrant colours and funky, unique facades.

The city, of course, should match efforts by "freshening" our urban streets with new lighting and banners, and encourage public art and murals as a means of brightening the city and beginning to develop a fun, funky image for our city.

RTH will develop some simple and doable ideas for our new mayor and council to sink their teeth into, but I firmly believe that Fred can show the city that he means business about sprawl by having our GRIDS plan adjusted to reflect a true "smart growth" agenda, which is what it was originally intended to be.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.


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By Newbie (anonymous) | Posted November 15, 2006 at 14:23:19

I've asked this elsewhere but am still wondering...
I've heard that City tax treatments can make it more profitable for merchant landlords in the lower City to close up shop and rent adjoining apartments than to keep commercial space active. Anyone know if this is true? If so, what are the pros and cons? Thanks for your insights.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 15, 2006 at 17:25:26

I too have heard that, but can't really answer you definitively. I do know that taxes are dirt cheap on empty buildings and parking lots which is why you see so many along Barton and in the core. Taxes are insane downtown and along Barton, Cannon etc.... it's slowly been coming down in recent years, but nowhere near as cheap as the taxes in the meadowlands or other suburban developments. This is what I can robbery. Once the city gets taxes equal or even lower downtown, you'll see a massive revitalization similar to what is now happening in Buffalo, NY. Hopefully our new mayor will work with council to help them see this. Until now, we've had mayors who support the unfair tax system because it benefits the homebuilders out in the sprawl projects. As we've said before on RTH, we think downtown will thrive if just given a fair chance. To keep robbing and stealing from the core and then wondering 'why won't it turn around?' is ridiculous and ignorant.

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By nowhere to go (anonymous) | Posted November 16, 2006 at 16:45:13

Thoroughly enjoy reading stuff on this site but I'm a little worried or anxious as to what is to become of those of us that aren't farmers but don't enjoy living in densely populated areas and at the same time enjoy some of the other benefits of larger cities? Top this off with my love of not just the automobile but the kind that is generally vilified as being gas guzzling and dangerous (who doesn't like a good thrash on a racetrack, not the street, or watching Formula 1?). Let the commuters who don't know the joy of bringing a vehicle anywhere near it's limits or have never gone on a cross country road trip (good but not the same by train) have their Smart cars. I've heard arguments on both sides of the scarily dwindling natural resources debate, not fully convinced of either side and I certainly don't think that we haven't the capacity that when the need strikes to finally make a commercially viable alternative source of energy available. Not convinced on the complete twowayification of Hamilton's streets either, maybe someone should fix those heroically stupid people that insist on crossing any street as if only they exist in the world? Perhaps James St. is a bad example but traffic flow there is ridiculous now, maybe it's bad planning.
Anyway, been lurking for a while so I felt like I should say something in my defense so someone can help me point to where someone with my preferences fits ;)
BTW, totally opposed to sprawl, love nature (formal education in biology among others), voted Fred and McHattie, think people by Mac should suck it up a bit (someone already asked if they'd prefer to have Stelco or Mac in their back yard). Totally convinced Hamilton could be much greater than it is or the way people perceive it, and attempting to do my bit.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted November 17, 2006 at 13:14:12

Hey nowhere, glad you decided to step up and put your two cents in.

You said "I'm a little worried or anxious as to what is to become of those of us that aren't farmers but don't enjoy living in densely populated areas and at the same time enjoy some of the other benefits of larger cities?" I'm not sure if you can have it both ways. You said you're "totally opposed to sprawl", but if a lot of people want the lifestyle you're talking about, then sprawl is the end result.

I sympathize with where you're coming from, though. The thought of living in the country appeals to me sometimes, even though I'm no farmer, and it really appeals to a good friend of mine and he's no farmer either. Buying a big property with one little house on it up Highway 6 or some place is still possible, and as long as you're smart about it - maybe putting up a windmill for electricity and putting in a vegetable garden and/or a small orchard - it doesn't have to be bad for the environment.

It will definitely be expensive, though. That's kind of where sprawl developments step in: they promise that kind of out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere living, where your kids are safe and a field is just a ways down the street, but for really cheap. You end up with a kind of downtown neighbourhood, minus the shops and services, transplanted into the wilderness.

As far as traffic goes, I'd like to live in a city where stepping out on the street, even carelessly, isn't an automatic death sentence.

When it comes to big cars, my opinion is, go ahead and race it on a track somewhere. Just don't commute to Toronto every day with it. The problem is not taking a road trip once every year or two, the problem is when all of your normal, day-to-day activities - driving to work, picking up some milk, going to the library - rely on driving, sometimes long distances.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 17, 2006 at 17:00:29

good thoughts from both of you. I also think it will certainly be interesting to see what becomes of that 'middle ground sprawl' area that nowhere to go talks about. In many ways, sprawl has been the largest experiment of western civilization. I'm 29 and am part of the first ever generation of kids who were raised without knowing neighbours, having stores in walking distance along with schools and parks. It seems to me that the further into this experiment we get the less hope I have for it's long-lasting ability to remain viable. I agree that not everyone wants to live in the country or an 'intense urban experience'. And that's certainly not being proposed by us here at RTH. I live in Strathcona and know folks who are chosing to sell their south Mountain homes for homes in Kirkendall, Delta area, West Harbour or Corktown. These areas have varying degrees of 'intensity' but none are like NYC or even Toronto. The streets are quiet and safe, many folks live in homes. The only real difference is that I can walk to various shops and services, our homes were built with porches or front patios instead of huge garages and some folks have to park on the street. There are more apartments and condos thrown in as well, but it's well-balanced. That's really where sprawl has gotten it very wrong - no balance. I recall my mother mentioning last summer (after asking one of us to run out and 'grab some milk' while we were spending an evening at their place) how insane it was that we have to 'drive just to get some milk'. This is on the south Mountain. Yet only 10 minutes away along the north Mountain and downtown neighbourhoods people can still walk for basic needs. Liking your car is no problem at all....I think the problem is when we are forced to live in them for hours a day like Ade said. The future of suburbia is certainly up in the air - especially if cities slowly continue to move towards the practice of having developers and new home-buyers pay more of the real cost for the new developments instead of relying on urban tax-payers to heavily subsidize the suburban lifestyle. Great comments though, you seem to have a good perspective on things.

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