Revitalization

Downtown Safety: Address Problems, Don't Just Displace Them

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 05, 2008

You may have seen last week's Hamilton Spectator article about the new consultant's report on how to make downtown safer.

The report, prepared by Public & Private Security Management for the Downtown Cleanliness and Security Task Force, a coalition of city departments and BIAs and titled, "Protecting the Future: A Safety and Security Audit of the Downtown Improvement Project Area", offered a somewhat disheartening list of recommendations for improving "the perception of cleanliness and security of the Downtown Core."

The report has not yet been presented to any city committees and has not yet been approved by the Task Force, but it is already generating interest and commentary.

It was based on background research in Hamilton and other areas and interviews and questionnaires with stakeholders, including downtown street-level businesses (174 business owners participated) and neighbourhood associations, and sought to answer two questions: how to reduce crime, and how to reduce the perception of crime.

Quick Fixes

I was going to write about it today, but then I read Tom Cooper's column in today's Spec and realized that he explains what's wrong with this report better than I could:

The report's overall tinge is disquieting. It seems to be attempting to appease faulty perceptions. It looks for quick fixes while glossing over the underlying issues that underpin the reasons why those problems exist in the first place. The not-so-trivial issues of adequate incomes and affordable or supportive housing for the vulnerable are not addressed in the recommendations.

The report seems heavy on blame around issues of downtown deterioration and lack of security, but lacks any sense of societal responsibility.

Some of the recommendations are certainly worthy of discussion, but those conversations must take place within the right context. From a process perspective, the report misses the new, successful models of collaboration in Hamilton.

Those exercises - the breaking down of silos and building partnerships across sectors - have allowed the community to move forward on a number of fronts, the Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and the Hamilton Civic Coalition being two prime examples.

This report seems to backtrack on those approaches by compartmentalizing solutions instead of building up community capacity: There is very much an "us versus them" theme at work.

In short, it's a top-down, law-and-order approach that seeks to deal with the homeless and marginalized by displacing them rather than by addressing the complex roots of homelessness and marginalization.

To be fair, it makes some noises about promoting "opportunities for the marginalized", but the bulk of the report is concerned with reducing the impact of street people on others.

In last Friday's column, the Spec's Andrew Dreschel touched on this same argument when he suggested that downtown's troubles are based as much on "fears and perceptions of danger" as by real risk.

We know that in many cases, the "weirdos" and "freaks" who inhabit the downtown streetscape, the dirty and dishevelled, the people who twitch and mutter, are actually the innocent casualties of chronic psychiatric disabilities who have turned the core into their wandering grounds.

However, he still accepts the conventional wisdom that the way forward lies in "diluting" the proportion of homeless and mentally ill people wandering downtown by "growing commercial and residential activity in the core".

Throwing Out the Baby

Finally, even in the context of dealing with homelessness by dispersing the homeless, the report still reveals some bizarre assumptions about how to make streets safer.

Some recommendations are non-controversial - indeed, oft-repeated no-brainers - like enforcing property standards more aggressively and providing incentives for owners to invest in their buildings.

Others are frighteningly authoritarian, like the recommendation to expand the network of security cameras including an increase in live monitoring.

Now, I've heard all the arguments that the cameras increase people's perception of safety, but when did we become a society willing to submit to constant video surveillance?

I remember, as a child in the 1970s and '80s, hearing about the totalitarian Soviet Union, in which citizens had no privacy and the state simply assumed a high level of encroachment into people's personal lives. When did we come to accept the same high level of encroachment?

Still others betray a profound antipathy toward the underlying logic of the urban environment. One recommendation actually recommends replacing the grass in Gore Park with low growing bushes, which "will act as a barrier and deterrent for those using the space as a congregating area."

Heaven forbid that anyone should use a public plaza in the heart of the downtown core as a congregating area.

For another example, the report spent a fair amount of time on increasing safety in surface parking lots (of which there are plenty downtown), but never asked whether it's a good idea, in terms of either safety or perception, to give an entire city block over to surface parking in the first place.

By eliminating both sources and destinations of pedestrian traffic and breaking line-of-sight for those few pedestrians walking to and from their cars, block-busting parking lots are inherently unsafe.

As I wrote a year ago, "It's deeply disconcerting as a pedestrian to try and navigate a landscape with no placeness".

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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By statius (registered) | Posted February 05, 2008 at 20:47:21

While Ryan's characterization of surveillance installations as "frighteningly authoritarian" is utterly paranoiac (and arguably betrays an outdated libertarian idealism), the truth is that CCTV surveillance just isn't that effective in reducing most street crime (although it does seem to have a noticeable effect on car theft for some reason). In the UK, and particularly London, where CCTV installments are ubiquitous, Home Office reports consistently show only a small reduction in street crime where surveillance cameras were installed. That being said, CCTV installations do indeed produce a major boost in the perception of safety, and residents in areas where cameras have been installed consistently report feeling safer than before. Now, given that the problem with Hamilton's downtown (in attracting shoppers, residents, etc.) probably has more to do with a perception of risk rather than an actual presence thereof, a pretty strong case seems to exist for the installation of surveillance technology. This is just an issue of pragmatics.

As for Ryan's question, "when did we become a society willing to submit to constant video surveillance?". I would submit that we became such a society a very long time ago. How many stores can you go into today that don't have video surveillance? Very few. We're photographed every time we enter a taxi, go into an airport, or take money out of the bank. We readily submit to surveillance everyday. True, banks and taxis are private zones and their owners may do as they wish, but this should indeed be much more disturbing than being monitored by the state. The state at least is bound by a plethora of administrative and procedural rules and a government is always politically accountable. The state and its operatives simpy cannot do what they wish with surveillance footage (and if they do, there is at least the possibility of negative consequences). A store owner, on the other hand, can (more or less with impunity).

As for Ryan's remarks on government encroachment into the private sphere generally, I would simply point out that we do not live in a 19th century minimalist state. Virtually every activity or mode of activity is subject to some sort of governmental regulation. As admin law profs are perennially fond of telling their students on the first day of class: "everything you did or were exposed to from the moment you woke up to the moment you arrived in class was in some way subject to the scrutiny of the state". The truth of the matter is that the state apparatus in your average first world nation is about as extensive and integrated as that of the Soviet Union ever was. The primary difference is that we have responsible government; they did not.

If empirical data shows that the installation of CCTV in the core is likely to increase consumer activity and encourage property development, I'm all for it.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 05, 2008 at 22:19:47

I’m sympathetic to Ryan’s (and Tom Cooper’s) distaste for some of the crude prescriptions in the Downtown Safety report. However, the suggestion to reduce the number of half-way houses, addiction treatment centres and lodging and other services for the poor, mentally ill and homeless in the core merits deeper examination.

Currently, 50 of these facilities are concentrated in the downtown core, partly because the need is there, partly because real estate is cheap and partly because there is a tendency to concentration in all ‘businesses’. The result is that instead of being integrated into the broader community, vulnerable people are being ghettoized and (many) people choose to avoid the core.

RTH argues forcefully for a diversity of residents and a diversity of leisure, education, shopping and business opportunities in each neighbourhood. This is the essence of a healthy urban environment. Our aim should be to ensure a broad diversity of residents, and this usually requires some planning. For example, in Vancouver 10-20% of units in new condominium buildings must be reserved for low-income residents. Conversely, US cities like Providence RI have had to enforce a moratorium on social service providers in their downtown core to stop them turning into ghettos for the poor and mentally ill.

People may avoid downtown because they are prejudiced against the mentally ill and the poor, or (more likely) they simply dislike being hassled for change and feel uncomfortable when too many people mutter and act strangely. It’s sometimes necessary to enforce minimum behaviour standards on the street (e.g. prohibit aggressive panhandling). Otherwise, we risk abandoning the public realm to those who have no other choice. Those who do have a choice will choose the private (and tightly controlled) realm of suburban shopping malls and big box stores. Is that really what we want?

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 06, 2008 at 00:12:13

A number of people have claimed on this site that Vancouver mandates that a certain percentage of its new housing be reserved for low-income residents. As far as I've been able to tell, this is not correct. It seems that the city offers some incentives, fee waivers, etc. to developers in certain parts of the city to construct low-income units, but that is all.

Please do correct me if I'm wrong (and point me towards the relevant information).

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 06, 2008 at 00:20:24

As for targetting aggressive panhandlers, while the legislation does exist (Ontario Safe Streets Act SO 1999), it has proven virtually unenforceable. Police often issue tickets to the alleged aggressive panhandlers, but judges, understandably, usually throw them out (the panhandlers not having any assets per se). The province (and by extension, municipalities) do not have the power to implement criminal sanctions and its unlikely that the Feds will ever bother this sort of thing in the CCC so this will probably continue to be a problem ...

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 06, 2008 at 09:33:17

Statius wrote: "While Ryan's characterization of surveillance installations as 'frighteningly authoritarian' is utterly paranoiac"

Right, because if there's one thing we've learned, it's that authorities never abuse their power. :) Honestly, the only reason I'm not more concerned about the idea of ubiquitous CCTV surveillance cameras blanketing the downtown is that I know the city can't really afford to exploit the data they would capture more comprehensively.

"That being said, CCTV installations do indeed produce a major boost in the perception of safety"

I try to oppose any policy action that reinforces magical thinking - i.e. doing something just because people think it works or because you can convince people it works, and not because it actually works. I think it's bad for the health of a liberal democracy to submit to what I've called "a Psychometrics-era belief in the power of full-spectrum manipulation to frame reality in one's interests."

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/650

I'm also skeptical of anything that distorts people's sense of risk. There's plenty of evidence in support of the concept of "risk homeostasis" - the idea a person will adjust his or her behaviour to achieve the level of risk with which he or she feels comfortable.

The danger is that systems that artificially reduce the perception of risk (e.g. SUVs) cause people to compensate by engaging in more risky behaviour, which increases the number of crashes and collisions.

While it's true that downtown is not as risky today as people think, largely because the "if it bleeds it leads" newsmedia have either deliberately or incidentally distorted our perceptions, I don't think the answer lies in distorting our perceptions in the other direction to compensate.

The answer to magical thinking is not reverse magical thinking, but clear, empirical thinking that disenchants.

"I would simply point out that we do not live in a 19th century minimalist state. Virtually every activity or mode of activity is subject to some sort of governmental regulation. [...]

"The truth of the matter is that the state apparatus in your average first world nation is about as extensive and integrated as that of the Soviet Union ever was. The primary difference is that we have responsible government; they did not."

I'm not a libertarian. I don't have a problem with governmental involvement or governmental regulation. In fact, I recently argued that the countries with the most robust civil liberties are also same countries with active, engaged citizens and involved, accountable governments:

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/877

However, that two-pronged approach - an active citizenry and a responsive government - is critical: lose the latter and the society becomes barbaric; lose the former and the government becomes authoritarian.

On the whole, Canada has responsible, accountable, and transparent governments run by reasonably honest politicians and dedicated, professional public servants. This can be hard to believe after watching the Liberal Adscam scandal and the Conservative move toward rank partisanization, but even today it's still generally true. Other countries study Canada's governance structures to see what we're going right.

This is not simply a function of having the 'right people' in power, but rather of a system that is designed to get the right people in power and to keep them honest when they get there.

All it takes is a look across the border to see what happens when the delicate balance of transparency and accountability breaks down. In the US, people have lost faith that their government represents or even can represent the public interest, and this has turned into a vicious cycle.

One thing is clear: whenever the government takes more power than it needs, two things happen:

  1. The government gets a taste for still more legislative overreach; and
  2. The goalposts get moved for the amount of authority the public is willing to tolerate.

The virtuous cycle of transparency and accountability starts to break down, and the government gradually drifts into a more secretive, heavyhanded and arbitrary mode.

You acknowledged that surveillance cameras do little to increase actual safety. Any program that increases the government's reach but accomplishes little and distorts people's perceptions should be regarded with extreme suspicion.

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By Baystreeter (anonymous) | Posted February 06, 2008 at 09:36:10

I have no problems with CCTV cameras and have actually read in the paper that they do deter. But let's face it. The downtown is in sore need of help. The report recently done just papers over the real problem, but does allude to the underclass of folks who come out at night. I recently saw Will Smith's movie and gasped at the allusions which could fit my downtown.
This morning's column by Susan Clairmont in the Spec isn't going to help. But as long as those social agencies congregate ALL the clients downtown; and as long as decrepit buildings like the Lister, the church on Main and Bay, the whole block on James near Cannon etc etc are there....the downtown will not improve...and it hurts me to say this. what is needed? dramatic action. NO more reports and talk. No more listening to the well intentioned...action not words.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 06, 2008 at 10:09:31

Statius is right that we have to be careful about reproducing hearsay.

My statement about 10-20% low income units in new developments is perhaps not universally applied in Vancouver, but it is very common.

Here is one source (FUTUREVILLE. By: Montgomery, Charles, Canadian Geographic, 07062168, May/Jun2006, Vol. 126, Issue 3)

"City Hall required 20 percent of the apartments on the site to be reserved for social housing and 25 percent of the units to be "suitable for families."

(this refers to the roundhouse neighbourhood ... not just an individual development) The article gives an excellent overview of what Vancouver is doing right in terms of densification and re-development of former industrial sites.

My family in Vancouver assures me that this 20% rule is very commonly (if not universally) enforced in the downtown area of Vancouver.

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By Samantha (anonymous) | Posted February 06, 2008 at 12:16:25

The Andrew Dreschel characterization of people coping with mental illness was dreadful. He does realize that consumer/survivors of mental health services are people too? Doesn't he?
Although I don't live in a Lodging Home, I have dealt with those issues. I know.
I can't imagine calling any other group in society "weirdos, freaks, dirty" and getting away with it in a newspaper.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 06, 2008 at 15:06:20

I'm still having a hard time wrapping my head around the suggestion to remove the grass. I still haven't read through the rest of this report yet, because part of me thinks - "how good can it be if the person who wrote it actually put this part in as a serious suggestion?" Maybe we can get rid of all the people too and put cardboard cut-outs of people on the sidewalks. And then, maybe we can demolish all the buildings and build cartoony replicas like Disney World. Get real.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 06, 2008 at 16:15:16

Using landscaping to discourage social interaction is tragic, and seems to run counter to Eisenberger's vision of a pedestrianized Gore, and everything we know about making streets safe, ie. 'eyes on the street', etc. I realize that removing the grass in this case is being proposed as a form of social control, but I still think it is worth considering. I posted the following over on the skyscraper pages:

Actually, I think removing the grass from Gore Park would be a good thing. Non-native turf grass of the type that's currently found in the Gore does little more for the environment than asphalt. When the soil is as hard and compacted as it is now, you get similar run off, not to mention the mowing, fertilizing, etc. James Kunstler refers to these types of 'greenspaces' as meaningless abstractions, and I agree. Socially, aesthetically, and environmentally, patches of bare turf grass are devoid of content. Grass belongs in large urban parks like Gage Park and Victoria Park. You need a certain amount of square footage per person in order to avoid trampling and soil compaction, and the Gore just isn't large enough to provide the amount of space needed to maintain 'healthy' turf for the numbers of people that congregate there, and the increased numbers we would like to see in the future. (I put 'healthy' in quotes because there's nothing particulary healthy about expanses of non-native turf grass IMO.)

You don't need grass to have a people-friendly place. Think of all those paved piazzas in Europe with nary a blade in sight. Attractive hard landscaping with lots of seating and beds with native shrubs and grasses would be better for the environment, much more attractive and interesting to look at, and if properly designed, much more conducive to social interaction.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted February 06, 2008 at 20:23:01

I turned off after reading the consultant's failure to mention one thing about traffic speeds and volumes. That's my main impediment to spending more time downtown.

Once you get past the traffic risk and unpleasantness, it is people who make a place safe or unsafe. Attracting more regular, decent folks automatically improves the safety of downtown.

This Kousic fellow missed that boat. Hard to believe it was an honest oversight, I suspect ideological blindness.

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By Balance (anonymous) | Posted February 06, 2008 at 22:40:06

Another waste of taxpayers dollars. It is time the City quit wasting money on dumb studies that have been produced in other locations and start spending on actions. We need to start looking at how we can help people and deal with social problems............not studies, providing loans and grants, funding the Downtown Renewal Group at City Hall, constructing fancy sidewalks and nice street lights. Lets deal with the social issue head on. Help our citizens and not characterize them as weirdos and freaks. Gore Park is a great gathering space in the urban environment and is always alive with activity. To discourage this is absolutly stupid.

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 07, 2008 at 00:30:08

Ryan,

I wonder if you would object to a proposal to have several police constables stationed permanently in Gore Park and other locations downtown? In effect, the presence of a CCTV device is no different. You seem to be labouring under a misconception that there is some sort of recognized right to privacy in public spaces, when in fact courts have consistently affirmed that no such right to privacy exists. An implicit right to privacy exists only where one would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The line of demarcation here can sometimes be a little tricky to maneoeuvre, but again the test is reasonableness - thus, while it is easy to see that some spaces (e.g. private residences, hotel rooms, etc.) certainly entail an expectation of privacy, other spaces do not fall so neatly within the line (e.g. fitting rooms, public washrooms, bank safety deposit chambers, etc.). I'm afraid spaces like public parks, street corners, and parking lots unequivocally fall outside of the line - that is to say, any expectation of privacy in these spaces would be unreasonable and therefore without the protection of law. In reality, it is fair to say that the state was always already present in these spaces (i.e. we were always already subject to monitoring or at least the possibility thereof). The fact that new technology enables the state to overcome the problem of scarce resources and to assert its presence more effectively thus in no way constitutes an encroachment.

You write: "I think it's bad for the health of a liberal democracy to submit to what I've called 'a Psychometrics-era belief in the power of full-spectrum manipulation to frame reality in one's interests'". This is extremely cryptic and I don't know how to respond to it. I presume you're talking about something like Debord's idea of the "spectacle" - in which case I would respond (very cynically, mind you ) that liberal democracy would indeed be impossible without it.

As for Gerald Wilde's hypothesis of "risk homeostasis", I think you're quite wrong to suggest that the theory has gained general acceptance. In fact, the debate is currently rather fierce, with Wilde's data having been assailed and even turned against him.

That being said, I do believe the theory is intuitively very plausible, but I question whether your referencing of it is really apt given the context of the debate. Wilde's hypothesis best applies to situations of contingent risk - that is, where the behaviour of the subject in one direction or the other directly impacts the riskiness of the activity in question generally. The theory has traditionally been applied to (and critiqued in the context of) driver behaviour, a classic instance of contingent risk where the behavioural decisions of the subject (e.g. to driver faster/slower, to take corners aggressively/gently, etc.) directly increase or decrease the risk of a negative outcome. The theory doesn't hold much water where the risk factor is almost entirely external or (as I implicitly suggested) largely illusory. What effect do you expect the presence of CCTV cameras will have on downtown denizens? Will it make them stay out later at night, count cash in public, or wander down a dark alley? It just seems a bit silly to apply the theory here.

As for your construction of a magical/empirical dichotomy, this is certainly subject to equivocation. Hume famously asserted that inductive (i.e. empirical) reasoning was itself the most pervasive and insidious form of "magical thinking" out there - blind reliance on it being not an antidote to but rather a perpetuation and entrenchment of rank irrationality. The truth of the matter is that there probably is no escape to be had from "magical thinking" - lines of logic never tie together so neatly as we'd like to think.

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 07, 2008 at 00:42:32

Highwater writes: "You don't need grass to have a people-friendly place. Think of all those paved piazzas in Europe with nary a blade in sight. Attractive hard landscaping with lots of seating and beds with native shrubs and grasses would be better for the environment, much more attractive and interesting to look at, and if properly designed, much more conducive to social interaction. "

I completely agree with this. I've often felt that Gore Park would be much better served by some attractive paving than the turf that's currently there. I suspect the grass is something of a holdover from the days when the Gore resembled something like an English style Victorian garden park. Time for something more self-consciously urban in my view ... although the idea of a leafy oasis amidst the clamor of city life is not without its charms, I must admit.

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 07, 2008 at 00:57:29

Samantha remarked, "I can't imagine calling any other group in society 'weirdos, freaks, dirty" and getting away with it in a newspaper'".

This really is a question of the quality and integrity of the paper and the community it serves. Dreschel is a muckracker; this sort of offensive provocation is what he's paid to produce. Such "journalism" is for some reason extremely popular in failed/failing industrial cities, particularly in the US. Read the paper or watch the commentary on the local news coming out of places like Buffalo, Detroit, Baltimore, etc. and you'll see that Dreschel is just a type.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 07, 2008 at 10:30:34

"...although the idea of a leafy oasis amidst the clamor of city life is not without its charms, I must admit."

It can still be a leafy oasis, just without the #%@*& turf grass.

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By Baystreeter (anonymous) | Posted February 07, 2008 at 11:18:14

Some folks are missing the point...the deterioration is a package deal....'scary people' some of whom accost journalists walking the downtown beat; the lack of cleanliness; the sorry state of the downtown wrecks; the overabundance of group homes and 'social service' centers; the lack of enough people who actually live in the core, shop in the core and play in the core; all of these lend to the perception/reality of an abandoned wasteland.
It isn't of course, but if you go there at night it sometimes seems so.
All the pontificating in the world or railing at the loss of civil liberties isn't going to improve the situation; only strong, concerted action will.
Rudy Giuliani was right: fix the broken windows and the graffitti; get rid of the scary people; have a police presence; encourage commerce and recreation; and the downtown will come back.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted February 07, 2008 at 13:58:29

Those bandaids may cause it to come back a little, Baystreeter, but to get back to the bustle of days gone by it needs to regain more pedestrian friendly features - sidewalk space, street level variety, reduced noise, reduced traffic space and speeds.

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 07, 2008 at 17:11:16

Ted,

I think your recommendations are actually the bandaid solutions here (with the traffic issue being a notable exception).

I can't help but sympathize with Baystreeter's frustration. Small thinking has got us nowhere and seems inappropriate given the dire situation downtown. I question whether law and order and a belligerent underclass is the biggest issue in Hamilton's downtown (as it arguably was in pre-Giuliani New York), but something comparable to Giuliani's unilateral, take-no-prisoners approach is probably what is needed to push the rejuvenation forward. Getting quality commerce downtown, through whatever means, is probably the key issue. We like to delude ourselves into thinking that the city's core has "good bones" but this isn't really the case. Why would anyone want to live in a downtown in which you can't even walk to buy groceries or nice clothes (let alone gourmet foods and luxury goods)? The downtown may have excellent potential in its public spaces, but how many people of middle income or above spend any part of an average day sitting in a park or town square? There are no amenities for the middle class (who are, and always have been, the real functional core of every successful city). Giuliani realized this and the essence of his success was in reshaping Manhattan into a bourgeoisie-friendly environment (as it was at its peak in the 1950s). In order to accept the discomfort and inconvenience posed by the "freaks and weirdos" present downtown there must be a reason for the "norms" to be there in the first place. Commerce is that reason.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 08, 2008 at 10:41:20

Ted's suggestions ARE the solutions.

Go to Montreal, New York, Portland, Vancouver, Toronto, Boston etc....and tell me what the 'freak and weirdo' vibe is like compared to Hamilton. It's a venerable gong show in those downtowns. Yet, why do we all keep going?? Because they have an abundance of the things Ted is talking about. And they DON'T have an abundance of the things we have in Hamilton which kill street life - psuedo highways tearing through downtown in the form of Main,King,York,Cannon and Wilson.

Here in Hamilton we are either the dumbest people on the planet, or we just don't care enough about downtown to make these easy changes. I think the latter is correct.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted February 08, 2008 at 14:27:26

Let's get rid of the one-way traffic on York/Wilson, King and Main. When traffic is backed us with a red light, the road (and by extension the downtown) look just plain dead. With two way traffic the road appears to have life. I use James street as an excellent example now. Nobody wants to go to a dead downtown. We need to make the core appear lively.

Get rid of all the bums and junkies in the city. Hamilton has more than its fair share of homeless shelters, subsidized housing, methadone clinics and drunk tanks. The more we build the more these people will come. People who have money to spend do not want to live/work/play in a downtown that is full of lowlifes.

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By Baystreeter (anonymous) | Posted February 08, 2008 at 16:07:07

Not to disagree with Ted's and Jason's intentions. They are benign. However, as Capitalist and Statius indicate there has to be a reason for people to live or visit downtown. That reason is found in the amenities present. Also there is a reason why the attractive venues don't come, the area looks decrepit and the people look disinvitational. So, bold Giuliani-like action is needed to restablish a sense of attractiveness....demolish the eyesores and migrate the social agencies out of the core. Bold actions that will insult some and anger others but will be good for the city core in the long run...then or concomitantly, look after appropriate green space and traffic isssues. As I said initially, it IS a package deal.

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By markwhittle (registered) - website | Posted February 08, 2008 at 17:03:46

No wonder I don't go downtown anymore, it's a disgrace. Boarded up buildings and that eyesore the Lister block and all sorts of pan handlers walking about harrassing citizens for money to buy booze. At least homeless people in jail would get something to eat and a warm place to stay. Why have by-laws that are never enforced?

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 09, 2008 at 16:22:12

Jason,

Please ... do you honestly think you can save the downtown by reducing traffic noise and widening sidewalks? While these are no doubt admirable ends to pursue, they are not going to comprise the whole solution ... nor are they even going to get at the route of the problem.

In terms of economic strength, Hamilton doesn't hold a candle to the cities you mentioned above. Generally speaking, they can afford to have the "bums and junkies" (to use Capitalist's phrase) hanging about their downtowns and CBDs because they don't have a problem attracting investment. Hamilton's biggest problem in terms of investment is image. That is why we have to work harder at it.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2008 at 17:15:02

Staitus,

It takes a strategy to fix a downtown, not a couple of point solutions. Jason is just providing a few examples of what this strategy should entail.

In case you never went there, New York's downtown neighbourhoods during the pre-Gulianni days was pretty rough. This despite the fact that, as you say the city was able to attract investment.

There's more to a healthy downtown that having viable investment opportunities, just as there is more to it than moving the homeless folks along. Here a few more things we need to do: (note that we need to do ALL these things to get the core back in order):

  • Expand the downtown renewal program. Providing incentives for downtown investors is a key part of the renewal. Many investors can't get loans on downtown buildings, City Council has to help.
  • Move the farmers market into the Gore. We need to leverage the successful commerce we have downtown and showcase the unique strengths of the core
  • Have traffic free days and festivals downtown. Once Hamiltonians see the potential of the core they will embrace other changes more readily
  • Route the traffic around, pedestrianize Gore Park. Mayor Eisenburger wasn't the first person to see the potential of Gore Park. You cannot underestimate the power and impact a city's identity has on it's success. Gore Park is a tangible link to Hamilton's proud past and it should be showcased.
  • Distribute social service agencies evenly. There's been a lot of chat about this on the site. My opinion is that social services should be spread around. This is the same principal as we would apply to any successful neighbourhood - encourage diversity in the poulation not a concentration of one demographic or another. I agree with Jason on this point though. The prevelance of disheveled, down-on-their luck Hamilton residents is not the single contributing factor to the core's demise. In fact, most healthy core's feature quite a lot of such residents. Spread the services around, but don't go crazy. This is not a pivotal issue.
  • Keep it clean (daily garbage sweeps etc), enforce property standards, dress up empty store fronts, beautify the public squares -Bring back the streetcar! The arguments about free parking can be significantly dilluted by improving public transit options. With a streecar transit suddenly you have a system everyone wants to use, not just those who have to use it. A city that travels together comes together
  • Inject a healthy police presence. I always love to see the New York cops hanging out on the street corners in groups of 2 and 3, chatting and joking with each other. Get the Hamilton cops out of their cars and onto the street. This creates a much less sinister presence and creates a real feeling of safety.
  • Plan the development of the core. New buildings should look nice, they should fit in with their surroundings, they should intergrate with the street and they should bring a positive aspect to the neighbourhood. Let's get a good balance of 'things to do', a mixture of residential accomodation, and essential services. A downtown urban analyst who studied medium sized downtowns (Filion I think his name was) once said that downtowns need to serve their residential population adequately. Make sure downtown residents are served by good transit and amenities.
  • Create attractions, things to do, reasons to go downtown.
  • Bring the institutions of Hamilton into the core - Bring more University campuses downtown, build a Spec bureau downtown (the local paper fleeing the core? - disgraceful...), put the TV station downtown

There's a lot more to add of course, but suffice it to say a downtown strategy is what is needed, and right now we ain't got one.

Cheers

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By statius (registered) | Posted February 09, 2008 at 20:14:42

A comprehensive downtown strategy - that's precisely what I was getting at.

I don't accept any proposal to forcibly relocate private institutions such as the paper and the TV station (and not only because there is no real legal way to do this) but I do think its important to have as many vital institutions in the core as we can possibly get. If we are to attract these vital institutions to the downtown, this should be through soft rather than hard power (i.e. via tax incentives, low interest loans, etc.).

I think, as you mention, centralized planning and control of the downtown development is key (though of course one must strike a balance so as not to discourage interested private enterprise). We can insist on quite stringent architectural controls, as many midsized post-industrial European cities have done to considerable success (particularly in the UK - e.g. Liverpool, Manchester, and now even Birmingham), and end up with the quality of architecture traditionally seen in only the largest and richest of cities.

Although I would like it, a new streetcar network won't happen, at least in part because of the major capital costs involved, not to mention the enormous political backlash which the city administration would assuredly incur from our very car-dependent voter base. The closest we'll possibly get is the couple lines of light rail currently proposed.

I absolutely agree that the presence of disturbed and disadvantaged individuals is not to blame for the downtown's sorry state. Although I think their presence may to some degree negatively impact the city's image (and therefore marketability) to potential outside investors, this is far from being the city's major obstacle. That being said, I do agree that a moratorium should be imposed on any new social services agencies locating in the core, and that some should be encouraged to move elsewhere in the city. In the strongest of cities, where demand for property is voracious, these organizations do not pose an obstacle to gentrification, with developers happily building condos right next to them. In a city like Hamilton, where everything is so much more delicate, they certainly do.

I think your proposal to move the farmer's market to the Gore is ill-advised. While its location right now may not be optimal, the idea of turning it into an outdoor market is almost sure to lead to its complete demise. The convenience of shoppers must not be disregarded. People of "discriminating taste" are always drawn to farmer's markets because they like the idea of authenticity and are willing to pay for it, but their basic requirements must be accomodated. I know people here in Toronto who do about 90% of their food shopping at the St. Lawrence. Would they still go there if they had to buy their groceries in the snow or pouring rain? Absolutely not. While it would be nice to have some outdoor stalls in the nicest weather, to base the market out of the Gore would be a disaster. Look at the successful markets in cities like Toronto (St. Lawrence), Montreal (Atwater), Seattle (Pike Place) and London (Borough). Most of these started as outdoor markets but then developed into sheltered ones, and for good reason - it helped to stabilize business. The fact that Hamilton has managed to retain a fairly vibrant farmer's market is quite a miracle (and is one basis for our claim to be a truly urban community). We can't afford to play fast and loose with it now. I think a new (sheltered) home for the market would be nice, but that would of course just mean another large empty space in the core.

As for mixed neighbourhoods, if they are going to exist I think they should come about naturally. While engineered mixed income neighbourhoods can coercively be MADE to function, they will never be as vital as neighbourhoods whose demographic makeup has evolved organically. The simple truth is that people want to live amongst others who have approximately like experiences (e.g. in terms of education level, income range, leisure interests, etc.); this fact is extremely hard to deny. And as much as well-meaning liberal urbanists have tried to correct this tendency, pockets of demograhic uniformity are almost surely apt to keep popping up. So long as these pockets do not take the form of physically gated communities, I have no real objection to this.

I generally agree with just about everything else you mentioned above.

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