Renewal v. Revitalization

We need to make revitalization, not renewal, the basis for our downtown recovery.

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 14, 2005

In 1977, Regional Chairman Anne Jones announced that the newly constructed Art Gallery of Hamilton building at King St. W. and Summer's Lane "shone through the dullness of the day like a jewel in the middle of Hamilton."

Recent visitors to the King and James area will note that Ms. Jones's shining light is already in the throes of renovations: to fix a leaky roof and raise its profile with an eye-catching new exterior.

The renovations are timely, not to mention badly needed, but how could the Downtown Redevelopment Project have gotten it so wrong in the first place? It boils down to renewal versus revitalization.


Renewal substitutes something old with something new, on the assumption that the old facilities no longer work and cannot be fixed. The dead building - or whole neighbourhood - is replaced with fresh materials and organization.

In the case of the Art Gallery, the new building in 1977 replaced the old building in the east end. More importantly, the new downtown, which included the gallery, Jackson Square, etc., was replacing the old downtown.

Hamilton has suffered its share of renewal over the past few decades.

Über-mayor Victor Copps pursued renewal with a tireless zeal, determined to replace the crumbling core with modern facilities: a shopping mall, a new library, a farmer's market, a new art gallery, a concert hall, a convention centre, office towers, a new coliseum, another shopping mall.

It was going to be wonderful. Visitors could get from one module in the conglomeration to another through elevated walkways, rooftop plazas, and covered hallways. Sheer proximity to this technological and commercial marvel would inspire neighbours to upgrade. A wave of renewal would roll out through the city, washing away Victorian rot and leaving shiny new buildings in its wake.

It didn't exactly work out that way.

Give Copps and co. credit for trying - their hearts were in the right place. They just failed to understand how cities actually function. Neighbourhoods come to life only if people can live, work, play, and do what they need there.

No one can live in, or next to, a Jackson Square or a Copps Coliseum. Megaprojects overshadow nearby homes and small businesses; traffic congestion scares away pedestrians.

Worse still, the Renewal complex (no pun intended) forces pedestrians down strange paths through tunnels and across roofs. The Jackson Square Plaza, with its boxy contours and lack of enticing frontage or eye-catching landmarks, reflects a naïve faith that 'futuristic' design can somehow produce 'futuristic' people.

The sparks of hope that illuminate our post-modern downtown inhere largely in original buildings that have been revitalized, not replaced.


Revitalization brings a place back to life, restores its strength, and replenishes its energy. It represents evolution to renewal's revolution, a continuity that builds on the city's foundation of strength instead of breaking with it in the manner of most Modernist design.

Hamilton is filled with good places that were built in a time when architects weren't constrained by artificial notions about scale and use mixing. Many of these places are falling apart through neglect, starved by the redirection of public monies into new projects, abandoned by citizens too discouraged or scared to use them.

Amazingly, many of the "renewal" buildings thrown up in the 1960s and 1970s are also falling apart, their rapid decline accelerated by poor design and cut-rate construction.

We need to make revitalization, not renewal, the basis for our downtown recovery. When we decide what to do with a Tivoli, a Lister Block, an Art Gallery, or even a brownfield around the corner, we should be considering what would make the community healthier.

Sometimes that means constructing something new, but often it simply means giving what's already there a chance to breathe again.

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 wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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