Special Report: Walkable Streets

A Distant Mirror: 40 Years of Urbanism in Vancouver

Vancouver and Hamilton were remarkably similar cities 40 years ago, but deliberate choices have put these two cities on diverging paths. This article examines the reasons Vancouver has become a city known for its livability and dense urban form.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published August 02, 2011

this article has been updated

I grew up in Vancouver in the 1970s and 1980s before leaving in 1990 for the UK and France. In 1998 I moved back to Canada, making Hamilton my new home.

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.

Vancouver: vibrant, urban 'world class' city
Vancouver: vibrant, urban 'world class' city

When moved to the UK in 1990 most people had only the vaguest idea where Vancouver is. I usually ended up saying it was just north of Seattle.

Today, when you mention Vancouver, everyone has heard of it, many have visited it, and it has a universally good reputation. This is partly due to the Winter Olympics and partly due to its high ranking on various international liveability rankings. But it is mostly due to its qualities as a city.

I was recently in Vancouver again to attend the ICIAM 2011 conference at the new Vancouver Convention Centre and was again impressed by the changes since my last visit three years ago. Putting on my amateur urbanist hat, I decided it was time to try to understand better why Vancouver is the way it is, and what we in Hamilton might learn from their experience.

I don't mean to imply that I don't like Hamilton (quite the contrary), but, as we tend to say here, 'it has so much unrealized potential' and seems to constantly under-perform as a city. As Christopher Hume recently wrote in the Toronto Star:

This is a city that has made every mistake in the book, and has the scars to prove it. Few urban centres have managed to inflict as much damage on themselves as has Hamilton. After eviscerating its core in the 1960s and '70s, it seems to have run out of any clear sense of where it was headed and why.

We owe it to ourselves to examine other cities that seem to have done most things right. By all accounts, Vancouver is one of the few North American cities that has.

I don't necessarily want to live in Vancouver, but I would like to live in a better Hamilton. This article includes an historical overview of urban development in Vancouver over the past few decades and a photo essay showing what Vancouver is doing today.

But Vancouver is not Hamilton!

At first glance it might seem absurd to compare Vancouver and Hamilton. After all, Vancouver is a dense, vibrant city that is the economic and cultural centre of its region and province. However, the two cities are actually remarkably similar in population and both have well-defined geographic constraints.

They each also face their own weather challenges: Vancouver gets over a metre of rain a year and has 18 more rainy days than Hamilton, while Hamilton is colder in the winter and gets 126cm of snow to Vancouver's 48cm. Their main differences are in their urban development patterns in the past several decades.

Size: According to the 2006 census Vancouver and Hamilton were respectively the 8th and 9th largest cities in Canada, and both are part of much larger conurbations.

The urban areas and populations of the two cities and their associated conurbations are compared in the table below. Note that the City of Vancouver is entirely urban, while only 20 percent of the total area of the City of Hamilton is urban.

The data show that Hamilton and Vancouver are surprisingly similar in terms of total population (although Vancouver's population is growing much faster) and in their locations in very large conurbations (although Vancouver is the centre of its region, while Hamilton is the secondary city).

The main difference is in population density: Vancouver's population density is almost twice that of Hamilton (and the density of the downtown is much greater: 35 000/km^2 for the West End). It is the origin of this difference that we focus on here.

Population, Hamilton and Vancouver (data from 2006 census)
City population Urban population CMA population Conurbation population Urban area of city Urban population density
Hamilton 504,559 647,634 692,911 6,539,700 227.7 km2 2,844 / km2
Vancouver 578,041 578,041 2,116,581 2,116,581 114.7 km2 5,335 / km2

Geography: Both Hamilton and Vancouver are limited and defined by their geography. Hamilton is bounded to the north by Lake Ontario, divided into upper and lower cities by the 'mountain' and by the conurbation of the GTAH to the east.

The City of Vancouver is essentially a peninsula bounded by Burrard inlet to the north (and the North Shore mountains beyond), and the Fraser River to the south.

In both cases, there is one direction that is open to 'sprawl' development: to the south in Hamilton, and to the east along the Fraser Valley in Vancouver.

In each case, the provincial government has attempted to limit sprawl by defining a greenbelt. In Vancouver this is called the Agricultural Land Reserve and was established in 1974-1976 by the NDP government of the day. The Greenbelt bounding Hamilton to the south is much more recent: the Liberal government only established it in 2006.

Economy: Although Hamilton's economy was historically based on heavy manufacturing; the city has lost most of its large employers in the past three decades. This has posed a major challenge for the city's finances, which has shifted most of the tax burden to homeowners and small businesses.

This loss of manufacturing base is often cited as a reason for the city's inevitable decline. However, Vancouver has thrived with essentially no manufacturing (what little there was centred on False Creek and was essentially all gone by the 1970s). It is also not a financial or government centre and has relatively few head offices. Vancouver was also economically depressed from the 1930s until the late 1960s. Despite this, Vancouver still has relatively low property taxes and is now economically quite successful.

This demonstrates that cities do not need to be manufacturing or financial centres to thrive. However, they do need to be attractive places to live and work. By focusing on livability, and getting the most return on its infrastructure investment by encouraging density, Vancouver has pioneered a new economic model for North American cities.

The Freeway not taken

Elevated and sunken freeways carve up the city in this 1960s proposal.
Elevated and sunken freeways carve up the city in this 1960s proposal.

In 1970 Hamilton and Vancouver were similar in size (300 000 and 430 000) and urban planning principles. Both cities had ripped out their streetcar lines; converted streets to one-way to improve traffic flow and shifted transportation planning to ensure "the free, efficient and rapid flow" of the private automobile according to the transportation paradigm of the day.

Both cities had also begun densification by demolishing many city blocks in neighbourhoods of large houses adjacent to the downtown core (the Durand in Hamilton, the West End in Vancouver). Both cities were simply following the standard American urban development model of the 1950s and 1960s.

However, in the early 1970s Vancouver made a fundamental choice that was to determine its future development. Vancouver refused to build a freeway system through the downtown core. It is now the only North American city without a freeway.

Freeways separate the waterfront from the city. The hotel Vancouver is still the dominant building in the downtown core.
Freeways separate the waterfront from the city. The hotel Vancouver is still the dominant building in the downtown core.

In the period 1954-1967 the City of Vancouver and the Provincial government, together with various private interests, started promoting and planning a massive 8-lane freeway that would enter the downtown core from the east, cutting through the Strathcona, Gastown, and Chinatown neighbourhoods, and follow False Creek before turning north at Thurlow Street to cut through the West End and connect to a proposed third crossing of Burrard Inlet at Stanley Park.

Much of the freeway would have been built in a massive 'ditch' below grade level, and its construction would have involved the wholesale demolition of (mostly poorer) neighbourhoods. This project, known variously as Project 200, or the East End Penetrator, was estimated to cost at least $300 million (over $1.5 billion in today's dollars).

It would have been a disaster for Vancouver, destroying much of the downtown and leaving the remainder carved up into isolated islands. It would also have wasted huge amounts of what is now the most expensive real estate in Canada. The first stage of this project, the 6 lane 1km elevated expressway known as the Georgia/Dunsmuir viaduct was built in 1971. It was the only part ever completed. What happened?

Vancouver today, with much higher density than imagined in the freeway plan. Image credit: wikipedia.
Vancouver today, with much higher density than imagined in the freeway plan. Image credit: wikipedia.

Although the downtown freeway project had the backing of the mayor, major developers and even prominent architects (like Arthur Erickson), by 1967 it was provoking a massive backlash from residents who, understandably, didn't want to see their neighbourhoods demolished and replaced by freeways. These public protests were well organized, persistent and ultimately successful in forcing the city to abandon its plans.

Citizen Engagement

In fact, the freeway protests were a pivotal step in citizen engagement and showed residents that they had the power to decide what sort of city they wanted to live in. The citizens' revolts that stopped the freeways are nicely summarized by Vancouver Councillor Geoff Meggs.

The protests were successful, not because they changed the mind of Mayor "terrific" Tom Campbell (a lawyer and developer), but because they mobilized voters and convinced the Federal and Provincial governments of the day not to share the costs. In fact, Mayor Campbell hated the protestors and dismissed their concerns.

Somewhat ironically, in 1970 Hamilton published an ambitious and detailed design for a network of LRT-like rapid transit lines throughout the city. As far as I know, implementation of this plan was never considered seriously.

Instead, as recently as 2007 Hamilton was still following a 1950s proposal by building a new freeway in the city, and it has still not implemented a rapid transit system. (In the early 1980s they actually rejected the Skytrain system that instead went to Vancouver.)

It is important to remember the Vancouver freeway protests when we in Hamilton are told that our destiny is fixed and we don't have any real control over how our city develops (because of "the economy", "market forces" or simple defeatism).

Interestingly, the freeway protests are the subject of an exhibition at the Vancouver Museum and a Simon Fraser University MA thesis. A strong tradition of citizen engagement is perhaps the most important legacy of the freeway protests.

Here in Hamilton, encouraging citizen engagement is part of our official vision statement, and the city promotes all sorts of engagement exercises - Vision 2020, Setting Sail, Downtown Master Plan: Putting People First, Pedestrian Summits and the Cycling Master Plan.

However, Council largely ignores these exercises when it comes time to make real decisions. For example, individual councillors began vetoing parts of the cycle plan as soon as it was adopted, and the traffic department vetoed the pedestrian scramble crossing at York and MacNab that was supported by public consultations and city planners.

When a general policy framework is adopted, staff and council should have a clear idea of what operational changes will be required to implement it. Hamilton has recently put pedestrians at the top of the transportation hierarchy (which has been the case in Vancouver since the mid 90s), but staff does not know how or if this change will affect operational decisions (there is no sign yet that it has).

A better approach would be to recommend specific operational changes together with the proposed policy change. If these changes are too difficult to implement, or are unacceptable, the policy should be changed or eliminated.

In this specific case, operational changes could include converting all multi-stage pedestrian crossings to single stage, eliminating prohibitions on crossing certain intersections (and making them safe to cross), increasing the minimum acceptable sidewalk width based on the category of road, and allocating resources with the goal of eventually installing crosswalks at all intersections on major arteries (such as Main, King, Cannon).

One could also try to define how to balance the competing interests of pedestrians and motorists. If pedestrians really come first, an operational rule might be: "the time of pedestrians will be weighted as 30% more valuable than that of motorists." So a pedestrian improvement that increases average travel time of motorists by 20% would be fine, but one that doubled the travel time of motorists would be unacceptable.

Because it is very difficult to predict how a given change will affect traffic, the city would officially embrace pilot projects to test out various solutions (as Vancouver and New York have done).

As we will see, in Vancouver there is perhaps less direct input in planning, but they actually do try to build the sort of city that residents want to live in, based on generally agreed principles followed consistently over decades.

A different path

Once they had rejected the downtown freeway system, city council and planners had to come to terms with the fact that the standard auto centric North American urban development model was off the table. They had to think differently.

Beginning in the early 1970s Vancouver developed an urban planning system that is unique and admired internationally. It is this "Vancouver model" that has produced the "most liveable" densely urban Vancouver we see today. As Gordon Price notes:

All City Councils since the 1970s, regardless of ideology, have reiterated a policy that there will be no more room for single-occupancy vehicles: no more roads, not even any more road-widening, save for the few places not already developed. From then on, resources were increasingly devoted to a priority list that puts the pedestrian in first place, followed by cyclists, transit users, and then the car drivers.

Unlike Hamilton, which seems to resort to empty slogans like "Open for business" and has no clear strategic vision, Vancouver decided what sort of city it wanted to be in the early 1970s and has stuck to this vision for forty years. Note that this period included both left- and right-wing councils (Vancouver politics is highly polarized, and based around municipal parties) and economic booms and busts.

The Vancouver model relies on a planning department that is largely independent of Council influence, and on the entire city staff (including the traffic department) being onside. This is contrary to the case in Hamilton where the progressive ideas of the planning department are often ignored or opposed by council or vetoed by the traffic department.

In addition, residents and developers tend to oppose any and all city planning decisions by appealing to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). For example, the new official plan proposed by the City of Hamilton fixes many problems with the existing plan, but is the subject of dozens of appeals. One developer, Paletta, is appealing separately every single provision of the plan!

These appeals will prevent the plan from being implemented for years to come. The OMB is peculiar to Ontario, and has made planning throughout the province vulnerable to capricious decisions by the OMB magistrates and encouraged a conservative planning culture in Ontario municipalities (to avoid OMB appeals).

As is often the case, the successful Vancouver model relied on visionary leaders. The Vancouver model was developed by a succession of two idealistic planners: Ray Spaxman (who moved from Toronto) and Larry Beasley.

Spaxman started the change in the 1970s and Beasley continued in the 1980s and 1990s. Vancouver was very fortunate to have over thirty years of consistent, effective urban planning. What are the elements of the Vancouver model?

Although downtown Vancouver has extremely high population densities, it generally feels comfortable and human in scale. This is partly because the streets are full of people and there are shops and services wherever you go, but it is also because of the particular "tower and podium" design Vancouver has promoted.

In this model a narrow tower (much narrower than the apartment buildings in Hamilton and Toronto) sits on a podium of three- or four-storey townhouses and shops. This increases the light to the street and provides space for shops, as well as well as giving the street a more human scale.

Tower and podium design - townhouses with their own front doors on the street, combined with a narrow tower (upper left).
Tower and podium design - townhouses with their own front doors on the street, combined with a narrow tower (upper left).

Another aspect of the Vancouver model is flexibility in achieving the overall goals of density and liveability. A developer can gain more density by providing public space, a community centre or a percentage of geared-to-income housing.

Although developers were initially hostile to the "over-prescriptive" planning guidelines in Vancouver, they have come to appreciate them as they realized they produce much more desirable communities (and hence increase the price they can charge for their apartments).

'Beggars Can't Be Choosers'

In Hamilton we are often told we must settle for whatever the developer proposes: a suburban one-storey stucco box with a drive-through in the centre of downtown, a shopping mall with no doors or windows on the street, a subdivision with no shops or sidewalks. We are told that "beggars can't be choosers" and that if we assert our right to choose the city we want to live in that we will chase development away.

The Vancouver Model shows that developers will adapt to progressive urban plans. In fact, good urban planning builds value for developers because it creates more attractive communities. People sometimes claim that this can be done only in Vancouver because of the high property values, but it is in fact the other way around. Vancouver real estate is so valuable because they have stuck to high, consistent urban planning standards over four decades. We could too!

As pointed out by Mark Chamberlain in a recent Spectator article, basic "City Math" shows that higher density means that city infrastructure is being used more efficiently. Road and utility infrastructure is basically the same for low- and high-density urban forms, so high density is much cheaper per resident.

In Hamilton most residential development is on the fringes, in the form of greenfield sprawl, which is very expensive (the city loses thousands on each new detached house). More people living downtown on existing infrastructure generate more taxes for minimal investment: it is no wonder Vancouver's property taxes are so much lower than Hamilton's!

However, density requires high-level rapid transit, a high quality pedestrian experience and mixed-use zoning. Vancouver has an excellent bus and rapid transit (i.e. Skytrain) system, and has made constant improvements to the pedestrian and cycling networks over many years.

Hamilton sees investment in rapid transit, cycling and pedestrian improvements as pure "costs". However, we are losing huge amounts of money in "business as usual" and these investments are necessary if we are to put our city on a sustainable model, both financially and environmentally.

Drawbacks of the Vancouver Model

Despite its advantages, the Vancouver Model has limitations.

The first is clear when you look at the entire Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). Although Vancouver has no freeways and has favoured high-density mixed use development, most of the rest of the region conforms closely to the standard North American auto-centric model. Apart from a few high-density centres (often near rapid transit hubs), most of the Fraser Valley looks like the suburbs anywhere on the continent.

Interestingly, despite the rhetoric here in Hamilton about everyone wanting a detached home in the suburbs, the City of Vancouver is still the most desirable place to live, with high real estate prices and strong population growth. This suggests that other (suburban) municipalities in the GVRD could successfully adopt the Vancouver Model if they wanted.

Another oft-cited drawback of the Vancouver Model is lack of affordability. Real Estate prices in Vancouver are extremely high: the average price throughout the GVRD is about $800 000 and the median price is about $600 000. In terms of affordability, the cost in the City of Vancouver is about 11 times average household income compared to about 5.5 times average household income in Toronto.

On the other hand, in 2010 rental prices for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver were similar to Toronto ($1,195 compared with $1,123), although much higher than Hamilton ($705).

Of course, to a large extent real estate and rental prices reflect employment opportunities and livability. Places that offer good employment and high quality lifestyle command a premium because people want to live there. Nevertheless, high housing costs are a challenge, especially to those on lower incomes.

Vancouver has addressed the issue of housing affordability by mandating or encouraging (via bonusing) developers to provide a certain number (typically 10-20%) of geared-to-income units in their new buildings (e.g. the Woodward's building). However, this has not been enough and Vancouver has recently unveiled an ambitious plan to construct 38,900 affordable housing units over the next ten years. This program will be funded using partnerships with other levels of government, non-profit organizations and the private sector.

Although Hamilton real estate is definitely affordable, as far as I know we have no comparable social housing plan and the city has not constructed significant numbers of new units in many years.

The Mayor has said he is the champion of "keeping Hamilton affordable", by which he seems to mean avoiding infrastructure spending, ensuring our housing costs remain low and property taxes don't go up. Surely it is preferable to have an attractive city with excellent employment opportunities, rather than relying on derelict buildings, vacant lots and a stagnant economy to depress costs!

Vancouver also suffers from pockets of extreme poverty, associated with drug use and criminality. In fact, Vancouver currently has the highest poverty rate in Canada, and has a growing gap between rich and poor (along with the rest of Canada). The worst area is the downtown eastside, which is the poorest postal code in Canada and has a large number of drug users.

Despite the activities of dozens of social service agencies (both public and private) and various plans over the years, the conditions have only gotten worse. The previous mayor attempted to address the core problem of drug use through his four pillars program (prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement), and this program has seen some success, although it has been under constant attack from the federal government.

Another area where Vancouver has been less successful is in retaining built and cultural heritage. As I mentioned above, Vancouver, like Hamilton, demolished large parts of its original residential district in the 1960s. In addition, Vancouver is a much newer city with the earliest surviving buildings dating from the 1890s, and not much before about 1912.

Vancouver has designated over 160 buildings in Gastown (the original downtown), but much of the rest of the city has been lost and the Vancouver of today would be unrecognizable to a visitor from the 1950s.

Fortunately, much of the recent development has occurred on reclaimed industrial brownfields (the north and south shores of False Creek, Coal harbour, Yale Town), but it is nevertheless difficult to see a continuity of style or feeling with the Vancouver that went before. For better or for worse Vancouver has decided to re-invent itself as a hyper modern city of glass towers. It is an attractive and comfortable hyper modern city, but it is very different from the small isolated town that preceded it.

The Discussion Continues

When I lived in Vancouver people were always very proud of the place, believing (somewhat naively) that it was indeed the "best place on Earth." They also closely followed each new building, new urban design proposals and debated the merits of different solutions to various urban issues.

I was interested to see that this tradition continues, and would like to mention three issues in particular that were being discussed in the local press.

Pedestrian safety

Articles in the Vancouver Sun and the local edition of Metro reported that Vancouver will establish a 30km/h speed limit on Hastings Street through the Downtown Eastside (the poorest postal code in Canada).

This recommendation was made due to the large number of pedestrian/vehicle collisions (13 between 2004 and 2009). Longer crossing times and dozens of intersection safety cameras will be installed at other dangerous intersections in the city as part of an overall pedestrian safety initiative.

What interested me about this story was the level of interest (six articles in the Vancouver Sun from July 21 to July 27) and the speed at which it developed.

When I read the first article on July 21 it was just a proposal, and the speed limit reduction was opposed by the police, who felt that "speed is not the primary contributing factor" and that the lower speed limit would eat up to much of their resources in enforcement. They did support engineering changes to the street.

However, by July 26 Council had voted to adopt the changes, with Mayor Gregor Robertson commenting:

Walking is the top priority in the city's transportation plan, and it's important that we improve the safety and comfort of our streets and sidewalks for pedestrians.

Contrast this with Hamilton, where pedestrian injuries and deaths are met with indifference, prohibiting pedestrians from crossing, or a stern admonishment from the police and traffic department that pedestrians 'need to be more careful.' The police even went so far as to start a campaign to ticket 'jaywalkers'.

Despite the fact that Vancouver's streets are crowded with pedestrians and dangerous wet, dark conditions prevail for much of the year, Vancouver's pedestrian death rate is falling from a high of 14 in 2007. In contrast, despite its far lower numbers of pedestrians, Hamilton has a similar number of pedestrian deaths (e.g. 9 in 2010). Nevertheless, Vancouver considers their rates far too high and is working to reduce them further.

Bike Lanes

In the last ten years or so Vancouver has added bike lanes on many streets, but the downtown has been missing many links in the cycling network. This changed last year when the city set-up a pilot project converting a lane of the Burrard Bridge to a physically separated cycling lane, and adding separated cycling lanes to Dunsmuir and Hornby Streets downtown.

Although there was initially a lot of opposition from motorists and local business (due to the loss of parking spaces in front of the stores) a follow-up study has shown that traffic times are virtually the same, cycle trips are way up (from 14 000 to 50 000), collisions dropped 18% and businesses have suffered only "minor ill effects."

Burrard Bridge bike lane trial project.
Burrard Bridge bike lane trial project.

When I walked back downtown along Burrard Bridge one afternoon at 5:30pm I saw throngs of walking commuters on the sidewalks, as well as groups of commuter cyclists. Motor vehicle traffic was flowing freely.

Interestingly, the city tried dedicating a lane of the Burrard Bridge to bicycles back in the mid 90s, but the outcry from motorists was so severe that they quickly back-tracked. Nevertheless, they have tried again and the lanes have been well accepted this time around.

Here in Hamilton when I asked the traffic department why the Main St bridge bike lane just disappears at the east end of the bridge, they said "oh, we tried it twenty years ago and there was a huge outcry...we won't try that again!" Another difference with Hamilton is that the traffic department claims that they cannot do pilot projects (at least they did when the Durand Neighbourhood Association asked about setting up some traffic calming pilot projects).

Separated bike lane pilot project.
Separated bike lane pilot project.

Georgia Viaduct

The Georgia viaduct is the only part of the Vancouver's massive freeway project that actually got built, and now the city is planning to tear it down eventually.

What impressed me was the calm, reasonable way the issue is being discussed, unlike the similar Gardiner issue in Toronto.

The city planners and traffic engineers have already established they can move goods and traffic without the viaduct. Even the trucking companies aren't worried. Now they are asking citizens to imagine creative and inspiring uses for the space now taken up by the elevated expressways.

If only two-way conversion of our downtown streets (including Main, King and Cannon) could be discussed and evaluated in such an open way!

Essentially, most councillors believe the viaduct will be gone within 10-15 years, once new rapid transit lines are built to take their place. Perhaps surprisingly, despite the huge population growth in the downtown, motor vehicle traffic on the viaducts has actually decreased.

Since the area around the viaducts is being developed as residential, they are now seen more as an obstacle (and a relic from a backward era) than a useful piece of transportation infrastructure. They also prevent now-valuable land from being developed.

What Have We Learned?

Vancouver is not Hamilton, we don't necessarily want to make the same choices and Vancouver's development was shaped by its own conditions and history. In particular, it has a spectacular geographic location and has not been defined by any particular industry.

Its recent extremely high density and tall towers were in part the result of the purchase of 84 ha of brownfields for $320 million over 15 years by Hong Kong developer Li-Ka Shing in 1988, and an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong in the 1990s.

However, the most important lessons from the Vancouver Model are generally applicable:

  1. Residents have the power to decide what sort of city they want to live in. Vancouver residents deliberately rejected an urban freeway-based proposal, and eventually developed a dense, mixed-use pedestrian-based alternative.

    This is despite the common belief that North Americans never willingly settle for anything 'less' than a suburban detached home and rapid car access throughout the city.

  2. Effective city planning requires deciding on a strategic vision and sticking to it. Vancouver has followed the same basic urban planning strategy for 40 years now, regardless of changes in council and city administrators. This consistency allows the city to learn gradually how to do things right, and lowers the risk to developers. However, it needs all city staff (and council) to work together.

    In Hamilton, all too often strategic plans (e.g. Vision2020) are not implemented, different city departments work at cross-purposes and council interferes in staff decisions. Planning and public health are busy promoting walkability, while traffic and economic development promote auto-centric models, and veto the progressive ideas of the planners (because they would slow traffic, or are not favoured by certain developers).

  3. Sustainability and livability are achieved in dense, mixed use, pedestrian-oriented development. Vancouver is consistently rated one of the most attractive and liveable cities in the world because it has focused on these qualities. Density makes cities more financially sustainable because it costs much less to provide services for a given number of people in a dense neighbourhood.

    The current greenfield development model favoured in Hamilton (and most other cities) is both economically and environmentally unsustainable. Density is only possible in pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods, and these neighbourhoods require high-level public transit (like LRT).

  4. Planners must be insulated from council and flexible in achieving strategic goals. Vancouver's planners operate largely free of direct council (and OMB!) interference, and have the power to mandate mixed use and particular built forms. Planning is prescriptive and interventionist.

    However, they are flexible in achieving their goals. In Vancouver, developers can gain more density or height by providing public amenities (such as community centres, green space, or a percentage of geared-to-income housing).

    In Hamilton we are afraid of scaring developers away by imposing high urban design standards, but the experience in Vancouver shows that insisting on high standards actually creates value for developers and that the right developers will (perhaps reluctantly) go along with them.

Keeping standards low to 'attract' developers has not served Hamilton well. It hasn't even been successful in attracting low-quality urban development!

Update: Some people seem to believe that Vancouver has always had much higher property prices than Hamilton.The following table is really quite interesting:

House Prices, Vancouver and Hamilton
Year Vancouver Price Hamilton Price
1960 $12,942
1965 $12,964
1970 $24,000 $24,363
1980 $100,000 $59,418
1990 $231,000 $167,765
2000 $377,000 $164,993
2010 $1,000,000 $314,501

Data Sources: Vancouver and Hamilton.

Note that Vancouver and Hamilton prices were essential the same until the mid 1970s - precisely the period in which Vancouver shifted away from the auto-centric model to a dense, urban mixed use model. Vancouver did not have high property prices compared to other Canadian cities until the late 1970s.

Editor's Note: also be sure to see Nicholas Kevlahan's photo essay of urbanism in Vancouver.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 12:48:45

Phenomenal article.

Kudos to Nicholas.

Precisely the sort of resources we need to be sharing.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 13:01:28

More confirmation that we need to wipe the slate clean. A good first first step would be ousting eight incumbents in favour of big-picture thinkers. You're a math/stats Ph.D., Mr. Kevlahan: How would you judge our odds of achieving enlightened, human-centric urban form and transparent, responsive governance?

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 14:54:53 in reply to Comment 67213

If we had a referendum on LRT, I expect it would pass (the LRT referendum in Grenoble passed with just over 50%), provided the referendum was on a final proposal including financing.

If we do not have a referendum, the chances are lower and would depend on effectively organizing by those who support LRT to convince the majority of councillors.

I think it would be helpful in Hamilton to have slates of candidates with clearly defined platforms, such as Vancouver has (right wing NPA, left wing COPE, Vision Vancouver etc.) This works better in a non-ward system like Vancouver, but even in Hamilton it would give voters a much better idea of the team they were electing and would make councillors more effective. It would also lower the advantage for candidates who win simply because of name recognition.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 22:05:23 in reply to Comment 67236

And Hamilton is just like Grenoble is it not. Grenoble is 18Km2 with a population of 150,000. Just like Hamilton. Small compact cities are where transit thrives and even makes money. How could a transit system in Hamilton possibly fail to make scads of money. Hamilton will be rich.

The entire system is 35 km of track among its 4 or 5 lines and connects Grenoble with all of its suburbs. The B line is proposed at 18km, or half the total that Grenoble has, which has been built in several stages over the last 20 years as ridership and demand demonstrated need and viability.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 13:35:39 in reply to Comment 67213

A good first first step would be ousting eight incumbents in favour of big-picture thinkers.

So are you saying we elected 'the wrong people'?

Doesn't this mean that the people doing the 'hiring', ie the voters, were at fault? That they didn't 'hire' the right people? That the responsibility for 'correcting' this situation as you see it, lies with them?

If this is true, then how do we get 'better candidates' elected if a) only 40% of eligible voters exercise their franchise, and b) if nearly two-thirds of these voters vote according to 'name recognition'?

I'm constantly shaking my head at 'the blame game'. We vote people into office (I'm not sure what '8' you're referring to, but I am curious as to what factors you'd use to identify them) and then we blame them for being there. You want to blame someone? Blame the voters.

And if you're going to do that, then please come uo with specific ways and means that 'better candidates', you know, the one with 'big-picture thinking' tendencies, can be both identified and elected. How do you suggest we fix this seemingly broken system? (I already have my suggestions, but few people find them palatable)

The funny thing here (not 'ha-ha' funny, but 'that's really damned sad', funny) is that perhaps the least big-picture thinker was elected as Mayor.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 13:46:27 in reply to Comment 67225

I'm not blaming our elected leaders for being installed by voters so much as noting that council is arguably coasting if not stagnant and has historically shown itself to be allergic to measures such as the ones outlined above. The figure eight was selected because it is the baseline amount of voting muscle required to make institutional reforms more likely. I wouldn't presume to lay out a criteria for big-picture thinking, but at bare minimum it might involve being able to consider the value of long-term investments and ambitious initiatives that do not immediately benefit their constituents’ neighbourhoods but which contain the promise of a brighter and more prosperous Hamilton somewhere down the line. The question is as simple as it is complex, and that's why I called on the author to sound off.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 13:50:53 in reply to Comment 67229

I wouldn't presume to lay out a criteria for big-picture thinking, but at bare minimum it might involve being able to consider the value of long-term investments and ambitious initiatives that do not immediately benefit their constituents’ neighbourhoods but which contain the promise of a brighter and more prosperous Hamilton somewhere down the line.

So let me ask you this: do you believe the 'average' Hamiltonian is capable not just of being able to conceptualize what you're proposing here, but if they do, and they agree with this approach, that they have the ability to discern which candidates possess the abilities to execute this mindset?

More to the point, do you? When you voted in the last election, do you believe you chose a Councillor and a Mayor using those parameters?

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 14:42:01 in reply to Comment 67231

My voting preferences are generally pretty progressive. And I think that I did make my ballot choices with an eye to that, though it wasn't phrased as clearly or succinctly.

It's an open question as to whether the 'average' Hamiltonian is going to make that leap, wholesale. My gut suspicion is that, no, there might be partial agreement on ends but disagreement as to means. I imagine that it would be a rarified subset of the electorate that would be down with the whole program, but it's only guesswork.

At this stage, councillors and potential councillors tend to hedge toward the centre in hopes of raking in the most votes. You'd potentially have more success developing such consensus post-election. But it's like the question of a referendum dynamic with regard to LRT: Many advocates would like the voice of the people to be the final word on the topic, but there's always the chance that council actually does represent the majority.

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By JP (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 13:09:04

Hamilton seems to be caught in a feedback loop...nobody wants to live here because of the way it is but it IS the way it is because nobody wants to live here. "Places that offer good employment and high quality lifestyle command a premium because people want to live there." I've been trying to put my finger on what exactly Hamilton's 'problem' is, and that is about as close as I've been able to get to it. We need to figure out how to attract high quality development and encourage good-quality, decent paying jobs. Once we figure that out, I guarantee you'll have people (read: MONEY) moving into Hamilton.

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By Desmond (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 13:27:35

Vancouver's average house price is twice that of Hamilton's. Apples and oranges.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 13:33:50 in reply to Comment 67218

interesting stat considering we are always told around here by 'the experts' that nobody wants to live in a high density neighbourhood.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 14:28:45 in reply to Comment 67223

I live in South Hamilton, but I don't want to.

And it's not a slight against old houses. It's about people owning old houses and not repairing or modernizing them. And frankly, I end up being one of these people because I'm not able to afford (or properly fix) these issues myself.

It's easy to say, "Don't buy a house, then", or "You should know better", but that doesn't solve the problem. Being human, people will buy houses and fix or not fix them and move on. Which leave houses in older areas that are either a) well kept, but owned forever because they are awesome, or b) run down or have a lot of work required.

I'm not a handyman and I didn't have the budget to gut a house when I was looking. What was left? South Hamilton mid-80s homes. I feel completely disconnected with the rest of the city. I feel like just walking my dog anywhere near Rymal is akin to walking her on an expressway. I'd like to live downtown, but as said, limited selection of well-kept properties that are actually for sale when you're looking are few.

I think if the properties were available downtown, people would pick them up. High, or mid-density. I know I would.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 15:18:24

This is one of the best articles I've had the pleasure to read on this site. Not only does it make clear and concise points about the advantages of Urban Density and non-automobile based traffic vs Urban Sprawl, but it also clearly shows issues that this development may experience and how they are too being overcome. It also directly shows the correlations between Vancouver and Hamilton.

The only thing I would say is missing from this article is to touch base on a housing bubble that I can't help but feel Vancouver is experiencing, but even that is somewhat eased by the talk of lower income housing. I will also note that it also touched base on Vancouver eliminating much of it's architectural heritage, which is something I know many contributors to this site hold dear to (often excessively in my opinion, but that's neither here nor there).

Once again, great article.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2011-08-02 16:27:47

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 15:24:04

Exceptional piece. Thanks Nicholas.

While there are so many great elements on which to comment, but once again for me (and a some others who post on this site) it falls to the essence of success - a clearly articulated, well-understood vision of an achievable future with the necessary policies and procedures in place that are logical, enforceable, defensible and memorable. I realize that's quite a mouthful, but when you have this, you have hope.

Admittedly, you also have to have intelligent, dedicated, well-read, well-travelled, modern leaders who are able to articulate the vision in the first place and who are serious about seeing the vision achieved, even in the face of opposition.

When getting re-elected is an important personal goal, your decisions get filtered through that goal. When doing what's best for most, and not just the "fix-my-pothole" constituents is an important goal, well you get the idea.

Will somebody please read the above out loud to Tom "no-to-bike-lanes" Jackson and answer any questions he might have? No disrespect Tom, but it's time. It really is time.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 17:11:01

I love Vancouver. Spent a whole bunch of time there over the years, and I'm always in awe of what they've accomplished. There's a very different philosophy out there on any number of topics (there's also a lot of refugees from Southern Ontario, seeking to escape the nightmarish growth/development of the GTA).

As for problems, Vancouver's seen it all. The "leaky condo" crisis and conflicts over gentrification in Canada's poorest postal code. The unbelievable real estate prices on the North Shore. Inner-city scenes that make downtown Hamilton look like Oakville.... The recent Olympics have meant fairly dark days in terms of urban planning (including incredible amounts of highway development). Still, it endures because it's the kind of place people go to follow their dreams.

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By Ezaki Glico (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 17:56:20

Hamilton has certainly fumbled up its waterfront from a developer's standpoint. Even aside from sacrificing the middle half of our waterline to heavy industry, the only high-density residential options we have managed to build on our waterline are rental high rises.

Coming into town across the McQuesten Bridge, you can see a skyline of phantoms: the Discovery Centre, shuttered on its third birthday and hocked on its sixth; the Stelco Tower, half-vacant and rooted in a mediocre retail superblock; the Landmark Building, a commercial mixed-use project that never nailed down market share and sent its developer into the business of suburban tract homes; the Fairclough Building, the taller sibling of HECFI’s albatross, the Convention Centre; the BDC building, once the offices of IBM and now home to both BDC and an exuberant sample of office vacancy in the core (17.3%); and of course Copps Coliseum, a 25-year-old basin full of tears for a hoped-for NHL franchise....

But I love the view from Sam Lawrence Park, and in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 18:19:35

this is one of the best pieces I've ever read on RTH. It's so sad to see how far behind we're falling. Sadly, we looked to be gaining a bit of ground last term, but now it's full throttle back to the 60's.
There isn't a city with more potential in Canada, perhaps even North America, than us. Let's get through the next 3 and a half years and hope for a large shift in 2014. In the meantime, kudos to all the folks working hard at improving Hamilton through various means. Keep up the great work.

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By vancouver born and priced out (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 20:10:00

Yes, liveable but only for those who can afford it. I am in my 40's grew up here and cannot afford to buy a home and also save to retire. If that is liveabilty, then give me the old style of urbanism; at least I could afford to live in it. I am sorry these things happened o Vancouver. It was not worth it.

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By RB (registered) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 15:02:57 in reply to Comment 67249

Yup, you hit the nail on the head. I was born & raised in Vancouver (Burnaby > West End > Yale Town > Port Moody > Coquitlam > Hamilton, ON) and that is the one thing that EVERYONE seems to gloss over: IT IS NOT LIVABLE! It's only livable if you're loaded. My wife and I were the only ones our of all our friend who could afford to buy a house... in Coquitlam. Hahaha... livable... hilarious...

It's really too bad that people have been coming to Vancouver from all over the place and not giving a care for it's history, past, architecture or the nice, friendly neighborhoods it once had. Now everything is built right out to the property lines (even in the suburbs!), nobody speaks to your neighbors, most people work multiple jobs just to pay rent and the drugs are just destroying peoples lives like never before. Ask some people what the place was like in the '80's and you'll get a an interesting perspective to the current state of things.

I love the place and visit family a few times a year, but I can see the negative side of things there that most people who visit never quite seem to talk about.

At least the auto insurance & property taxes are CHEAP!!!

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted August 02, 2011 at 20:32:27

Within the last four years, two of my siblings have relocated to Vancouver... in addition to the quality of content in this article, this definitely gives us some excellent conversation material about our two cities.

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By Hamilton Transit History (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 20:51:10

Instead, as recently as 2007 Hamilton was still following a 1950s proposal by building a new freeway in the city, and it has still not implemented a rapid transit system. (In the early 1980s they actually rejected the Skytrain system that instead went to Vancouver.)

More details on the Proposed Hamilton ICTS (same as Skytrain or Scarborough RT):

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 21:34:00

The madness continues. I find it laughable that you are actually trying to convince us that Hamilton and Vancouver are similar cities.
Hamilton is vastly different than Vancouver and if you think otherwise spend a day or two in each. Vancouver is the destination city for many miles around. The heart and centre of a metropolis of almost 3 million. Corporate headquarters, huge commercial presence and the provincial capital. I do not believe that there is a single major corporate head office anywhere in Hamilton. Not likely to be one any time soon with Toronto and Mississauga being so close and having many there already. Even K-W has RIM and maybe others.

Has it ever occurred to you that there are many citizens in Hamilton who do not want to live in a city like Toronto or Vancouver? I know quite a few people who have moved here from Toronto because they do not want to live in that kind of city. Yet you and others like you keep holding up Vancouver and Toronto as these shining examples of what Hamilton should be. Why can we not have and enjoy our city for what it is? If what you really and truly want is to live in a city like Vancouver or Toronto why did you decide to live in Hamilton?

I love Hamilton for what it is, that is not to say it is perfect and cannot change but if it becomes another Toronto or Vancouver I will move and find another place to live. I would not be the only one.

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By ras (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2011 at 14:51:08 in reply to Comment 67252

Although greater Vancouver is the population centre of the province, Victoria is the capital of BC.

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By Mrs. Meister (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 22:23:01

Mr. Meister the article doesn't mention Toronto in the way you are suggesting so where are you getting that from? Toronto and Vancouver are quite different cities themselves, so I think that lumping them into one is a little dangerous, and again has nothing to do with this article.

The article also has an entire section on the drawbacks of the Vancouver system, so I don't think its suggesting that Hamilton 'becomes' like Vancouver at all.

Annnnd, not to bust your nuts too much, but a) there's still quite a few corporate headquarters here and b) Vancouver isn't a provincial capital.

Did you read the article or just the title and sub-headings?

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted August 03, 2011 at 11:06:55 in reply to Comment 67255

Of course! Victoria is.

What corporate headquarters are in Hamilton?

Toronto and Vancouver are very much alike so to lump them together is not that much of a stretch.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 02, 2011 at 22:26:56 in reply to Comment 67255

and c) based on the populations of Toronto and Vancouver vs Hamilton it appears that more people do, in fact, want to live in cities like those.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted August 03, 2011 at 11:15:23 in reply to Comment 67257

People work in those cities and live where they can afford to. That is why there all those suburbs around the cities where people live. Condos and luxury units are expensive in downtown Toronto but to get into the truly high priced stuff go to the bridal path area, you know the luxury single family homes. Considering the huge influx of workers every workday morning I think people actually do not want to live there. Why else would they commute huge distances and spend so much of there time doing it. Given the choice the vast majority of people want a single family home.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 11:46:21 in reply to Comment 67292

Given the choice the vast majority of people want a single family home.

Unfortunately this 'want' is culturally driven and economically unsustainable. Sooner or later (likely sooner as conservative governments continue to dismantle the middle class), this "expensive delusion" is going to run smack into reality.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted August 04, 2011 at 15:33:24 in reply to Comment 67328

Highwater: From the perspective of urban studies, your link offers the highest "Link-to-Value" ever on this site!

What has blocked Hamilton from becoming a true urbanized core over decades, has been the grand seduction of home & garden ownership - quite obvious in the expanding suburbs, but even more so in the lower city. This has powered the majority of our recent upswing in property acquisition, restoration and redevelopment in the lower city.

This trend along with the grotesquely simplistic lateral splitting of the lower city with the otherwise urban life-generating light-rail; and the huge upsurge in health related services right smack on our only Art & Cultural Square on Bay & Main, will only reinforce the suburbanization of the quality of life in our lower city.

It is our cultural preferences that prevents us from seeing and believing in the urban alchemy of something like the AGO-OCAD-Grange Park setting. We settle for suburban plans so easily.

What will be left is mostly a scattered, disconnected, patchwork of sites in the lower city - to attempt a mutated form of urbanism around price-to-earning challenged condo developments; and a lot of time on hand to prop arguments around the kind of urbanism "others in our city" must aspire towards, while "we" retire every evening to our suburban preferences in an urban setting.

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-08-04 15:43:21

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted August 03, 2011 at 08:40:03

Hamilton is vastly different than Vancouver and if you think otherwise spend a day or two in each. Vancouver is the destination city for many miles around. The heart and centre of a metropolis of almost 3 million.

Those points were acknowledged in the article. There are similarities, and there are differences. When comparing two things, you tend to find both. I think the point of the article was to point out the divergent paths of urban planning that each city took.

Just as it would be naive to assume the two cities are identical, it would be equally so to assume that they are so fundamentally different that we cannot possibly learn anything from them.

Also note the author grew up there, so he might have a bit of perspective.

Corporate headquarters, huge commercial presence

Historically, this has not been the case. If anything, Vancouver has attracted high quality employment through creating a desirable living environment. Note that most of the highrise construction there is for residential. That was certainly my observation after spending some time there.

and the provincial capital.

Check yer facts on that one.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted August 03, 2011 at 08:48:33 in reply to Comment 67272

Mr. Misery is about despair not facts. Why try learning anything from cities that aren't exactly like Hamilton, that might force us to notice how bad of a job we're doing being a great city. Better to just say we like things the way they are and anyway there's no hope to change them. That way we don't have to make any effort, we can just sit on the sidelines and tut tut.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 03, 2011 at 09:22:19 in reply to Comment 67274

Better to just say we like things the way they are and anyway there's no hope to change them. That way we don't have to make any effort, we can just sit on the sidelines and tut tut.

In fairness, it's important to remember that this site is a 'special interest forum'. It's like going to a sport site; the passion and depth and breadth of interest there is not reflective of the 'world out there'. Many/most people in this city just live their lives. They do what they do, they love who they love, they eat what they eat...and much the stuff that's touched upon here never really enters their consciousness. It's simply not a priority. At all.

Change, improvement, visions will never be actualized to their maximum if we're constantly placing our faith in this wunderkind politician or that piece of good luck from on-high.

I don't care about the apathetic ones. I care about changing our reference points so that those apathetic ones can be seduced into seeing the possibilities. But certain elements must be in play in order for real change to happen.

And those changes aren't primarily contingent upon the involvement our elected officials. They're primarily contingent on those of us whose eyes and ears...and minds...are already open.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-08-03 09:22:57

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 03, 2011 at 11:42:01 in reply to Comment 67276

I really can't overstate how much I enjoy your insights.

For me, it's not about any particular policy. Sure, I'd like to see light rail, walkable streets and A Smith's proposed RTH Innovation Centre at 100 Main, but none of those are the point. Popular engagement is. I'd much rather see a functioning democracy in this town vote down light rail than the current old-boy autocracy push it through. Better yet, I'd like to see LRT built with public input.

Public engagement and dialogue isn't easy, but it's hardest and most shrill when people feel they're being excluded. We shouldn't be the least bit surprised that people don't trust the City to implement LRT. Given our town's history of boondoggle megaprojects, can you blame them? Building trust takes time, and it won't happen overnight.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted August 03, 2011 at 10:48:13 in reply to Comment 67276

In fairness, it's important to remember that this site is a 'special interest forum'. It's like going to a sport site; the passion and depth and breadth of interest there is not reflective of the 'world out there'.

Fair enough, but the 'contributions' of a number of posters here amount to going to a sports site and saying "You guys are all loosers(sic) for caring so much about sports!"

Comment edited by highwater on 2011-08-03 10:48:51

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By George (registered) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 07:37:08 in reply to Comment 67286

Wonder if that defeatist Hamilton attitude that is largely responsible for the current state of neglect in the (lower) city.

The continual mantra of "no change" prevents the city from transforming into something much better and more desirable.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 04, 2011 at 06:36:38 in reply to Comment 67286

You're right. Absolutely. There are idjits everywhere. I'm always a little bemused/annoyed by people on movie sites that slag off a genre movie even before it's been released. Why would you take the time to make a negative comment on something you don't like and don't intend to spend money to see? Nobody's forcing you to see any movie!

And it's the same here. What's the motivation? Makes you wonder why some of the commenters...almost always 'anonymous' ones...bother. It's as if they want ALL discussion to end.

Hmm... Kinda reminds me of The Tea Party in the US.

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By andrewm (anonymous) | Posted August 03, 2011 at 22:33:27

Vancouver is an obvious example of a real estate bubble (insanely high real estate prices compared to rents). $1,000,000 for a house in Vancouver is insane. Contrast this with Hamilton, where real estate prices are depressed (even though some say there is a bubble elsewhere in the GTA).

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By yuppie (anonymous) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 06:12:11

I also wish that hamilton was more like Vancouver, it is totally impossible to find a decent groomer for my Alpine Spaniel. the yakisoba in hamilton is totally substandard. and what's with all the old buildings? Hamilton needs waaay more room for my fixed gear bike, and the air is just yucky.

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By RB (registered) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 15:08:17 in reply to Comment 67318

Hahaha... TOTALLY! Spot on...

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By demosthenes (registered) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 07:35:13 in reply to Comment 67318

yeah i totally agree, why haven't they replaced every downtown city block with overpriced glass boxes yet?

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By RB (registered) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 15:09:43 in reply to Comment 67320

Very true. That's one of the things that I loved about Hamilton/east of BC is all the brick buildings. It's just not as abundant in Vancouver.

All the glass towers is pretty ugly, IMO.

Just nice to hear someone else mention it.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 07:54:10 in reply to Comment 67320

we did. It's called Toronto:)

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By TnT (registered) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 10:39:02

I think the elephant in the room about Vancouver is the ghetto they create for the poor. No marching of condo towers over the (west?) will solve the drug/poverty there. Trying to squeeze in affordable units now is good, but kind of shutting the barn door after all the animals have run away.

That said Hamilton has made a ghetto for the rich in the south end. There is a need for adaptive reuse that is affordable for everyone. Multi units, artists lofts, co ops, hostels, markets, shops, etc.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 04, 2011 at 12:51:08 in reply to Comment 67326

My experience in Vancouver's ghetto suggests that they're doing all they can to get rid of it. One-by-one, the buildings are being replaced by gated, skyscraping condo-towers. It was pretty ugly last time I was out there, and the Olympics only made it much worse.

The problem is, as it was with Gastown before it, is that the former poor residents of the area will just move somewhere else nearby. It's not like they're going to get off heroine and buy a $600 000 condominium just because their SRO rooming house was demolished. The Lower East Side is a destination for a large part of western Canada's desperate people - and unless a wide range of issues are actually addressed - poverty, drug addiction, First Nations, housing prices etc - it's not going away.

What's not often mentioned about the Woodward's building is that prior to the current redevelopment project, it stood vacant for years. About a decade ago it became an epicentre for the area's tensions and was squatted by homeless area residents who planned to turn the entire thing, not just a few units, into affordable housing. There was a lengthy encampment, a big court case and in the end it was to be redeveloped instead with a few token units of social housing to placate the residents (a friend with the BC housing authority admitted as much to me).

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By alan mcflab (anonymous) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 11:50:25

it is really strange how so many people I know from ontario, completely fawn over vancouver, while all the people I know born and raised in Vancouver leave as fast as they can. mainly because the recognize it for what it is. a soulless, overpriced, culturally sterile, drug infested, architecturally vapid, cesspool of yuppie snobbery. not even a tenth of the city hamilton is!

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By RB (registered) | Posted August 04, 2011 at 15:13:16 in reply to Comment 67329

Best, most accurate post so far.

Those who have never been there merely regurgitate what they've read in some top-10 list and repeat it. Clueless....

Very, very accurate with the "Soulless, overpriced, culturally sterile, drug infested, architecturally vapid". Spot on.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 05, 2011 at 11:45:19 in reply to Comment 67356

Culturally sterile? In what sense? Can you elaborate?

Certainly isn't the Vancouver I've visited...

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 05, 2011 at 11:43:00

With many apartments in downtown Vancouver selling for well over $1 million (almost all apartments in the Coal Harbour development are over $1 million), it is highly unlikely that these people are buying an apartment downtown because they can't afford a detached house in the suburbs. in fact, looking at real estate prices suggests that a 100 square metre two bedroom apartment in downtown Vancouver is going to cost your around $800 000, which is more than what you'd pay for an average detached house in the suburbs.

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By alan mcflab (anonymous) | Posted August 05, 2011 at 18:19:26

culturally sterile in the sense that
the only real concert hall that has been consistently open in Vancouver was demolished to make room for (you guessed it) condos (richards on richards), or that the contemporary art scene is completely influenced by (you guessed it) a condo developer (rob rennie)...

i told a friend of mine from vancouver ( who left a few years ago ), about this article. his response was "dear god, hamilton is everything that vancouver isn't....don't ever try and turn hamilton into something like vancouver, that would be a tragedy"

i mean honestly it is great to advocate for things like a few more bike lanes or heritage protections, but seriously these places that a lot of people on this forum want hamilton to emulate (places like portland, san fran, vancouver etc) are completely soul destroying vacuums of blandness. I would hate to wake up in hamilton, and find green glass monstrosity buildings everywhere, and a whole foods on every corner, which is easily accessible by skytrain....what a nightmare

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 06, 2011 at 00:27:08 in reply to Comment 67521

Good old Dick's on Dick's. That place was a hole, but I've seen some good music there. Not surprised at all, but a little saddened.

Still, nightclubbish concert venues aren't the only forms of culture. How about the hundreds of community gardens? Local festivals (like Illuminares @ Trout Lake)? The Emily Carr art school? I never found a shortage of intersting or thought-provoking things to do while I was there.

As for the failures of west-coast life, I do agree in many ways. Especially on the Lower Mainland, in the many sprawling cities that surrounds it. In my time on the West Coast I met more people than I could count who'd moved there from Southern Ontario to get away from the endless urban banality. Yet exactly the same kinds of homes and communities were springing up there to recieve them, flattening many of the "wild and free" amenities people moved out there in serach of.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted August 07, 2011 at 09:56:45

Some people do like owning houses and living suburban lifestyles, but they lose focus of things beyond the car quickly after a while. The suburban myth harkens back to people thinking about the suburbs of their grandparents day: i.e. Concession St, etc. These grid, treelined streets were walking distance to everything. I believe that is the goal of modern urbanism to create these kinds of places. It is in this regard I think Vancouver and TO are failing with just the marching of giant condos which increase density, but become high rise gated communities, a vertical suburb.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 07, 2011 at 19:14:22

This loss of manufacturing base is often cited as a reason for the city's inevitable decline. However, Vancouver has thrived with essentially no manufacturing...

This demonstrates that cities do not need to be manufacturing or financial centres to thrive.

There is a distinct difference between a city that's never had manufacturing and makes a successful go of things over time, and a city that was, for almost all of its existence, a manufacturing force and then lost its identity when it loses its manufacturing.

Actually, not just 'distinct', but massive.

This reality surely accounts for at least part of our 'legacy malaise'.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-08-07 19:16:38

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 10:23:36

Perhaps I should have been clearer. Although Vancouver never had the huge manufacturing base that Hamilton did, its economy until the 1970s or so was based on servicing the mining and forestry industries together with significant light and heavy industry employing thousands of people based around False Creek until the late 1960s.

The point I was trying to make is that the Vancouver example shows that a city can entirely shift its economy, and doesn't require manufacturing, government, finance or a lot of head offices to be successful.

A brief summary of what Vancouver's economy used to look like:

There were canneries, lumber mills and pulp and paper right in the city. In the early 1900s there were 17 lumber and shingle mills along False Creek employing 10,000 people. False Creek and North Vancouver also hosted shipyards (Coughlans in the early years, and Versatile in North Van until the 1990s). Of the many shipyards that have operated in Vancouver, only one remains (Seaspan Vancouver shipyards), most building barges. In the 1930s Vancouver was an extremely polluted city because of the pulp and paper industry along False Creek and the Fraser River.

In the 1930s the Hamilton Bridge Company constructed a large steel fabrication plant on False Creek, During WWII Canron steel employed over 5000 unionized workers at their False Creek plant.

However, starting in the early 1960s one by one all these industries left, leaving False Creek as a massive contaminated industrial brownfield.

Regarding head offices, one of the biggest forestry companies headquartered in Vancouver was MacMillan-Bloedel and it was bought out by the American company Weyerhauser in 1999. As far as I know, Vancouver no longer has many mining or forestry head offices and has no significant concentration of head offices in general.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2011-08-08 10:24:47

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By Philiopole (anonymous) | Posted March 24, 2012 at 23:54:32

Every article that I have read entirely missed the two elephants in the room that explain why the two cities ore so different. One is climate, and the other is lack of umlands!!! Hamilton cannot simply compete ( nor can any other place - EVER-) with a place that has an amenable climate. In addition, Hamilton can never compete as long as Toronto exists in its present form. Hamilton has no uplands and hence, without manufacturing, our city has no reason to exist other than as a relatively nice place to live in Southern Ontario. And by the way, most human beings like any other animal need their own private territories to live in - i.e. a house. Anything other than that is farcical dreaming!!!

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By RadiatorSteve (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2012 at 05:03:40

Though Vancouver seems like the more urban and modern city, if I were to retire, I would gladly live in Hamilton. I like that the property prices are lower, and there is less of a hustle and bustle of the working class in Hamilton. A place to retire needs to be safe and laid back.

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By waynor (registered) - website | Posted June 07, 2012 at 11:20:42

I believe at least part of the cause of the divergence between Hamilton and Vancouver is the number of rentals held by out of town landlords. Far to often a property is purchased for the sake of milking the home for as long as possible and then passing it off to another investor and houses just aren't maintained which leads to streets chock full of homes that in any other city would be the eye sore of the town, but here it's just another street.

Sorry but I drive around Hamilton almost daily and this is something that really bugs me too see

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By Mr. Motorist (anonymous) | Posted August 28, 2012 at 17:56:37

Re - Georgia & Dunsmuir Viaducts Removal... your assumptions that everyone wants to tear down the Viaducts and that no one is worried are ABSOLUTELY FALSE!!! Read some of the local blogs... only a few of the misplaced hippies (or their descendants from the 1960's want these essential pieces of infrastructure to remain. Those of us who have to work for a living want them to stay. The car is king, it has been for a long time and the sooner people like you realize it, the better this world will be for all of us and the less pollution there will be as we start to move about more freely as was intended. Think again if you think people are happy about this. Maybe it's OK in your sheltered dream world but not in the real world.

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