From Reading Cities to Doing Cities

Our geography gives us an opportunity to reinvent Hamilton in ways that no other city in North America has ever had an opportunity to envision. We need to develop capacity not to catch the next wave, but to become the next wave.

By Mahesh P. Butani
Published August 16, 2011

This is a continuation of Deep Reading The Urban Form, which offered Hamilton's urban enthusiasts a meaningful way to engage with cities in times of unprecedented stasis in politics and practice of urban design. This thought was anchored by Alexander R. Cuthbert's: Requiem for an era of urban design, spanning the last 50 years, which offers many cities like Hamilton a close look into the empty hollowness of 'urban planning' upon which growth strategies continue to be built.

This article touches on how 'economy' is taking over the role of the urban planner in the 21st century - quietly weaving new urban forms; and the road Hamilton ought to take if it hopes to become a world city.

Rhizome Cities

Contrary to James Howard Kunstler's latest prognosis on urban futures, in which he wrote that "giant cities will contract and densify around their old centers and waterfronts", quite the opposite is unfolding.

Giant cities are mutating into 'hubs' and subsuming smaller cities within their economic bandwidth as non-hierarchical 'nodes' within a complex network of interdependent economies. Cities that don't recognize this new geography are destined to swim upstream for a long time.

In traditional urban planning mode, one builds from the core outwards until the public says enough. Then one continues to build anyway. The core suffers for this. Rejuvenation most often mangles the core, which then awaits real-estate spikes for a boost. Meanwhile the battle of the urban-suburban divide rages - consuming in its frenzy the economic potential of many cities.

In contemporary mode - planning led by 'economy', self-organizes logical hubs and propagates connections to relevant nodes across time and space. The result is a rhizome structure - a network. Its defining characteristics are fluidity and connectivity. This is the life blood of cities in the 21st century.

The synergy that is generated from this rhizomatic form opens up a new kind of urban space-an ecology of 'multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points' across the network, in which a new kind of economy and culture which is fluid and participatory grows without the cataclysmic real estate spikes and the ensuing stagnation.

This is the new urban structure that a knowledge economy is built on, designed by the most consummate planner of our times - the economy.

Flow and Emergence

Cities like Dubai and the multitude of urban glut one sees in China are anomalies on the two extremes of the urban design thinking from the eighties, with a few rare exceptions in between. One extreme: purporting architectural revolution, and the other: unsustainable urban housing for the masses.

What we are attempting to do in Hamilton is build a new economy on old urban patterns of the eighties. Our repeated Déjà vu is a result of this.

The fluidity in urban networks has time and movement embedded in its structure. Change of state, flux or movement form the building block of this architecture.

Here, without flow, there is no network, there is no emergence, and there is no new urbanity. The network is the new economy. Here, the outcome of 'change' is: new transactional relationships emanating from the inherent structural dynamics of the network.

The kind of 'change' we presently talk about in smaller cities like Hamilton, skirt around values like leadership, vision or conversations which seek to implement civic or transit projects based on antiquated principles of urban planning.

Where 'change' is about recognizing and implementing structural realignment of geographic patterns and transformations into nodes of larger networks - there new income opportunities and tangible prosperity accrues.

We call cities which embraces such change successful. Yet we look at their built-form for inspiration instead of reading their sub-structures for clues.

The Meaning of the Centre

The very nature and role of 'centre' has continually evolved over the last forty years. We just haven't being paying close attention to it. Successful urban cities in our times no longer see the urban-peripheral dichotomy as a challenge to overcome - but an outdated impulse to circumvent.

The single biggest strength of a dispersed urban cities network lies in its ability to break open the locked path dependency between urban design and real-estate development.

Real-estate development is a byproduct of an economy, which is mistakenly attributed as being its cause. The economy of traditional centre can only revive by a fluid economy that sprouts from new patterns relevant to the network. This is what carries the old core with it in the new growth cycle.

We are living in a decentralized geography, which implies that the meaning of 'centre' has changed too. With this change, we need to recalibrate our expectations of the city core. We fool ourselves with every new civic project or real-estate win in the city core. We rarely factor opportunity costs of delayed shift into the world of a knowledge economy. A shift that can only come with a strategic deep-read of city patterns.

Without this shift, traditional urban centres do get revitalized eventually as soft live/work environments, and most often serve as a critical memory linkage to history, which often get erased with gentrification. One cannot recognize Yorkville in Toronto today precisely because of this. Density has its unintended consequences when growth turns into hyper-growth.

Planning based on the eighties urban growth approach, supported by a massive surface-read of success stories, resulted in a dearth of civic projects littered across North America: the wind-swept civic square, the enclosed civic market, the stadium, the must-have national sports franchise, the mass-transit makeover, or even the rare case of 400 family doctors in the core, to make up for lost time - all gate-kept, all look-alikes, all tax-payer funded.

Most are obstacles to a true knowledge economy, which simply asks for an ecology of 'multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points' across a network. It does not care for the bells and whistles of an expensive but dated urban texture. Urban form here is just the outcome of a thriving network.

Engaging New Patterns

We fail to understand the advantages of an unified city in Hamilton, let alone an amorphous urban network, for our self-righteousness has always been in a perpetual popularity contest with our self-deprecation. We simply do not have the time left to read patterns and improvise.

Most cities that are trapped in such thinking come to believe that adversarial public engagement misunderstood as activism is what will bring change. In the end it is the public who pays the price for such kind of urban growth, both in building costs, later in maintenance costs; and subsequently through the economic stagnation well after the money burning euphoria.

Why does this happen so repeatedly in the urban design mindset of the eighties? Is the human brain hardwired not to read beyond the surface? to not recognize patterns?

The future of cities depend on recognizing patterns and disengaging old ones and engaging new ones. Herein lies the significance of deep-reading cities in our times. Without this innate ability, we are doomed to choking our city's potential.

Hamilton's Geographic Structural Realignment

Last year, I presented a geographic structural realignment of Hamilton's pattern which was based on a deep read of Hamilton's sub-structures. Unfortunately, it was met by a resounding silence. The silence itself was not as scary, as much as the realization that it was cross-generational. Such is the death-lock of path dependencies which is transferred from one generation to the next.

An engagement instead of silence could have seen the now empty Siemens plant and its surroundings turned into Hamilton's strategic Grand Central Terminal (1, 2, 3, 4), which would have realigned the fundamental suburban axis of our city from an accentuated east-west to an articulated north-south axis, via a new self-financed 1,2,3,4)">co-modal connectivity to the world economy, critically linking our highways and airport to our existing industrial seaport with a new commercial seaport.

This new (international, regional, and inter- and inner-city bus/rail/LRT) transportation hub would have become our: 'multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points' to the world economy.

This would have been Hamilton's gesture of a time and location specific urban solution that recognized the networked economy as its chief urban planner, and liquid connectivity as its condition for growth.

Building on this gesture, the next logical leap would have been to leverage Hamilton's strategic digital geography. A sizable portion of Canada's digital data traffic passes through Hamilton. I will leave this to your imagination to understand its significance to a networked knowledge economy.

Zero Sum Centre-Peripheral Dichotomy

Surface read of built-form throws us in a direction that generates hard connectivity between static points within a city, which require further constructs like TOD as supplementary motives to induce growth.

While this too is referred as economic growth, it is nothing more than the same old path dependency between urban planning of the eighties and real-estate development.

Hard linkages have historically failed to provide the structural framework needed to realign a city to new economies. Such efforts at best may succeed in replicating a Mississauga-like broken-tooth urban pattern across the east-west axis of our lower city, which in no way can be mistaken as growth supportive of the compact and fluid knowledge economy.

One of the most problematic issues in planning is to manage urban growth through the 21st century, as a large portion of humanity continues its drift into urban centres worldwide.

One of the biggest challenges for cities like Hamilton that have repeatedly missed opportunities to urbanize in the last century is to avoid the pitfalls of cities that are now trapped in the zero-sum "centre-peripheral" dichotomy of the eighties.

In an era when the idea of a static 'centre' has moved beyond the limitations of its structure, into ideas of liquid modernity, flow and networks - Hamilton is still struggling to re-build the centre, using tools and techniques from the last century.

Models of Growth

Our geography gives us an opportunity to reinvent Hamilton in ways that no other city in North America has ever had an opportunity to envision. We need to develop capacity not to catch the next wave, but to become the next wave. In this, we need to recognize the critical importance of a geographic structural realignment of Hamilton's patterns.

In "Models of Growth: towards fundamental change in learning environments", David Cavallo, elaborates on "Paradigms":

"In Second Thoughts on Paradigms", Thomas Kuhn states that paradigms consist fundamentally of three elements: exemplars, models, and symbolic expressions. We find Kuhn's construct useful for thinking about what needs to be developed in order to create different mindsets and practice about learning.

Exemplars - stand for the canonical examples of the new paradigm.

Models - provide a way of thinking about what one should expect to happen, what behaviours are paradigmatic.

Symbolic expressions - (the language of description) serve an explicatory purpose. Rather than failing by attempting new blueprints, we attempt to create an emergent design that does not plan every step in detail, but searches for models of robust growth and uses Kuhn's description of the components of paradigms to provide principles.

We are wasting time trying to create urban form based on old texts instead of focusing on our geography to allow a new kind of economy to emerge, which will generate its logical urban form: a new kind of form that cannot but turn Hamilton into a world city.

The literature on globalization is now quite bewildering in its breadth and complexity. Distilling the essence of this literature is thus nigh on impossible, yet one clear implication is that the contemporary world is characterized by new spatial formations in which network morphologies hold sway. It seems we live in a world where everything flows. Bauman thus writes of liquidity as the defining characteristic of contemporary society: liquids may not bind or unite, but are extraordinarily mobile. These flows ooze, seep and flow around the world, often spilling over the 'dams' and 'defenses' designed to impede their progress. The use of hydraulic metaphors implies a need for theories able to make sense of these new geographies of flow.

Accordingly, sedentary thinking in the social sciences is slowly being supplanted by mobile theories. Yet there is one area of critical inquiry which appears stubbornly recalcitrant to the onset of mobile thought. This is the realm of urban politics, where policy-makers and academics alike seem reluctant to accept that governance involves anything but the organization and control of local assets. Likewise, the political mantra 'think globally, act locally' proliferated amongst urban governors in the 1990s, yet one major consequence was a rash of prestige projects designed to attract international investment (assumed to be global) to a particular city (assumed to be local). The result of this 'spatial atomism' is a world where cities imagine themselves to be islands of economic competitiveness, pitched in a global battle for jobs and dollars.

-- Positioning cities in the world: Towards a politics of flow, by Phil Hubbard.

Incidentally, "giant cities often do contract and densify around their old centers and waterfronts" as in Vancouver or New Westminster; or as in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - but they do so for entirely different reasons than Kunstler's prognosis on urban futures.

This essay was first published on Metropolitan Hamilton.

Mahesh P. Butani is a non-architect, and a developer by default. He is involved in re-developing properties in downtown Hamilton; and has an MA in Arts Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, NYC (1986), and bachelors in Architecture from Bombay, India (1982). Currently he is not an architect in Ontario on account of not having enough Canadian Experience; and does not qualify to teach as he carries too much baggage to fit into the Canadian education system. He refuses to be re-trained to fit in, on a matter of principle, and is a passionate disbeliever of icons and self-regulation of professions in Canada - but still maintains his belief in collective self-organizing behavior; and feels that the large swath of intellectual brownfields across Ontario are far more harmful to the economy than the brownfields left over from deindustrialization - and in response has set up a social network called Metropolitan Hamilton. http://metrohamilton.ning.com/


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By TnT (registered) | Posted August 16, 2011 at 08:32:59

The most genius idea I took from this article: Siemens plant as transportation hub.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted August 16, 2011 at 09:21:29 in reply to Comment 68044

That was the least sensible part. The entire gist of the rest is that centralized downtowns don't make sense, but then the only concrete idea presented is to relocate the centre of transportation in the lower city to a remote area that doesn't serve any of the existing infrastructure, businesses or dense residential areas. on top of which is wholly removed from the existing GO Station.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:34:42 in reply to Comment 68048

Well I guess the advantage that the seimen's location would have for such an endevour may not be readily visible but ..

1/ walking distance to major city employer (Hospital , City Yard) 2/ many smaller industrial spaces close by. ( good for transpotation of goods) 3/ rail lines to the door ( GO doesnt 'own' rail line they rent) 4/ Close to Ivor Wynn .. 5/ Finally some one would do something with the westing house tower ... 6/ No tax rebate for vacant property ( ie Siemans plant as it is now )

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By JonC (registered) | Posted August 16, 2011 at 13:11:21 in reply to Comment 68059

The location I get, but it still defeats the whole of his argument. It's a giant governemnt funded capital investment. Building a transportation hub in the middle of industrial lands only insures that they won't remain industrial and that as the centre of town moves to the new hub, the old centre will further degenerate.
I would love for Mahesh to succintly explain how the idea of constructing a "Grand Central Station" meshing with converting to rhizome-esque urban planning, because I don't see how the two ideas are compatible, at all.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2011 at 08:45:04

As usual, some great insights, the likes of which the average RTH reader should consume several times...and digest slowly...

I can't wait to see what the Kunstler-phites have to say in response.

Ryan, aren't you a devotée of Kunstler...?

: )

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:28:41 in reply to Comment 68046

I've read a bunch of Kunstler's books, even met him once. Honestly, I liked his urban criticism more than the peak oil stuff, but back then he was a little calmer.

Kunstler's predictions about the urban effects of peak oil and "The Long Emergency" can't really be judged against modern precedents. What would we base it on, the fall of Rome? We've had a calamitous millenium, but it's been centuries since we've seen a prolonged fall in global trade/connectedness.

Doomsday prophecies aside, I really like this article. We need to think about notions like rhizome networks if we're ever going to understand how society and geography actually function. Hierarchical, centralized forms of urban governance aren't a very good expression of how we relate with each other in a city, and fail accordingly.

If our city is a body, then we need to stop seeing city hall as the "brain". That reduces the rest of us to unthinking brutes - muscles and organs with no thought necessary other than taking orders and reporting data. We're all brain cells - we can all think and form connections independently. The brain has no "middle" (if anything, it would be the skin) - just billions of tiny cells connecting to each other.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2011 at 13:22:46 in reply to Comment 68052

The brain has no "middle" (if anything, it would be the skin) - just billions of tiny cells connecting to each other.

Does this make us...

...the Borg...?

(Not the variety from Sweden.)

: )

Hierarchical, centralized forms of urban governance aren't a very good expression of how we relate with each other in a city, and fail accordingly.

Town hall meetings, anyone...?

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-08-16 13:23:00

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By arienc (registered) | Posted August 16, 2011 at 08:56:28 in reply to Comment 68046

I think the dismissal of Kunstler's idea of the 'Long Emergency' needs to be fleshed out a bit - Mahesh seemed to be dismissive of the view just based on the idea that it is not presently happening. What we are now seeing is just the leading edge of that as the impacts of peaking global oil production and increasing energy prices are largely being felt in the financial sphere. For the most part, governments and mass media continue to have success in glossing over the true ramifications of more expensive and declining energy availability. The thrust of Kunstler's argument is that that veneer is paper thin, holes are showing up all over the place, and trying to keep the charade up forever is a colossal waste of human capability and finite resources.

Comment edited by arienc on 2011-08-16 08:57:19

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2011 at 14:59:33

Mahesh, you have some great ideas (even if I disagree with your assessment of Kunstler...give it time, my friend).

I would, however, suggest delicately that your ideas being "met with a resounding silence" is due to the somewhat convoluted nature of your writing.

"Zero sum centre-peripheral dichotomy?" Nobody every got to be mayor be making their readers feel stupid.

I would love to hear your ideas translated into simple, easy to follow practical solutions for improving Hamilton that are acessible to the everyday people who are interested in making those changes.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 17:00:01 in reply to Comment 68065

Thank You Jason for your feedback! As I had said earlier - Kunstler was not the central reference of this article, his words were just a counterpoint to my thoughts.

I read him with professional interest, not as an urban enthusiast -(from where majority of his followers come). I never knew the extent of hero worship going on here - or else I could just as well have used a more obscure reference as a counterpoint.

When you read thing with a professional interest, you tend to be a dispassionate - which prevents you from making absurd linkages to issues. It allows for other points of views to co-exist - and from that only does humanity progress.

This link may push uncritical followers of Kunstler into a denial state, which is good - because this is the only way less bravado and more critical thinking will emerge in Hamilton.

When one point of view is obsessively foisted, very little of anything can be Raised, let alone your own intelligence.

I am sorry if I make you feel stupid - but have you looked into the role you must be playing in feeling that way?

Look at this - your own writing: "...as comfortable as that of the consumption machine." What does it mean? even when not inserted here out of context? Think about it.

I don't subscribe to your notion of "everyday people". I think it is condescending to think about human beings in such terms. This distinction while making you feel superior, also empowers you foolishly to talk down to those you have slapped your criteria on - mostly without their concurrence.

I have many friends from your "category" of everyday people - who have no problems understanding what I write. And when they don't, they search or ask me, and a meaningful conversation starts. It is only here that I see grief like yours. I am sure that you may want to say that everyone here is like you - which you know in your heart, is not the case.

I would love to see an elaborate critical essay on the link I have provided above - on your blog. All Hamiltonians will be thankful to you for your efforts in providing the "other" view to our energy situation. They need to know this to clear the confusion that exists in Hamilton from the dominance of a single view on this.

You do know I have tried to be as delicate as possible here. And I sincerely hope that you stop feeling stupid every time you read something you don't get. It is such a terrible way to live.

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-08-18 17:24:43

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By TnT (registered) | Posted August 20, 2011 at 00:53:10 in reply to Comment 68224

I for one enjoy your posts, though maybe I am stupid when it comes to understanding concepts. Still I find the writing poetic and large. I think that anyone who takes the time to flesh out such large contributions should be applauded.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2011 at 18:46:21 in reply to Comment 68065

Nobody every (sic) got to be mayor be making their readers feel stupid.

I get your point.

Probably more than most. However...

Unless they're being purposefully being an asshat, people don't 'make' someone 'feel stupid'. And in most cases, it's done in-person.

In this arena, the written word on the screen, condescension is possible, and that might annoy someone, but Mahesh is probably the least condescending, patronizing big-brained person I know.

I think it's important to keep in mind that what someone like Mahesh provides here (and elsewhere) is an opportunity for people to stretch a little intellectually. And considering some of the dogmatic rhetoric that gets thrown around here...that can't possibly be a bad thing.

: )

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By TnT (registered) | Posted August 16, 2011 at 17:39:51

I find the language of Mr Butani to be large, but not pompous. I still think the nugget is how amazing that central hub would be. That is a real central area in need of a boost. I don't think it gas to exclude any other ports of rail, but could really stretch the plan while getting industry on board.

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By Obsucritythynameismahesh (anonymous) | Posted August 17, 2011 at 07:54:38

I don't feel stupid...just sorry for this 'non-architect' and lost soul.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2011 at 10:08:58 in reply to Comment 68103

I don't feel stupid...just sorry for this 'non-architect' and lost soul.


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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 11:39:39

I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts about this that don't relate to Kunstler or Mahesh's writing style. There's a lot of important ideas to digest, and some which really should be brought up.

The notion of "rhizome cities" really intrigues me, given my penchant for non-hierarchical and decentralized organization, but it does raise a question of broader civic identity and definition. What defines Hamilton in an increasingly (sub)urbanized region? The GTAH is already one of the world's largest conurbations, and far too many neighbouring cities have now gone the way of our old Barton Township. Reminds me in many ways of Murray Bookchin's old work "Urbanization vs Cities" in which he raises these sorts of questions, such as the changing (eroding) notions of citizenship and political consequences of sweeping urbanization. The flip-side of this argument, of course, is the number of smaller municipal entities which we've absorbed since Amalgamation. What about their citizenship and civic identity?

Our city is beset by far too many differences to be 'represented' by any one group. A network of sorts would certainly solve a lot of these problems....

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By Grom (anonymous) | Posted August 18, 2011 at 17:39:13

insult spam deleted

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2011-08-18 20:15:02

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 18:50:04 in reply to Comment 68231

Grom, other than toss the online equivalents of flaming shite-bags and then run away giggling, what exactly do you do?

And when are we going to see that article?

Better yet, how about this: I'll take up a collection for an old-fashioned soap box. You know, the antique kind constructed from slats of real wood. Then we'll set it up in Gore Park, make it an impromptu 'Speaker's Corner', and you can declaim to your heart's content.

Maybe Joey Coleman will stream it for all who can't make it to the venue.

Whatchasay, Big Boy...?

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted August 18, 2011 at 18:18:29 in reply to Comment 68231

Well, Grom helping you become a better Hamiltonian by my words obviously does not count...eh?

You have to loose the tan around your neck - it is just not good for the local economy.

Regarding the old book store you mention, you got the ownership quite wrong - maybe you can start by asking the present and the past owners who may be able to help you as to how it got to where it is today.

However, I could show you the pics of the day it opened, when it was designed to be the bryan prince west.

If you care to go inside to the rear, even now, you may see the remnants of the book club and poetry reading room which was never inaugurated by its TO owners back then.

You see, they were not the bad guys - just early for their time for an independent book store in the core - and they too lost heart and lots of money trying to cultivate many tanned necks like you that they encountered in the first months of opening. They simply lost heart and ended up selling the building to someone else - who put up a kind of store to service the clientèle like you, which I see did not work either - so I guess it was eventually rented out to the current tenants - who have been trying to make a go of it for a while.

If you can just get your story right, and your attitude fixed - the chances of our economy improving might just get better.

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