As a dialogue on two-way conversions grows alongside similar dialogues on downtown renewal, economic prosperity, and municipal and regional transportation, the more citizens that truly engage in these issues, the better.
By Dave Heidebrecht
Published December 06, 2012
A few weeks ago I published a piece titled Transportation and a Healthy Hamilton. As a follow up on this continuing story, this current piece summarizes a public meeting held at Hamilton City Hall on November 26, 2012.
Complete Streets Study Group meeting in Council Chambers, November 26, 2012
It was nearing 10:00 PM and the annoyingly loud "ding ding ding" of the Hamilton City Hall fire alarm was ringing in my ears. Still bundled up from a short trip outside (from when the alarm had gone off 30 minutes before), I sat in Council Chambers trying to focus on the person speaking below.
I wasn't alone. On an evening where 80 people had shown up for a dialogue to discuss converting one-way streets to two-way streets, a large number remained to the bitter end. This feat was truly remarkable given the 20 minutes we had just spent outside in an impromptu forum while temperatures hovered around zero.
To bear witness to a group of concerned citizens engaged in a deliberative dialogue-not to be deterred by the cold or the shrilling blare of the malfunctioning fire alarm-was quite special.
Am I romanticizing? Perhaps. But then again, maybe not.
Yes, it is hard to describe the unique twist that the evening took, but I think that those in attendance would agree that Monday night was unusual, in a good way. A dialogue initiated by Councillor's Jason Farr and Brian McHattie, the evening brought out a large crowd of concerned citizens, and allowed voices to be heard, opinions to be shared, and dissenting views to be respected.
Stemming from a September motion in which City Council approved a study group to explore two-way conversion plans for some of the city's one-way streets, the meeting was organized to get feedback from community members and to form study groups for Cannon Street and Queen Street.
Introducing the concept of complete streets, the evening included presentations by Ryan McGreal (Raise the Hammer), Peter Topalovic and Steve Molloy (transportation managers with the City of Hamilton), Sharon MacKinnon (public health nurse with the City of Hamilton), and Councillor McHattie.
"The future downtown must be built on a human scale."
Councillor Farr, who emceed the meeting, began with a reference to numerous city plans from past decades, noting specifically that such documents required that: "The future downtown must be built on a human scale."
Acknowledging the variety of downtown community groups in attendance, Councillor Farr reiterated the 'human' aspect of this meeting, reminding us that a great many people live, work, and play in Hamilton's downtown core.
Councillor Farr emceed the meeting
Ryan McGreal further reminded the audience of this fact, presenting a brief introduction to complete streets, the details of which were covered in one of my recent posts.
In essence, Mr. McGreal presented a case for the transition to complete streets - streets that will allow all forms of traffic (walking, cycling, driving, transit) to coexist, the goal being to encourage a more livable, safe, and economically prosperous downtown.
Peter Topalovic and Steve Molloy spoke next. Project managers working on transportation for the City, they spoke more directly to the issue of transportation demand management (TDM), a tool used by planners to assess how future changes in infrastructure will impact the overall transportation system.
The goal of this approach is to develop our transportation infrastructure in a sustainable way, a way that takes all aspects of a community into consideration.
One such aspect is public health, as Sharon MacKinnon pointed out during her own presentation. Ms. MacKinnon is a public health nurse with the City of Hamilton, and reiterated the fact that our surrounding built environment can have a major impact on our health.
Speaking to the benefits of physical activity, road safety, and health equity, Ms. MacKinnon gave a presentation that painted a chilling picture of public health in Canada.
The statistics she provided are staggering. Only 15 percent of Canadian adults get a recommended 150 minutes of exercise each week. Moreover, only seven percent of Canadian youth meet the recommended guidelines of 60 minutes of exercise each day.
Only 7 percent of Canadian youth meet the recommended guidelines of 60 minutes of exercise each day.
With such numbers, it doesn't take a statistics expert to realize that the large majority of Canadians are not getting the bare minimum of exercise needed to lead healthy lives. Referencing our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, Ms. MacKinnon provided what could surely be used as one of the best arguments for conversion to two-way streets-the reality that they promote good public health.
Whether encouraging walking or cycling, discouraging needless driving trips (thus reducing air pollution), or encouraging social cohesion (which has a positive impact on mental health), complete streets can provide a net benefit to our public health (and our pocketbooks).
As Canada's public health crisis grows, and the costs associated with it are passed along to the taxpayer, it seems that public health is an area where public engagement could go quite far in gaining support for complete streets from a broader segment of the tax paying general public.
Following Ms. MacKinnon's presentation, it was Councillor McHattie's turn to have the floor, as he introduced his ideas behind the proposed stakeholder engagement process for the Queen and Cannon Street study groups.
The core of his argument was that the old way of getting advice, the one where experts and city staff come up with a plan, hasn't worked. A new approach, one that includes more public participation, is necessary if some true citizen-driven change is to happen.
Thus, Councillor McHattie proposed the idea of a citizen study group that gathers its own data (with the help of city staff) and presents recommendations to council. McHattie argued that this process will give a greater deal of credibility and legitimacy to any resulting recommendations on transitions to two-way streets in Hamilton.
This presentation opened the doors for those in attendance to sign up for one of the two study groups being formed-for Queen and Cannon Streets-before a the public dialogue began.
The evening really picked up steam as the Q and A session began, with a number of those in attendance lining up to have their say. The resulting conversation brought a mixed range of emotions and opinions, as the democratic notion of citizen engagement took shape. Some residents who have lived in the core for years spoke up in anger and frustration about the fact that despite decades of talk, there has not been enough action.
Others were skeptical about the potential efficacy of the newly proposed study groups, citing the fact that enough studies have already been done. One resident, newly transplanted from Toronto, noted how much he loves his new city, but also pointed out that he wouldn't have moved to an area of the city where large one-way streets run through his neighborhood.
On the other hand, a long-time resident of the city stood up and spoke in opposition to the general consensus in the room that conversion to two-way was necessary.
Citing his concerns that two-way streets would lead to increased congestion and business decline, his voice brought a fresh reality to those in attendance that not all Hamiltonians believe in the benefits of two-way streets in the core.
Despite the obvious stirs of disapproval in the crowd, this person deserves a great deal of respect for voicing a dissenting opinion in a meeting that had yet to hear one.
Respectful dialogue will be crucial in gaining the support of those who are concerned about two-way conversions.
His concerns were addressed gracefully by Mr. McGreal, who set an example for everyone in attendance as to how to engage respectfully with those who have differing opinions.
As this issue continues to gain prominence in the public consciousness in Hamilton, respectful dialogue will be crucial in gaining the support of those who are concerned about two-way conversions.
Watching from the top of the gallery as the conversation continued, and pondering how two individuals who had disagreed greatly on the issue of two-way conversions respectfully conversed, I couldn't think of a better example of democratic engagement. Until, that is, the alarm went.
What started off at first as a slow "ding ding ding", soon grew louder and increased in pace, to the point where a security guard stepped into Council Chambers to inform us that everyone had to evacuate the building.
As the fire alarm ring grew ever louder, everyone gathered their belongings and started to walk out of the building into the cold night air. In true democratic fashion, the meeting reconvened with almost everyone who had been inside on the back steps of City Hall.
The meeting continued outside
As the group came together to listen to their fellow citizens step up to have their say, there was a common sense of understanding that we were all witness to a unique moment.
Removed from the comfortable confines of Council Chambers, a genuine dialogue continued despite the cold, despite the fire alarm ringing inside, and despite the fact that the meeting had gone on much longer than originally expected.
Standing out in the cold, sharing this very uncommon experience, I felt proud to be engaged in an issue that so many Hamiltonians feel so passionate about. That's why, rather than leaving when we were finally ushered back inside, myself and everyone else remaining (about 50 of the original 80) stayed to the bitter end.
Which is how I found myself sitting in Council Chambers, with the "ding ding ding" of the alarm blaring, listening. Listening to my fellow citizens, listening to opinions I may not have completely agreed with, listening to democracy in action.
A meeting attendee speaks outside
The listening on this issue has just begun, as Queen Street and Cannon Street study groups are currently being put together. I plan on continuing to listen, watch, and engage, and encourage other Hamiltonians to do so also. You can find more information on the presentations given on November 26 on Councillor McHattie's website.
Whether you have an opinion or not, whether you live downtown, on the mountain, or otherwise, please consider listening also. As a dialogue on two-way conversions grows alongside similar dialogues on downtown renewal, economic prosperity, and municipal and regional transportation, the more citizens that truly engage in these issues, the better.
This article was first published on Dave Heidebrecht's website.
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