Special Report

Neighbours Working Together: A Dialogue on Intensification

If communities are going to engage in the planning process around intensification, a broader discussion needs to continue around what intensification means and how to keep citizens involved so we have a meaningful say in future developments.

By Greg Tedesco
Published July 24, 2015

As Hamilton continues to grow and change over time, residents remain catalysts for identifying the key issues that our communities face. Demonstrating a desire to gather together to continue to grow the dialogue around neighbourhood change, the Hamilton Neighbourhoods Discussion on Intensification was born.

In previous years, the Beasley, Central and North End Neighbours Association held joint meetings at LIUNA Station to discuss important local issues. This year, the conversation expanded and featured representation from 12 neighbourhood associations.

Neighbourhoods and their community associations recognized that development issues were at the forefront of community discussion, with a focus on the issue of intensification.

The purpose of the dialogue was to identify the challenges and opportunities associated with intensification and look at how residents can engage and participate in the development process in the future.

The June 16, 2015 event featured a panel discussion moderated by Raise the Hammer's Ryan McGreal, and featured professional planner Dana Anderson, McMaster University Professor Jim Dunn, Steve Kulakowsky of Core Urban Inc., and Hamilton's General Manager of Planning and Economic Development, Jason Thorne.

Thanks to Joey Coleman and The Public Record, we have a video recording of the event:

Why intensification?

"Intensification occurs when an existing building, site or area within the existing urban area is developed or redeveloped at a density higher than what currently exists" (City of Hamilton)

Development, growth and change naturally create tensions, but they also create opportunities to support meaningful community engagement and discussion.

Intensification is an issue at the forefront of Hamilton's growth and development. By acknowledging this, communities can develop strategies to engage with the City and developers through the entire planning process.

Neighbourhoods and stakeholders have begun to engage in a conversation around what 'good intensification' can look like and how best to participate in the process to promote smart, sustainable, equitable and inclusive community growth and development.

The Growth Plan for the greater Golden Horseshoe provides cities with policies to promote intensification.

The Plan has a number of goals, including: accommodating growth through intensification to build sustainable, livable densities; optimizing new and existing infrastructure; focusing new development to create complete communities and revitalize downtowns; planning public transit as the first priority for moving people; and ensuring appropriate land is available to accommodate future employment growth and economic development.

The province's target for urban growth and intensification is to have a minimum of 40 percent of all new annual residential development be in a defined, built up area. In supporting communities to plan for intensification, the province has also set density targets for municipalities in order to "...help ensure that urban growth centres develop as attractive and vibrant places, with an array of cultural facilities, public institutions, and regional services".

A Citizens' Guide to the Municipal Planning Process

As intensification moves ahead, communities need to look at the planning process and see how they can achieve meaningful and effective participation in the process. In looking at how this can be possible, neighbourhoods can start (and continue) to look at the following issues that were raised in the panel discussion:

1) What is intensification and what can 'good intensification' look like?

Broadening this discussion can provide communities with an opportunity to have a more direct influence on neighbourhood development. Jim Dunn acknowledged that there are challenges faced in the discussion around intensification. However, he emphasized opportunities that also exist, including the ability for communities to dictate what their neighbourhoods will look like in the future.

He elaborated that development through intensification must take into account the existing identity of a neighbourhood, including who lives in an area now and who will live there in the future, and also includes both residential and commercial development.

'Good intensification' is best achieved through an open, community guided process where residents feel as though they can participate and have their voices heard. From a practical standpoint, Steve Kulakowsky discussed the importance of having buildings that interact with the street and community, while utilizing scale that doesn't overwhelm a community.

Smaller projects move the process forward and contribute to overall neighbourhood design and development.

2) What are the main stages of the development process?

Once a building application is submitted, the City of Hamilton has just 120 days to go through the entire follow-up process. Jason Thorne's advice to both developers and neighbourhoods: do your research, communicate clearly and get involved early.

Be aware of completed or in progress neighbourhood secondary plans, which guide planned land use and density (also be aware of provincial regulations around land use planning).

Aspects of secondary plans can be changed through applications from developers; however developers are required to have public meetings, provide notifications to residents and offer an opportunity for consultation. There should be multiple points for residents to have their voices heard in the process, and it is important that communities be engaged beyond initial planning stages.

The City of Hamilton's Planning and Economic Development department has outlined the process of property development on their website with citywide policies and guidelines.

While there is a lot of information to sort through, Thorne emphasized his desire to see his department continue to work alongside communities to make the information more accessible and readily available. In doing so, communities and developers can be better prepared to engage throughout the entire development process.

3) How can community engagement with the City and developers be meaningful and effective?

When community engagement is only reactive instead of being proactive, it can create tensions and difficulty in achieving meaningful engagement. Dana Anderson spoke about the need for residents to be involved early in the planning process, which also relies on developers and planning teams to create accessible spaces for engagement to occur.

From a planner perspective, can developers over-engage with the community? Anderson gave an emphatic "no". Residents and stakeholders are the experts on what the community needs, and there must be varying opportunities for collaboration throughout the development process.

Developers and the City of Hamilton also have a major role to play in the engagement process. The different stages of the development process can be confusing and difficult to understand at times, which is why developers and the City must continue to be encouraged to make the process more accessible.

Providing the community with the tools to be informed and understand details of potential development is critical in achieving meaningful engagement.

4) What are the broader social implications we need to be aware of when discussing intensification?

Intensification is going to happen, and once we acknowledge this we can focus on developing strategies to bring issues around health, equity and inclusion to the forefront of the discussion. Intensification can contribute to already stated goals of neighbourhoods, such as emphasizing health and wellness through adaptation of built environment.

Research has shown that greater density can have a positive impact on physical activity and public health, which Dunn cited as critical planning issues moving forward.

Dana Anderson also discussed how intensification can leverage the creation of new amenities that communities are missing. In potentially planning multiple years ahead of development, communities can engage with the municipality and developers to identify areas to provide or enhance the community through development.

One area that Dunn focused on was the potential to utilize intensification as a tool to build age friendly communities, which are amenity rich and can counteract the issue of social isolation. When designing our neighbourhoods, we need to push the envelope to develop 'complete communities' and find ways that the built environment can promote health, equity and inclusion for residents.

Raising the idea of the "8 - 80 city", Dunn emphasized the need to build neighbourhoods for all residents.

As neighbourhoods continue to change and grow, the issue of affordability also continues to be raised. Inclusionary zoning is one possible tool the City could utilize in the future.

However, there must a broader conversation in neighbourhoods around affordable housing. This may include strategies to promote affordable rental and affordable home ownership options, as well as looking at creative local solutions such as the Hamilton Community Land Trust.

Continuing the conversation in neighbourhoods

If communities are going to engage in the planning process around intensification, a broader discussion needs to continue around what intensification means to residents, policy makers, and developers, and how to keep citizens involved so that we have a meaningful say in future developments.

Greg Tedesco is a proud Hamiltonian for the past ten years. He is interested in issues around health, equity, inclusion & social justice. Connect with Greg on twitter @greg_tedesco.


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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted July 24, 2015 at 10:09:54

As I mentioned in a comment to the previous article, Vancouver's South Shore of False Creek (developed in the 1970s) might be a good example to follow. It was developed with 50% condos (owned) and 50% rent subsidized, as a dozen coop buildings (mostly mid-rise). 40 years later, residents still love it.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted July 24, 2015 at 10:30:57

A couple of other good urban design rules of thumb:

  1. Buildings as tall as the street is wide (in mid-density areas).

  2. Total width of sidewalks equals total width of street for vehicles. This was used in Paris and ensures sidewalks are wide enough to be comfortable for pedestrians on wide streets, and that there is enough space for trees and benches. (In Hamilton sidewalks are a standard 1.5m - 1.8m on most streets regardless of width or traffic: even on Main Street near Queen or Bay Street near Central School! any additional road allowance is given over to vehicles.)

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2015-07-24 10:41:57

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted July 24, 2015 at 10:53:33 in reply to Comment 113052

And we see Hamilton wanting to protect for 6 lanes for Main. Even as a car driver, I can see we don't need that.

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By Ainslie Wood (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2015 at 21:42:29

Ainslie Wood is suffering intensification without public input. We need an active AWCA and Mac needs to be part of the solution.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted July 26, 2015 at 22:00:47 in reply to Comment 113079

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted July 27, 2015 at 09:29:43 in reply to Comment 113079

Do you mean actual intensification (as in many new larger buildings being built), or conversions of single family houses to multiple (often illegal) student rentals? I wasn't aware of much real intensification in Ainslie Wood, but the issue of conversions in Westdale and Ainslie Wood has been active and contentious for decades.

McMaster has a liaison group that meets regularly with residents and neighbourhood associations. McHattie was also very involved in trying to mediate between residents, students and the university including facilitating the construction of a new student residence near the Main W Fortinos.

However, in my opinion, one of the difficulties is that AWWCA is not a true neighbourhood association: it restricts regular membership to "resident property owners".

This perpetuates an us versus them situation, with resident property owners on one side and everyone else (students, renters, rental property owners, business owners) on the other. It might be easier to influence the local politicians if the politicians felt the neighbourhood association truly represented all residents (including students and other renters).

Another point is that students need to live somewhere.

It would seem most appropriate to densify along major corridors and shopping areas (e.g. build apartment buildings along Main West or add extra stories to the commercial buildings in Westdale, say up to six stories rather than the mostly 1-2 storey buildings), but even this leads to opposition.

A beginning would be for everyone to recognize that students have a right to live in the neighbourhood, and then try to work out the best solution to accommodate them. I would imagine that neither students nor resident property owners like illegal substandard divided houses.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2015-07-27 09:34:52

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By Ainslie Wood (anonymous) | Posted July 28, 2015 at 07:17:35 in reply to Comment 113093

Kevlahan: I meant the kind of intensification common in Ainslie Wood: when up to 12 students are packed into a home built for a single family. Should also point out that the new Ainslie Wood Community Association (ainsliewood.ca) does not restrict membership to property owners like the long-established and elitist AWWCARHO. The AWCA is open to all AW residents to join or become directors and is especially interested in outreach to low-income apartment dwellers.

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