Special Report: Aerotropolis

Business as Usual

The GRIDS long-term growth strategy is not "smart growth" by any meaningful definition.

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 05, 2006

Hamilton's GRIDS plan commits Hamilton to the legal bare minimum of infill (and that over the objections of the homebuilding industry).

Even the 40 percent of infill to which Hamilton has officially committed is illusory. Much of the allocated development land within the current urban boundary is rural, not urban, so it's sprawl in all but official designation. The other 60 percent of growth is slated to take place outside the urban boundary altogether, often in prime dependable farmland like the land around the airport.

This is not "smart growth" by any meaningful definition. It's business as usual for Hamilton, a city that has the dubious distinction of the highest rate of greenfield development in the Golden Horseshoe.

This needs to change. Richard Gilbert's report provides a way out of a planning impasse that lacks a coherent organizing principle and is failing to transform Hamilton's growth pattern.

During his presentation, Gilbert fielded questions about Hamilton's controversial aerotropolis expansion, which violates seven of the city's nine GRIDS directives. Sam Merulla, Councillor for Ward 4, especially tried to justify aerotropolis in terms of Gilbert's presentation.

Merulla asked, "So in essence what I've gathered from this presentation is that development pertaining, being directly correlated to the airport is bad, but development in that area not correlated to the airport is good, because we are localizing employment because it ties into our economic development strategy. Is that correct?"

Gilbert was careful not to make a direct recommendation regarding aerotropolis, explaining that a detailed analysis of potential development sites was not part of his research. He said, "My own opinion, but this is not an opinion based on expert research, is that you have a huge opportunity for developing lands for this kind of purpose between where we're sitting now [City Hall, 71 Main St. W. at Bay St.] and the harbour. I've walked around there, and around the harbour, and I'm just impressed by the opportunities for the kinds of industrial development that I'm talking about, which is very knowledge-intensive, very rich in small-scale activity."

Later, in response to a question from Brian McHattie, Councillor for Ward 1, about what criteria Hamilton should use when deciding where to develop industrial land, Gilbert responded, "there is a certain amount of thinking [in Hamilton] of putting the land first and then wondering how to fill the land with jobs. What I'm proposing is an alternative way of going about it, which is figuring out what you want to do and then after you've defined it a bit, what the lands are for that particular thing."

This, ironically, is entirely consistent with the GRIDS philosophy, which proposed aerotropolis in the first place as a logical location for airport-based industry. Now, as the original justification withers, some Councillors are attempting to keep aerotropolis alive by claiming the development there doesn't have to be airport-related.

In other words, they have already made their decision and are now scrambling to attach that decision to some planning model, any planning model, instead of starting with clear goals and making land use choices that are consistent with those goals.

Proponents of the GRIDS outcomes insist that the city is not "putting all its eggs in one basket" via aerotropolis. According to the city staff report that recommended the aerotropolis expansion, it is supposed to generate 52,000 jobs between now and 2031. That's essentially all the new jobs expected over the next 25 years. The report recommending the aerotropolis expansion does so explicitly to provide square footage to accommodate that job growth.

It's no coincidence that Aerotropolis is inconsistent with the GRIDS principles. It's a bad, counterproductive means to grow the city. It squanders scarce public dollars destroying dependable farmland to produce yet more greenfield industrial lands, when the city is already oversupplied with both sites and expressway connections.

Nevertheless, every single growth scenario perversely includes aerotropolis. As a city, we're not even allowed to consider a different future. Where I come from, you only try to prevent someone from considering an idea if you're afraid that it will benefit from an open airing.

As the global energy situation becomes clearer, this course is revealed as sheer madness. Yet instead of acknowledging that the economic climate that first recommended aerotropolis development has changed, the city persists in flogging this dead horse when we could be embracing an economic growth scenario built around access to energy efficient transport, leverage of already built urban infrastructure, proximity of various destinations and uses to each other, an affordable, grid-connected transit system, and vast opportunities to generate clean, renewable energy in our own backyards and on our rooftops.

It's also no coincidence that the city's residential homebuilders embrace aerotropolis enthusiastically. They know well that once the land is serviced but industrial tenants fail to materialize (as they have largely failed to materialize in the already highway-accessible Glanbrook Park), that land will be cheap, easy pickings for yet more sprawl.

For his part, Gilbert did his best to impress upon City Council the value in giving a real, rather than a rhetorical, focus on intensification rather than greenfield development. Bob Bratina, Councillor for Ward 2, pointedly asked, "is there a role for the province to pay in telling municipalities how they should work towards the future? Because we may not be able to make good decisions ourselves."

Gilbert's response is instructive:

I've not been part of any of the discussions around [the Ontario Government's Places to Grow legislation], so I don't know the exact flavour of what the province is expecting. But in terms of the drafts and what is being reported, the province does not want greenfield development, as far as I can figure out. It certainly wants brownfield development, it certainly wants intensification, and it begrudgingly, in the earlier stuff, allowed greenfield development to have a place, but it seems clear to me that it doesn't want it. And I appreciate that developers are big and often seem bigger than the municipality. Even Metro Toronto, when I was there, could be somewhat intimidated by developers.

And I appreciate the need for some provincial support, but I'm absolutely certain with this particular government and where it is now, if the city of Hamilton were to say to this government, "We need help in having no more greenfield development in our city," I think the provincial government would provide that. It would draw the map in the way you want. Because what's going to happen is there's going to be a map, and there's going to be a map that shows where the greenfield stuff can be and where it can't be and we've already seen some of that. And I think if this city wants the province's help in that direction, it will get it.

(Citizens at City Hall has helpfully provided a transcript of Richard Gilbert's presentation and the subsequent question-and-answer session with Council.)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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