Suburban Bureau

Public Space Defines a City

If we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always got.

By Trey Shaughnessy
Published October 22, 2007

Recently Mayor Eisenberger suggested that a small stretch of King Street (Gore Park) be turned into a pedestrian plaze. Bizarrely, this suggestion generated some resistance, even from the director of the downtown BIA.

City planning in Hamilton and largely across North America for the past 50 years has focused on private land use.

The city staff members and councils have micro-managed how a landowner can build, what gets built, the use of the land and its buildings and neglected the places that the public occupies. This has been a double-edged sword for city life.

Micro-Managing Private Land Use

Currently city by-laws and zoning rules stand in the way of a land developer to mix residential, commercial and entertainment uses. The City forces a minimum amount of parking spaces, maximum heights on buildings, minimum setbacks (how far a building must be from the street), and usage.

Ultimately this destroys pedestrian use and makes automobiles necessary to participate in day-to-day civic life.

Sparks Street, Ottawa
Sparks Street, Ottawa

The long-time zoning rules have forced developers into making their lots be used for one purpose only. That is, single unit housing, multiple housing, office, entertainment, commercial, or industrial uses.

Forcing a building or lot of land into a single-function-use is not natural to how people live and function in an urban area. It has segregated the citizens and not allowed a city to naturally grow and evolve into vibrant clusters where people can live, work, shop, and socialize.

An article by Andrew Dreschel in the Hamilton Spectator suggested that people would not stroll a Gore Park promenade because they can socialize and shop at Limeridge Mall. The problem is that Limeridge Mall is private property. One can be evicted for a loosely defined infraction such as 'loitering'.

Illegal Urbanism

Public spaces are vital to a community. Gore Park has historically been the place that Hamiltonians visited to celebrate and protest. This couldn't happen at a mall or big box centre that is privately owned.

Hamiltonians took to the streets (Gore Park included) and celebrated Victory in Europe (VE Day) in 1945
Hamiltonians took to the streets (Gore Park included) and celebrated Victory in Europe (VE Day) in 1945

Most of the livable places in the city would be illegal to build today.

Granted, the city is taking small steps forward. Some downtown developments are being built to the street, two-way streets, on-street parking, wide sidewalks.

But the rest of the city continue with the same car dependent environment with huge surface parking lots, five or more lanes of fast moving traffic, and buildings set so far back from the street that they require signs at the street to let people know what's at the back of the parking lot.

City Planners Neglect Public Space

Parks, plazas, squares; boulevards and streets with wide sidewalks next to calm vehicle traffic add much to a city's livable factor. People experience a city through the public realm.

If it's a hostile environment, people won't bother using the space. That means the space has to be more than just a space. The space has to have a reason and a function.

Even some city parks don't function very well. Everyone wants them, wants to live near them, but they aren't used very much.

Why? Because there isn't much reason to go them, and if you do, they often lack washroom facilities, picnic facilities, most are barren grass fields, kept green with chemicals, and few trees.

A pedestrian street in Montreal
A pedestrian street in Montreal

A pedestrianized Gore Park plaza would meet the requirements of a useful public space – with the addition of public washrooms, something that used to be in Gore Park. It would be a destination, have a reason, and be a friendly place to socialize.

This will take a change of thinking from our city planners, but it is the right direction. If we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always got.

Trey lives in Williamsville NY via Hamilton. He is a Marketing Manager for Tourism and Destination Marketing in the Buffalo-Niagara Metro.

His essays have appeared in The Energy Bulletin, Post Carbon Institute, Peak Oil Survival, and Tree Hugger.

And can't wait for the day he stops hearing "on facebook".

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By Genghis (anonymous) | Posted October 23, 2007 at 10:21:09

I have mixed feelings on this.I would love to see more public open spaces like Sparks street, but the "people" also define a city.That picture of Sparks street must have been taken at lunchtime.

Driving down King at the city centre near the epitaphs what I see is a collection of farily imnnocent looking loiterers drinking tim hortons with not much to do, to groups of twentysomething unemployed types exchanging money for something in broad daylight.

Being new here I am trying to keep optimistist in the "If you build it they will come" mentality.. but WHO will come?In a high income area/ city like Ottawa sparks street it will attract money and commerce and families for a nice day out to while away some time.In areas that have "challenges" after dark it could become a clearing house for drug dealers down and outers Homeless and more nefarious types.( Note:I have nothing against the homeless and in fact,it is good that they are in our faces to let us all know they are there and exist and are human beings.)We have to be careful how/ where they are designed and what the outcomes will be.

Recently I was at the Toronto Armoury area which is a public space.OMG.Accosted twice for money,yelled at for not giving money,aksed to beat up someone who stole the persons money.all this within the hour

Perhaps the two issues such as more Public spaces and social issues should be handled separatly, but sometimes we create one good thing and create another bad thing.If the public space was public but had some sort of security I would mot mind as much.

A Good example of the reverse is Zurichs "needle" park.Once a well known public park that turned into a shooting gallery in the 90s has been taken back by Families to be a real open space park

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By peter (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2007 at 16:39:50

^ummmmm, what's your point again?

get outta your car a walk around a bit. you might like what you see. but then again, probably not.

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 25, 2007 at 13:25:59

I saw Kathy Drewitt walking through Gore Park today. I wanted to go chat, but thought better of it.

I should have started yelling and screaming about the lack of parking down there. "how the heck am I supposed to go to the pawn shop and cheque cashing store if there's no mega parking lot at Gore??"

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By V (anonymous) | Posted October 26, 2007 at 11:15:40

I live in Downtown Hamilton, a few blocks from Gore Park. My office is a few blocks the other side of Gore Park.

I love living and working here and I would love to see this type of setup.

But (and you know there was going to be a "but") there is no way this will happen until the city and the police take care of the problems.

I have lived here 9 years and I have never been bothered by truly homeless or in-need people. The dregs and yes I mean dregs are the problem.

Open drug deals in the trees at Hughson & King, the constant littering, spitting, badgering of people is constantly going on.

The police watch this and do nothing.

There are laws....apply them HARSHLY.

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By V (anonymous) | Posted October 26, 2007 at 11:43:13

I live in Downtown Hamilton, a few blocks from Gore Park. My office is a few blocks the other side of Gore Park.

I love living and working here and I would love to see this type of setup.

But (and you know there was going to be a "but") there is no way this will happen until the city and the police take care of the problems.

I have lived here 9 years and I have never been bothered by truly homeless or in-need people. The dregs and yes I mean dregs are the problem.

Open drug deals in the trees at Hughson & King, the constant littering, spitting, badgering of people is constantly going on.

The police watch this and do nothing.

There are laws....apply them HARSHLY.

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By fanc3 (anonymous) | Posted October 26, 2007 at 17:23:26

Sparks Street Mall has been a complete bust over the past 15-20 years. The NCC has tried to rejuvenate the mall by building sculptures, luring upscale retailers, etc, but has failed miserably. The entire street is deserted past 4pm when all the federal employees who work in the buildings flanking both sides of the street go home. This may be due to the absence of a nearby residential area since Sparks cuts through the financial/govt building district. The nearest "happening" area is Elgin Street (which is 2-way)- it's packed full with residential units, small shops, bakeries, cafes, pubs, a school, public park, etc. so there's no reason for Elgin streeters to go over to Sparks.

However, with the construction of new residential/mixed use buildings in the downtown core, a pedestrian street mall may work for Gore Park.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 26, 2007 at 22:04:49

I think you hit the nail on the head with this observation: "The entire street is deserted past 4pm when all the federal employees who work in the buildings flanking both sides of the street go home."

The biggest problem with Sparks Street is the lack of mixed uses adjacent to it. SIngle use development produces one-way flows of people and long stretches when no one is around. That's antithetical to a healthy urban environment.

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By Cal DiFalco (registered) - website | Posted November 06, 2007 at 14:06:15

First, I applaud the Mayor for thinking outside the box and considering pedestrian malls. The importance, in my view, is not so much the actual solution he is proposing, but the signal that he recognizes the importance of the core and that it must be people friendly and environmentally friendly.

I am a Transformation Director by trade. What I do is help large organizations transform from one state a being, to another desired state. Transformation is not about tweaking; it's about wholesale change.

The key to successful transformation is leadership, alignment and staging. Too often, people have good ideas but lack the alignment necessary to bring them to fruition. Other times, leadership is there, alignment is in a ready state, but the translation from vision to implementation is left to chance.

This is where you need someone who is skilled in carving out the engines of transformation; the core levers that get us to where we want to go. Then carefully staging plans and executing them to incrementally get us there. Along the way, recognizing resistance and mitigating it.

Until we have decomposed our vision into tangible interventions with accountable bodies, we are just spinning.

Is it difficult in an environment where councillors have a dual responsibility to their constituents and to the city as a whole? Yes. Is it doable? That depends on leadership and know how.

But can it be done. Absolutely! How do I know? That's what I do for a living.

Cal caldifalco@cogeco.ca

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 06, 2007 at 15:30:39

Hi Cal,

"I am a Transformation Director by trade."

Can you please arrange to be hired by the city? The departments of public works and economic development are in desperate need for a gestalt shift in their conception of how a city is supposed to function.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2007 at 15:54:20

I think that all this pedestrial mall talk is just nonsense. If you want to improve downtown convert Main and King to two-way traffic. Both streets are expressways that make the downtown look dead. Streets with two-way traffic look more alive and vibrant - that is what people want to see downtown. Second, get rid of all the bums, Hamilton is not and should not be a dumping ground for every homeless shelter and low-income housing project. We have more than enough already.

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By Cal DiFalco (registered) - website | Posted November 06, 2007 at 16:15:04

Thank-you Ryan.

Maybe we should do coffee sometime. Be pleased to bounce some ideas back and forth.

Cal

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By S (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2007 at 19:06:51

I don’t know if a pedestrian mall would be an automatic slamdunk. There are some places where it works and others that don’t.

Sparks Street in Ottawa while busy during work hours is quite desolate on weekends and evenings. The businesses there are hardly the kind that attract people. It has very little life and I know many tourists are often surprised by how empty it is.

On the other hand, I quite like Granville Island in Vancouver. Not a true “pedestrian mall” but pleasant nevertheless. It seems very busy every day of the week.

I do applaud the mayor for trying to think outside the box.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 07, 2007 at 07:58:44

Cal, my email is editor@raisethehammer.org . Drop me a line if you're downtown and want to meet for a coffee.

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