By Ryan McGreal
Published December 07, 2010
Oh, how I wish the Hamilton Spectator had a columnist like the Toronto Star's Christopher Hume. An RTH reader just sent me Hume's latest column, in which he explains how Melbourne, Australia revitalized itself by focusing on streets as the place where city living takes place. See if you notice any parallels with Hamilton:
Once a Victorian industrial powerhouse, Melbourne entered a period of decline at the end of the 19th century. By the 1960s, it had become Australia's designated Doughnut City, a Rust Belt metropolis with a big hole in the middle where people used to live and work.
Things went from bad to worse until a new generation of civic leaders took office in the 1980s and decided to do thing differently. For starters, they hired Rob Adams. His approach, radical though it might have seemed, was to focus on small stuff, everything from trees and benches to sidewalks and street vendors. Enshrining urban design concepts such as "active frontage" and shared streets, Adams transformed the city building by building, block by block, bylaw by bylaw.
Rejecting the post-war planning orthodoxies of single-use zoning and vehicular paramountcy, he insisted the streets be shared with pedestrians and cyclists. Despite the backlash, it worked. Last year, The Economist magazine named Melbourne, and Toronto, among the five most livable cities on Earth.
One of the things that jumped out at me was this: "as Adams makes clear, the Melbourne supremacy is not a matter of opinion or ideology; the results can be measured and the effects catalogued." If city revitalization is to work, it needs to be driven by reasoning from empirical evidence, not reflexive dogmatism.
Unfortunately, much of our public discourse about the role of street design in urban revitalization comes down to ideology and naive assumptions - particularly the assumptions about what downtown Hamilton needs shared freely in letters to the editor by suburban residents who haven't set foot downtown in ten years.
Sidewalks have been widened, streets closed to traffic and zoning loosened. The population has doubled in recent years. Unemployment in Melbourne is five per cent; in Toronto, 9.5 per cent.
"The theory is that people should be on the street," Adams explains. "The street is the key to the city. If you design good streets, you design a good city."
Now where have we heard that before?
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