"Where" Depends on "What"

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 29, 2006

Dear Mayor Larry Di Ianni and City Councillors,

I won't argue that deciding to locate the aerotropolis cluster around the airport was poor economic planning - quite the opposite, in fact. The city report that recommended aerotropolis quite rightly argued that if Hamilton is going to grow its jobs base through airport-related development, then it makes sense to locate that development around the airport.

In the question period following yesterday's presentation to City Council, Richard Gilbert, the author of "Hamilton: The Electric City", answered a question from Councillor McHattie about the criteria Hamilton should use to decide where to develop industrial land. His response was instructive: "Figure out what you want to do, and then decide what kind of land you need to do it on." He cautioned, "Don't develop the land first, and then decide what to do with it."

This is exactly the reasoning behind the staff recommendation to develop the aerotropolis in the first place. The big difference is that when the aerotropolis study was commissioned, very few people were thinking about peak oil, so the planners did not take it into consideration when projecting economic growth areas for the city.

The GRIDS Employment Growth Options & Summary Matrix defines Aerotropolis as a "Master planned community that includes airport industrial development, commercial/office spin-off development, and residential areas with schools and retail/food services." (Growth Related Integrated Development Strategy – Growth Options and Revised Forecasts (CM04017a), February 16, 2005, Table B, p. 1)

Further, the report defines the type of development form as "Airport Industrial-Business Park [that] comprise 700 acres and are designated as Airport-Related Prestige Industrial, Airport Related Commercial, Airpor-Related Business, and Airport-Related General Industrial." (ibid, Table B, p. 2)

In fact, based on the Nine GRIDS Directions, the only justification for locating aerotropolis around the airport is that it "Will create jobs near the airport and spin-off jobs at the airport." (ibid. Table B, p. 3) Aerotropolis fails seven of the nine Directions and meets one other Direction, "Good urban design will be important in all options" by default. (ibid, Table B, pp. 2-3)

If commercial aviation, particularly air freight transport, were regarded as a viable business model for the future, then the economic benefits of aerotropolis might be worth the sacrifice of seven out of nine GRIDS Directions. However, with the overwhelming geological and economic evidence of near-term peak oil, those economic benefits are no longer likely to materialize.

Councillor Merulla suggested, "Airport related development is bad, but non-airport related development around the airport is good," because it localizes jobs and shortens commutes. However, the whole point of aerotropolis was to leverage proximity to the airport. Exploiting the economic opportunities related to air-transport was seen to justify expanding the urban boundary by 1,200 hectares into Hamilton's rural surroundings.

If that proximity no longer confers economic advantages, then it no longer makes sense to locate the industrial development there. Instead, Hamilton should use the same logic expressed by both the aerotropolis recommendation and Mr. Gilbert's report and locate its industrial development lands where it makes sense from an economic perspective.

Ironically, Mr. Gilbert's report and his presentation identified the 1,400 hectares of unused lands in the North end of the city as excellent prospects for a value-add, energy-based industrial development policy - much of that land inside Councillor Merulla's own ward and highly accessible to people living in the city via public transit, walking, and cycling, which meet the city's transit objectives.

If the logic behind aerotropolis was sound, and if the peak oil hypothesis is correct, then the city's next move should be obvious: decide what industries has the best prospects in an energy-constrained world and let that inform the decision on where to locate those industries, rather than trying to graft a new economic plan onto an existing development model that does not take the global energy market into consideration.

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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