Jason Thorne, General Manager, Planning & Economic Development, City of Hamilton

Jason Thorne,
General Manager, Planning & Economic Development, City of Hamilton

The famous urbanist Jane Jacobs observed that “cities are built up from many little things.”  She was reacting to an era of modernist development that viewed grand megaprojects built at great expense by city bureaucrats as the only means of progress.

Jacobs’ observation was front-of-mind for me as I recently walked the streets of Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia.

Bogotá and Medellín may seem like odd choices for vacation destinations.  But for a city planner like myself, nothing could be further from the truth.  These cities are gaining fame in urban planning circles for the remarkable transformation that they have undergone over the past 15-20 years.

The dark days of these cities are well known.  In the 1980s and 1990s, Bogotá and Medellín were synonymous with crime, drugs and gangs. In 1991, Medellín alone experienced 6,500 homicides, an unimaginable rate of 350 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants.

But then something amazing started to happen.  Under the inspired leadership of some exceptional mayors, both Bogotá and Medellín began to reinvent themselves.

Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa in Bogotá and Sergio Fajardo in Medellín all came from academic backgrounds.  They were community organizers, not politicians.  But they understood the issues being faced in their cities, and they understood both the major projects as well as the “many little things” that would be necessary to reinvent them.

The challenges being faced by these mayors were significant.  Their response involved actions aimed at fighting corruption, poverty and gang violence.  What most fascinates me is how these leaders used the tools of city planning to further their social and economic objectives.

At the centre of their strategies was an emphasis on public space and mobility.

Across Medellín and Bogotá, roads were closed and abandoned spaces were redeveloped to create public gathering places.  These were focussed mostly in the poorest neighbourhoods, and to bridge the communities between which violence and social conflict were most pronounced.  These spaces were accentuated with new schools, hospitals and recreational facilities.  Most famously, in Medellín a series of five “library parks” were established that comprised new public libraries built around new public plazas.

The most celebrated interventions to improve mobility are the TransMilenio bus rapid transit system in Bogotá and the gondolas connecting the mountainside slums of Medellín with the city’s metro line.  Mayor Peñalosa’s belief in the transformative power of transit is captured in his comment that an “advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars; rather, it’s where even the rich use public transportation.”  Both Medellín and Colombia also introduced sidewalks across their cities and a system of bikeways known as Ciclorutas.

So what does this all mean for Canadian cities?  Our cities, too, are reinventing themselves.  The City of Hamilton is a case in point.

Hamilton is booming.

The City recently announced it surpassed $1 billion dollars’ worth of construction for 2014, the fourth time in the past five years that this previously unimaginable level of development activity has been achieved. There is renewed interest in the development community in the city’s brownfield properties. The downtown core is seeing a condo boom that includes new build as well as the adaptive reuse of historic buildings such as hotels, schools and churches.  McMaster University is building a new health campus in the core, and has entered into a partnership with the City to seek provincial support for a new downtown university campus.  Hamilton’s waterfront is on the cusp of becoming a world-class tourist destination and is currently undergoing redevelopment in preparation for hundreds of new residential units and thousands of square feet of commercial space.

The revitalization is not confined to the downtown core of Hamilton.  Historic commercial streets like Ottawa Street and Locke Street are undergoing significant renewal.  And the downtowns of the former municipalities of Dundas, Ancaster and Stoney Creek are also attracting development interest.

How Hamilton is achieving this success bears a remarkable resemblance to the methods and tactics used in Bogotá and Medellín.

Over the last 2-3 years, the City of Hamilton initiated the pedestrianization of Gore Park, the city’s historic downtown public space. New separated bike lanes have been established, part of a growing cycling network that will soon include a bike share program with more than 100 stations and 700 bikes. A new GO commuter rail station is nearly complete in the downtown core.

Other pieces of the revitalization puzzle include the development of one of Hamilton’s first complete streets on Wilson Street in Ancaster; new design studies for the Barton Tiffany district, Barton Kenilworth corridors, and James North neighbourhoods; the restoration of Canada’s first indoor commercial mall, the Lister Block building, into an office/retail complex and tourism centre; and a new sports stadium, Tim Horton’s field, that will welcome international athletes for the 2015 Pan Am Games.

These are the seeds of Hamilton’s revitalization.  These are our library parks and Ciclorutas.

When it comes to city-building, leadership matters.  That is the ultimate lesson from Bogotá and Medellín.  Mockus, Peñalosa and Fajardo have gained international fame for what they accomplished in their cities.

As the City of Hamilton looks ahead to the next four years with a new term of council, there will hopefully be a renewed commitment to building a prosperous and healthy community, generating diverse economic opportunities, and connecting with engaged citizens.

On that point, citizens themselves may not realize they also hold the keys to our city’s revitalization. They include the small business owners who employ local talent; the not-for-profit leaders; the thousands of students who help make our academic institutions world-class; and all the individuals and families who add “many little things” to Hamilton’s character, and who choose this city for work, life, learning and play.

We have much to celebrate; and for me, it’s very inspiring to see the same innovating thinking and sparks of renewal that transformed some of our world’s great urban centres manifesting right here at home.

By Jason Thorne,

General Manager, Planning & Economic Development, City of Hamilton

Jason Thorne is General Manager of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Hamilton. Prior to joining the City, Jason was a partner in a Toronto-based planning, urban design and architecture practice where he worked on projects across Canada as well as in Africa and Latin America. Jason was born and raised in Hamilton and spent several years working and volunteering for community organizations including the Bay Area Restoration Council, Hamilton Naturalists Club, Bruce Trail Association and Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment. Follow Jason Thorne on Twitter at @Jason_ThorneRPP.

Providing a Fresh Perspective for Burlington and Hamilton.

One Comment to: Urban Renewal, Re-Invention At Home & Abroad

  1. low profile

    December 7th, 2014

    87% of tax base is Residential. Hamilton is merely finding an equilibrium between low housing stock prices and rents. This is becoming a bedroom community as Burlington becomes progressively more out of reach.

    Say what one might but this City is actually in decline. Watch as taxes go through the roof and infrastructure continues to deteriorate. A Planner should realize this.


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