I was in Hamilton last Friday evening, October 9th. A group of North Enders, led by Rob Fiedler, the chair of the North End Community Association, took me on a tour of their neighbourhood, we had dinner at the home of Shawn and Sheri, along with others. Then I led a talk and answered questions with about 30 people in the new Evergreen Centre at 294 James Street North.
Hamilton’s Waterfront in the North End
Things are beginning to happen in Hamilton and the action is built around the idea of community participation. The city, along with the Hamilton Community Foundation, have invited Evergreen, (the successful group that took the lead in renovating the Brick Works in Toronto), to collaborate the Hamilton City Building Action Campaign. But that is another story.
Let’s begin with the tour that I was given by the North End community activists. This is what I learned.
There are vast chunks of land in the North End, and the area the city calls the “West Harbour,” that can be redeveloped. Most of it is old industrial property that has sat unused for decades. There are also empty lots and vacant pieces of property.
James Street North in Hamilton’s North End
Much of this land is close to the harbour, the Waterfront, yacht clubs, and within walking distance to the new GO station on James Street North that will be opened within weeks. Metrolinx will be providing commuter train service along the Lakeshore route every hour through the day.
In the last couple of years there has been increasing demand for housing in the North End, and the broader area north of King Street in the central core of the city. Clearly speculators see this as a “hot” neighbourhood that is about to develop.
Local residents are naturally concerned about this. They fear that it will bring gentrification, drive up prices, increase property taxes, and possibly displace low income individuals and families. This process has been going on for decades in North American cities and their fears are well grounded.
The North End group brought me in to talk about these issues because I had written The New Urban Agenda. I know Hamilton well. I once worked an organizer there and have written three other books about the city.
These are some of the things that I told the group about the issues and problems faced by the North End residents.
- Intensification will be good for the neighbourhood. More people will strengthen the shops, bring better services, provide children for the schools, and generally bring life to the community.
- The fear of gentrification is real. It will drive up prices of houses, and property taxes, but it will be very difficult to stop. We live in a market economy. In time new, affluent residents will integrate into the community and make a contribution in their own way.
- The major objectives of community groups should be to provide mixed income housing for middle and low income individuals and families and to look for ways to improve the quality of life of the neighbourhood
- New opportunities for mixed income housing will soon develop. (This meeting was held 10 days before the October 19th federal election.) Both the Liberals and NDP are promising money for affordable housing. We don’t know the details of the program that will finally emerge, but this will be the opportunity for communities like the North End to get mixed income housing.
- Without spirited advocacy it is likely that new affordable housing will go somewhere else. The community should demand mixed income housing for middle and lower income individuals and families.
- Community participation will be an essential ingredient in this process. The community has to be vigilant, examine the new plans in detail, criticize and yet still be open to change. It will be a long process that will be frustrating at times, but it is a very important part of the process if a new, revitalized neighbourhood, that values the quality of life, is to emerge.
There are other things that I could have added. To improve communities we have to focus on the public domain. These are the streets, sidewalks, parks, trees and all of those other things that exist in the “spaces between the buildings.” To create a great community we have to learn how to calm the traffic and give our neighbourhoods a human scale.
Neighbourhood associations should demand that the city encourage grass-roots participation by hosting a charrette, where community members meet with experts like planners and architects, who can assist the community in visualizing and understanding the way that they think the neighbourhood can change and develop.
The political stars are aligned. Progressive politicians want to stop urban sprawl. Intensification of existing neighbourhoods is now seen as the best investment for new housing. Billions of dollars are being spent on transit in Ontario, and new development is being encouraged along transit lines to build a transportation system that is transit based.
All this means that communities like Hamilton’s North End are in the sweet spot to get new mixed income development, but participation and involvement of local residents is the key to make all of this happen.
A mobilized, engaged community, with clear objectives, is the key to developing affordable, vital, interesting communities with a high quality of life.