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Walkability and Recovery in Canada’s Rust Belt

This story from last month caught my eye today. The title, ‘Walkable Neighbourhoods Key to Creative Industries’, is innocuous enough. However, as the story states, the source is more surprising. The report, Walkability and Economic Development: How Pedestrian and Transit-Oriented Environments Attract Creative Jobs in Hamilton was released by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. Walkable neighborhoods are well-established as coveted residential and commercial space; the Chamber report goes further in clearly stating the case for walkability as an economic consideration, writing on page 18:

More specifically, walkable environments should be viewed as necessary economic infrastructure that attract employment and should be invested in accordingly. That means that just as investments are made in suburban business parks have the required infrastructure to make them the centres of private investment, walkable environments need to be created, enhanced, and maintained in order to attract jobs for other sectors.


The maps show, respectively, the links between creative industry locations in Hamilton and walkability and transit.

This is promising on two fronts. First, that creative industries (especially the performing arts) are growing in areas like Hamilton, long dependent on industries that are declining in employment numbers (such as manufacturing). Second, that they are looking to locate in the urban core, and bring with them the additional economic and social activity.

It’s encouraging to see groups like the Chamber of Commerce embrace the quality of life factors like walkability and sound transit that an increasing number of people are finding desirable. I believe that quality of life considerations and economic activity are becoming increasingly intertwined, and will soon be inseparable. Cheap and/or plentiful land will have its appeal for some, but more and more people and groups will make economic tradeoffs if need be to locate themselves and their organizations in urban environments.

Panorama of Downtown Hamilton, Early Morning
Flickr/Wayne MacPhail

For older cities like Hamilton, this provides an opportunity, as they developed around a time when density was greater in new developments than it has been in recent decades, thus providing in most cases a greater stock of already (or easily convertable) walkable areas. It’s proximity to Toronto (it’s connected by GO Train) and other major centers can serve as an additional competitive asset. The business community in Hamilton has been progressive on many fronts, notably by embracing poverty reduction initiatives. By embracing walkability and sound public transit – for both social and economic benefits – Hamilton is taking steps towards the factors that will go into making a vibrant urban centre in the coming years.

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A Fracking Concern

They’re going to be making steel in Youngstown again. Taken in isolation, this is great news, pointing to progress in an area that has struggled economically for the past 3-4 decades, and – as the story linked above – points out, lost half its population since 1950.

The steel mill, however, will be producing parts to use in hydraulic fracturing, fracking for short. This process is gaining support in the midwest as a means of economic recovery, through extracting natural gas found in the Marcellus Shale Formation.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube
The old Youngstown Sheet and Tube factory.Photo by bobengland, using a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical 2.0 License.

Much of my interest in writing about this subject comes from a desire to know more about it. Instinctively, I question whether investing in non-renewable energy is the best long-term strategy for any region. There are renewable energy opportunities in Ohio and the Midwest, and places like Austin, Texas are investing in clean energy manufacturing, which might put them even further ahead in the long run.

Lending more support to the clean energy apporach is the increasing number of signs that solar energy will be price competitive soonthis map says in about 12 years for the major Ohio cities, and sooner for much of the rest of the United States. Cities and regions that are investing now are likely to have a leg up going forward.

Leaving the economy aside for a moment, there are serious environmental concerns about the process (Wikipedia has a well-sourced list, and the pros-cons are well-debated here), most of which would have their effect felt close to home. The public health and safety concerns of residents shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated.

Deindustrialization of Youngstown is well-document, and I can’t begin to understand the affect this has had on the region. Coming from a region with a resource-heavy economy that has experienced booms and busts in my lifetime, I can empathize. The immediate economic returns of resources – in particular energy – are hard to resist. Given the history of the past few decades, and in light of the recession of the past few years, I don’t fault any citizen or city in that region for jumping at a possibility for economic growth.

But resources and their boom/bust cycles cause instability, and I think most citizens want predictable, reliable economic growth. Would clean/green industry, or other paths to economic development be a better investment in the long run? There are lots of possibilities for the Midwest, and many urban enthusiasts – including myself and the author of this excellent post – have been pleasantly surprised by what we found when visiting cities like Cleveland. Fracking might be the option right now, but I’m thinking a bright future for former industrial centers may come from other sources.