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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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New Partners for Smart Growth: Day One

I’m at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in San Diego, which started Thursday and ends today. When I have more time following the conference, I plan to write more in-depth on what I learned, but my writing on the conference will begin with a quick recap of each day. Here is a brief overview of what I attended on Thursday. You can read full descriptions of the sessions here:

Restoring Prosperity in America’s Legacy Cities
Feeding my current Rust Belt obsession, I attended this session to learn what former industrial centers are doing to ‘right-size’ and adapt.

In East Baltimore, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been involved in facilitating redevelopment that is sensitive to the existing residents. With Johns Hopkins University expanding, the Foundation played a key role in ensuring residents were included, and benefited (such as having priority to send their kids to the new school, and economic inclusion agreements for redevelopment work). Where relocation happened, due to eliminating unsuitable housing, support was providing for tenants to relocate. One of the dangers of revitalization/gentrification, a theme that has come up a lot this conference, is that it will exclude and displace residents in an area. Revitalization that is inclusive of all community members will deliver more value to both residents and the city/region as a whole.

Dan Kildee of the Center for Community Progress spoke of the need to ‘right-size’ communities that were built for a much larger population than they support now. He made a profound point around one of the challenges we face in accepting this. It’s a distinctly (North) American view that growth is inherently good, and ipso facto, that any city/region that is not growing is inherently a failure. A large part of New Urbanism and Smart Growth, for me, is rethinking what we view as a success, and Kildee’s points speak to this.

Seeds of Change: Creative Urban Gardens and Edible Parks
This session focused on urban gardens, local food, and green initiatives in San Diego County and Los Angeles. San Diego has turned its plentiful farmland into a local economic asset. San Diego County has more farms than any other county in the US, more than 7000 in total (343 of which are organic). The farms supply everything from popular local restaurants, to public schools. There are also creative ways to reach populations not usually connected to the local/organic food movement. At a youth center, consumers wanted to get outdoors, so they worked to convert two batting cages into gardens. In the County, there is also a boarding school for foster teens built on an organic farm, where the students participate in tending to the farm, and learning key skills.

Charrettes and the Next Generation of Public Involvement
This session focused on creative new ways to engage the public. As someone who feels like the public consultation process is deficient, if not broken, it was great to hear of new ways to engage greater numbers of people. CrowdBrite developed an online tool to compliment the in-person consultation. In one case, 600 people used the online portion, contributing over 100 ideas. The amazing thing is that none of the online participants had, according to the records of the city in question, attended a public meeting in person over the previous 10 years. Initiatives like this point to ways to greater engage a larger number of people in consultation.

Essential Components of the 21st Century Community: Housing for the “Missing Middle”
This focused on (primarily infill) medium-density housing types, such as row housing, bungalow courts, and duplexes. While the speakers didn’t indulge my obsession with brownstone row housing, they did promote a form-based code, of which I am a big proponent. Richmond, CA, has used a form-based code to facilitate the development of affordable housing and other land uses that often encounter opposition from communities.

Brick Houses
Medium-density row housing in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, DC.

One of the speakers also made a great point about how multi-unit buildings often give up the amenities people like in single-detached units, such as having both a front and back door. I see a lot of potential in medium-density housing (I would love to be able to get a brick or brownstone row house in Edmonton), but I recognize that to appeal to a larger demographic, it needs to incorporate in some form things that people like about their single-detached family homes – front doors, back doors, garages, and yards. It’s great to see cities making advances in these areas.

A Model City? Why My City (and Yours) Might Find Inspiration in Pittsburgh

In my hometown of Edmonton, one of the biggest issues of debate over the past few years has been that of whether to build (and how to fund) a new hockey arena on the north edge of downtown. Proponents have held up a few examples of what they consider successful arena districts, but in particular have focused on Columbus, Ohio.

With the announcement this week that a builder and (probably) an architect have been chosen, the project continues to move closer to reality (all that’s missing is $100 million in funds).

Though I’ve been critical of whether an arena is the best way to increase activity in the area – and I think the promised economic benefits are overblown – if it’s going ahead, I want to see it happen in the best way possible. Again, the Columbus model was cited as one Edmonton should follow. I have two questions, or reservations, about this:

1. An arena (district) is just one part of a downtown, never mind a city, so looking at that area in isolation is limiting.
2. A ‘Made in Edmonton’ (or insert name of your city) solution is cliche, but behind it is a truth that you can only draw ideas and inspiration from other cities, you can’t replicate and expect the same result.

6th Street Bridge

Cited as another possible model for the arena itself is the new Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, which got me thinking – I’ve never been to Columbus, but I have been to Pittsburgh. If I know anyone who’s been to Columbus, they have certainly never felt the need to tell me about it. Meanwhile, the handful of people I know who have been to Pittsburgh all left impressed. And it’s getting plenty of accolades from academics, advocacy groups, and major newspapers, to name three places. On Sunday, I called it a seriously underrated city, which experts with more knowledge than I have concur with.

And finally, it tops multiple different lists for most livable cities in America.

Next week, I’ll be introducing a concept around how I see cities becoming successful, particularly in respect to other, potentially competing, cities. A lot of it has to do with the size of a city. Comparing major metropolises to medium-sized cities is comparing apples and oranges. For Edmonton, with a metro population of over 1 million people, I’d pick Seattle (at 3.5 million) as the starting point, population-wise, for a city Edmonton might start to have legitimate comparisons with. Of American metro areas, I’d say the 15th (Seattle) to 51st (Rochester) – all anywhere from 3.5 to 1 million residents, could be considered in some way analogous.

The purpose of this, though, is to put forward the idea that when looking for inspiration, we need to look at a more macro level. Columbus’ arena district might work for that city, but there are different macro-level considerations for mine and yours. But while we don’t need to replicate everything Pittsburgh did, every medium-sized city can draw lessons and inspirations from some of the many things it has done well. If we’re going to take best practices from other cities, that’s the way to do it best.

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.