Hamilton has “enormous potential” to become a much more vibrant and prosperous city as it undergoes the required global transition to a low–carbon future, says one of the leading experts on the shift to renewable energy. What is crucial, Chris Turner told city staff last week, is the reclaiming and expansion of public space.
The acclaimed author of The Geography of Hope and The Leap addressed a ‘lunch and learn’ session on Wednesday afternoon organized by city staff, before delivering the ninth annual Spirit of Red Hill Valley lecture in the evening. He pointed to the change being forced by the US Steel closure as well as the wealth of older buildings as key pieces of Hamilton’s advantage.
“This is a city that has some fantastic assets given to it, in part from the fact that it was a vibrant industrial city well before cars became dominant,” Turner explained. “This points to a huge opportunity which is that there are thousands and thousands of people moving into Toronto who want exactly what you have here and can’t afford it in Toronto.”
He argues rapid urbanization across the planet, plus the necessity to cut our carbon footprint by more than 80 per cent before 2050, means cities have to focus on being attractive places where people want to spend time. The key element is vibrant public spaces, including streets we paid for, own and maintain.
“As social animals there’s very little that’s as important to us as the time spent in each other’s company, and that’s what public space is for,” Turner maintains.
He pointed to the attraction of the streetscapes of European cities where people celebrate their culture in public spaces that draw both residents and millions of tourists. And he suggested the biggest planning error in North America has been thinking that the highest and best purpose of our roads is to accommodate vehicle movement from one single purpose site to another.
“This is beautifully designed if you are a car”, he observed, “but what’s happened in the pursuit of the needs of automobiles is we totally forgot the needs of people.”
It’s also produced congested roads and discouraged alternative means of transport.
“What we call a bus stop, if you’re lucky, is a paved patch of land to stand on within inches of fast–moving automobiles that are splashing you with water and slush half the year.”
In contrast he pointed to Copenhagen which has cut its urban energy footprint by 80 per cent. A key step was banning cars from some streets and giving pedestrians priority and now more than a third of the population uses bicycles as their primary means of commuting.
That kind of change is now being demanded in Canada by “folks under 30 who are increasingly asking for urban amenities, want to live in denser mixed–use neighbourhoods, [and are] starting families in those kinds of neighbourhoods”, he says, reminding us that these young people grew up in suburbs “being shuttled from one place to another in the back seat of cars.”
Turner reminded his audience that public space is also “the foundational piece of modern democracy”, as illustrated by both the recent Arab Spring events and the recognition in the first amendment to the US Constitution that “emphasizes the right to free speech and the peaceable gathering of citizens.”
Turner’s whirlwind visit to southern Ontario last week included meetings at the universities of Western Ontario and Waterloo as well as meeting with the Ontario Ministry of Energy. His evening lecture in Hamilton was drawn from his most recent book – The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada. V