clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How a mid-sized Canadian city became the envy of urban planners

New, 7 comments

Canada’s smartest city isn’t Sidewalk Toronto

The skyline of Hamilton, Ontario. The Canadian city has used seemingly small urban interventions in clever ways—with big results.

On the last day of 2017, an enthusiastic Twitter thread started making the rounds among urban-minded folks. Tagged #coollittlethings, the thread featured a dozen clever city-building ideas, from rezoning places of worship for musical performances to $3 bike-share memberships for immigrants—all from one mid-sized Canadian city.

For the thread’s author, Jason Thorne, it was just a little end-of-the year wrap up meant to thank his staff and other city departments. But it was easy to see why it caught fire.

As the head of the city planning department for Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, population 500,000, Thorne managed to successfully design and deploy an enviable list of accomplishments in just one year—the types of seemingly small urban interventions which can add up to a happier and more livable city.

As a former steel town, Hamilton has a lot in common with U.S. Rust Belt cities that are looking to revitalize their industrial past. While some ideas are pretty standard for any city trying to reclaim its urban landscape for people—transforming parking spaces to parklets, a design competition to reimagine an aging pier along the waterfront—most of the #coollittlethings are engineered specifically for Hamilton’s needs. Free bus rides for cyclists who are riding the Niagara Escarpment, for example, a popular (and steep) biking route, were branded with cute “Mountain Climber” signage.

That’s one way Hamilton’s planning department showed its citizens how it was working for them: Even when these pilot programs weren’t necessarily implementing physical changes, Thorne’s team managed to find ways to broadcast what they were doing in a way that improved the streetscape. So a campaign to recognize and protect more historic structures covered the city in temporary customized signage showing the age of each building.

Even the tiniest bureaucratic changes were deployed in a delightful way. The city is known for its live music and has a staffer who meets regularly with local artists and venues to craft an ongoing strategic plan to serve them. After venues complained that musicians had nowhere to park while loading and unloading their gear, Thorne’s department came up with special parking zones outside. The parking signs that denote these zones also act as a lovely branding campaign for the city’s music focus: “Musicians Welcome.”

Some of the ideas ended up making a larger statement about the city as well. Hamilton’s Everyone Rides program has been working for a few years to get more low-income riders on its bike share system. As the system expanded into new neighborhoods known for their immigrant communities, offering discounted memberships to families who had recently arrived in Canada from these countries seemed like an obvious way to acknowledge its new users—and show the city’s commitment to its immigrants.

Although Thorne applauds his department for trying new things, not everything on the planning department’s list of #coollittlethings managed to roll out smoothly, he notes. A zoning change to allow live music on patios ended up getting repealed, but he’s looking forward to tweaking and reintroducing the idea in 2018.

What’s most astonishing in looking at Hamilton’s accomplishments are the speed and flexibility with which they were implemented, which might be attributed to the way Thorne's department is organized. Thorne oversees not only urban planning, but also transportation planning, economic development, and arts and culture. This makes Hamilton’s planning department exceptionally collaborative and diverse, says Thorne. “You have all the key pieces of city-building together in one shop, so you can have that synergy between them.”

About an hour away from Hamilton is the site for Sidewalk Toronto, Alphabet’s smart city-from-scratch. The Google-funded project announced some key details about the size and scale of its 800-acre megadevelopment right at the same time that Thorne’s list was making the rounds. Yet this technotopia that’s being built with a lot of expert input—and a lot of money—could take a few cues from the scrappy, low-cost initiatives already on the ground in its Lake Ontario neighbor.

“We’re a mid-sized city and we have to take advantage of everything we can,” says Thorne. “The cool little things are what get people excited and, in the aggregate, have the biggest impact.”