Sprawl Sucks the Life out of Our Downtown
From the Nest, Issue 1
by Don McLean
Downtown Hamilton has been on a roller coaster ride over the last 50 years and it may be headed back down if the current provincial government gets its way. The dramatic downtown decline that began around 1970 was widely blamed on suburban malls that “stole customers” from central core businesses. But that view obscured a more fundamental cause—the massive suburban sprawl that both put those customers further from downtown and relocated many of them from the older parts of the city. That’s why the initial civic answer of building a downtown mall (Jackson Square) failed miserably.
When we were fighting the Red Hill expressway back in the 90s, we did some number crunching with the census documents. Between 1971 and 1996, the population of lower Hamilton between Dundas and Red Hill Creek dropped by 45,000! And those living in the older mountain neighbourhoods between the escarpment edge and Mohawk Road went down by 20,000. In contrast, the area south of Mohawk went up by over 60,000.
The urban area of pre-amalgamation Hamilton nearly doubled in size with virtually no net increase in population. Along with massive growth in Ancaster and Stoney Creek, the population shifts sent huge numbers of downtown customers much further away. And they left behind depopulated decaying neighbourhoods that got labeled dirty and crime-infested, pushing even more residents to low-density suburbs.
The costs were enormous—massive new pipes, roads, schools, recreation facilities, libraries needed to service the subdivisions, and older infrastructure underutilized. Councillors bought the developers’ vision of growth as the answer to Hamilton’s growing financial problems but then freely subsidized it with super-low growth fees.
Revitalizing downtown has been a divisive debate, especially after amalgamation with the former suburbs. But in the last 15 years the provincial government recognized that sprawl costs and super-reliance on private automobiles are unbearable. Their response demanded intensification as well as minimum density standards for any greenfield expansion.
But the Ford government is dragging us back to the past. A “Make Ontario Great Again” ideology that embraces the dreams of developers who have speculated on Hamilton’s remaining farm land. You’ll recall that before his election the Premier got videotaped secretly promising he would open the Greenbelt to developers, a scandal that forced him to promise never to do that.
But he hasn’t changed his mind on sprawl and he’s not taking any chances on city councils getting in the way. Councils are now forced to plan for 30-year population forecasts instead of the traditional 20. In doing so they must submit to a “market-based” provincially-dictated methodology that assumes we’re back in the 70s and even forbids any consideration of things like climate change, food security, and the benefits of nature.
Alongside this, pesky environmental rules have been swept aside. The Environmental Commissioner was fired, green energy initiatives crushed, and more recently the Conservation Authorities have been gutted along with the Environmental Assessment Act and the Endangered Species Act. And now non-appealable Ministerial Zoning Orders (about 40 in the last year) are being used to override local planners and any other obstacles to developers.
The results locally are consultant recommendations that all of Hamilton’s remaining farmland outside the Greenbelt (and even more that doesn’t exist) be converted to residential subdivisions. If this is not stopped, downtown revitalization will get reversed as we return to a disastrous growth pattern, with more foodlands and natural areas sacrificed, more tax monies diverted to fiscally unsustainable growth, and a major worsening of the emissions driving climate change.
Don McLean is an environmental activist, the editor of Citizens at City Hall (CATCH), and a Ward 1 resident