What Density and Suburban Sprawl Mean to a City Dweller
From the Nest, Issue 4
by Nancy Hurst
Let’s talk about density for a moment. Remember chemistry class with the illustrations of a beaker full of little dots floating either close together or farther apart? That’s how it is with suburbs and urban areas — not so many people vs. lots of people and lots of extra space vs. not as much space. And we know which of these are the slow moving, predictable zones and which are the busy, lively ones full of meetings, events, creativity and chance encounters.
Simply put, humans do better in groups. We are hardwired for interaction and it’s why our downtown neighbourhoods are fun and lively places to be. Density is what creates a demand for interesting dining locations, like that restaurant in New York with it’s one way glass wall that separates the bathrooms from the dining room, allowing artistic endeavours to flourish and supporting that yummy donut shop with the constant line up.
In order to thrive, businesses need a bustling neighbourhood full of people who want to spend their hard-earned dollars right where they live. And those neighbourhoods need decent higher-order transit needs density to make them viable. Buses and LRTs won’t run if there aren’t enough transit riders willing to jump on board.
The density that comes along with all of this vibrancy is the key that unlocks the door to lower taxes, better infrastructure, more shopping, dining and entertainment options, and greater access to affordable housing.
Hamilton needs more of this magically dense elixir, and we’re about to be presented with the chance to have our say.
In June, the City of Hamilton will be mailing out a survey about density to all its residents, and it has the potential to be biased or confusing.
I think the survey should be asking an important question, namely “Do you want more density across all neighbourhoods of our city?”, but it’s more likely to be worded like, “Do you support either an urban boundary expansion or no urban boundary expansion?”
To be perfectly clear, my answer would be no urban boundary expansion. Why? Density! The key to all the things we hope for and some extras we haven’t thought of yet, which brings me to a little story about when I first learned what it means to be in a cool city and how I learned why density was an important part of why it was that way.
When 18 year old me, with my train pass and my borrowed backpack, left Calgary for a trek around Europe trip in 1984 my destination was Amsterdam. Looking back I don’t know what I expected but I remember feeling like I had landed in an alternate universe. I was a suburban kid from Calgary who literally knew nothing of the world apart from what the Calgary Herald had taught me, but I had a thirst to find out and this magical city of cannabis and canals was my first sip.
I knew I had arrived in a very special place but I couldn’t really put my finger on why it felt connected. For some reason, I just felt really at home in Amsterdam.
It took a long time for me to realize it, but density played a big part in helping me feel connected to Amsterdam and I’ll never forget the conversation that started it all for me.
One of the first locals I met at the unimaginatively named, yet super popular, “Bob’s youth hostel” was a young guy who worked in the kitchen.
His query – “What is the difference you notice between Amsterdam and the city you come from?”
My reply – “All the houses are joined together.”
I’m sure the question he posed to me deserved a thoughtful analysis of social comparisons or political musings but all I could think to reply was the most obvious thing that stood out to me on that first day.
His withering look was enough to confirm this was not the response he’d hoped for and I was embarrassed because of it. But now I realize that the fact that the houses were all joined together was the very reason I felt so at home in Amsterdam.
It’s why Amsterdam, Paris, London and even downtown Hamilton are kick-ass places to hang around. Because a lot of people live, work, and play together in these shared spaces.
No matter the city, the common denominator is density.
So when the survey lands in your mailbox, please remember that as well as supporting the services and amenities that will enrich our lives and support our needs, densifying our urban areas will save the local farms that feed us. Please choose the no boundary expansion option. Do it for Hamilton, and for our children’s futures.
Nancy Hurst lives in Ancaster and is a member of Stop Sprawl HamOnt, a citizen group opposed to the City of Hamilton’s boundary expansion who wish to see farmland preserved and gentle densification within our city’s current boundary