Our geography gives us an opportunity to reinvent Hamilton in ways that no other city in North America has ever had an opportunity to envision. We need to develop capacity not to catch the next wave, but to become the next wave.
By Mahesh P. Butani
Published August 16, 2011
This is a continuation of Deep Reading The Urban Form, which offered Hamilton's urban enthusiasts a meaningful way to engage with cities in times of unprecedented stasis in politics and practice of urban design. This thought was anchored by Alexander R. Cuthbert's: Requiem for an era of urban design, spanning the last 50 years, which offers many cities like Hamilton a close look into the empty hollowness of 'urban planning' upon which growth strategies continue to be built.
This article touches on how 'economy' is taking over the role of the urban planner in the 21st century - quietly weaving new urban forms; and the road Hamilton ought to take if it hopes to become a world city.
Contrary to James Howard Kunstler's latest prognosis on urban futures, in which he wrote that "giant cities will contract and densify around their old centers and waterfronts", quite the opposite is unfolding.
Giant cities are mutating into 'hubs' and subsuming smaller cities within their economic bandwidth as non-hierarchical 'nodes' within a complex network of interdependent economies. Cities that don't recognize this new geography are destined to swim upstream for a long time.
In traditional urban planning mode, one builds from the core outwards until the public says enough. Then one continues to build anyway. The core suffers for this. Rejuvenation most often mangles the core, which then awaits real-estate spikes for a boost. Meanwhile the battle of the urban-suburban divide rages - consuming in its frenzy the economic potential of many cities.
In contemporary mode - planning led by 'economy', self-organizes logical hubs and propagates connections to relevant nodes across time and space. The result is a rhizome structure - a network. Its defining characteristics are fluidity and connectivity. This is the life blood of cities in the 21st century.
The synergy that is generated from this rhizomatic form opens up a new kind of urban space-an ecology of 'multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points' across the network, in which a new kind of economy and culture which is fluid and participatory grows without the cataclysmic real estate spikes and the ensuing stagnation.
This is the new urban structure that a knowledge economy is built on, designed by the most consummate planner of our times - the economy.
Cities like Dubai and the multitude of urban glut one sees in China are anomalies on the two extremes of the urban design thinking from the eighties, with a few rare exceptions in between. One extreme: purporting architectural revolution, and the other: unsustainable urban housing for the masses.
What we are attempting to do in Hamilton is build a new economy on old urban patterns of the eighties. Our repeated Déjà vu is a result of this.
The fluidity in urban networks has time and movement embedded in its structure. Change of state, flux or movement form the building block of this architecture.
Here, without flow, there is no network, there is no emergence, and there is no new urbanity. The network is the new economy. Here, the outcome of 'change' is: new transactional relationships emanating from the inherent structural dynamics of the network.
The kind of 'change' we presently talk about in smaller cities like Hamilton, skirt around values like leadership, vision or conversations which seek to implement civic or transit projects based on antiquated principles of urban planning.
Where 'change' is about recognizing and implementing structural realignment of geographic patterns and transformations into nodes of larger networks - there new income opportunities and tangible prosperity accrues.
We call cities which embraces such change successful. Yet we look at their built-form for inspiration instead of reading their sub-structures for clues.
The very nature and role of 'centre' has continually evolved over the last forty years. We just haven't being paying close attention to it. Successful urban cities in our times no longer see the urban-peripheral dichotomy as a challenge to overcome - but an outdated impulse to circumvent.
The single biggest strength of a dispersed urban cities network lies in its ability to break open the locked path dependency between urban design and real-estate development.
Real-estate development is a byproduct of an economy, which is mistakenly attributed as being its cause. The economy of traditional centre can only revive by a fluid economy that sprouts from new patterns relevant to the network. This is what carries the old core with it in the new growth cycle.
We are living in a decentralized geography, which implies that the meaning of 'centre' has changed too. With this change, we need to recalibrate our expectations of the city core. We fool ourselves with every new civic project or real-estate win in the city core. We rarely factor opportunity costs of delayed shift into the world of a knowledge economy. A shift that can only come with a strategic deep-read of city patterns.
Without this shift, traditional urban centres do get revitalized eventually as soft live/work environments, and most often serve as a critical memory linkage to history, which often get erased with gentrification. One cannot recognize Yorkville in Toronto today precisely because of this. Density has its unintended consequences when growth turns into hyper-growth.
Planning based on the eighties urban growth approach, supported by a massive surface-read of success stories, resulted in a dearth of civic projects littered across North America: the wind-swept civic square, the enclosed civic market, the stadium, the must-have national sports franchise, the mass-transit makeover, or even the rare case of 400 family doctors in the core, to make up for lost time - all gate-kept, all look-alikes, all tax-payer funded.
Most are obstacles to a true knowledge economy, which simply asks for an ecology of 'multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points' across a network. It does not care for the bells and whistles of an expensive but dated urban texture. Urban form here is just the outcome of a thriving network.
We fail to understand the advantages of an unified city in Hamilton, let alone an amorphous urban network, for our self-righteousness has always been in a perpetual popularity contest with our self-deprecation. We simply do not have the time left to read patterns and improvise.
Most cities that are trapped in such thinking come to believe that adversarial public engagement misunderstood as activism is what will bring change. In the end it is the public who pays the price for such kind of urban growth, both in building costs, later in maintenance costs; and subsequently through the economic stagnation well after the money burning euphoria.
Why does this happen so repeatedly in the urban design mindset of the eighties? Is the human brain hardwired not to read beyond the surface? to not recognize patterns?
The future of cities depend on recognizing patterns and disengaging old ones and engaging new ones. Herein lies the significance of deep-reading cities in our times. Without this innate ability, we are doomed to choking our city's potential.
Last year, I presented a geographic structural realignment of Hamilton's pattern which was based on a deep read of Hamilton's sub-structures. Unfortunately, it was met by a resounding silence. The silence itself was not as scary, as much as the realization that it was cross-generational. Such is the death-lock of path dependencies which is transferred from one generation to the next.
An engagement instead of silence could have seen the now empty Siemens plant and its surroundings turned into Hamilton's strategic Grand Central Terminal (1, 2, 3, 4), which would have realigned the fundamental suburban axis of our city from an accentuated east-west to an articulated north-south axis, via a new self-financed 1,2,3,4)">co-modal connectivity to the world economy, critically linking our highways and airport to our existing industrial seaport with a new commercial seaport.
This new (international, regional, and inter- and inner-city bus/rail/LRT) transportation hub would have become our: 'multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points' to the world economy.
This would have been Hamilton's gesture of a time and location specific urban solution that recognized the networked economy as its chief urban planner, and liquid connectivity as its condition for growth.
Building on this gesture, the next logical leap would have been to leverage Hamilton's strategic digital geography. A sizable portion of Canada's digital data traffic passes through Hamilton. I will leave this to your imagination to understand its significance to a networked knowledge economy.
Surface read of built-form throws us in a direction that generates hard connectivity between static points within a city, which require further constructs like TOD as supplementary motives to induce growth.
While this too is referred as economic growth, it is nothing more than the same old path dependency between urban planning of the eighties and real-estate development.
Hard linkages have historically failed to provide the structural framework needed to realign a city to new economies. Such efforts at best may succeed in replicating a Mississauga-like broken-tooth urban pattern across the east-west axis of our lower city, which in no way can be mistaken as growth supportive of the compact and fluid knowledge economy.
One of the most problematic issues in planning is to manage urban growth through the 21st century, as a large portion of humanity continues its drift into urban centres worldwide.
One of the biggest challenges for cities like Hamilton that have repeatedly missed opportunities to urbanize in the last century is to avoid the pitfalls of cities that are now trapped in the zero-sum "centre-peripheral" dichotomy of the eighties.
In an era when the idea of a static 'centre' has moved beyond the limitations of its structure, into ideas of liquid modernity, flow and networks - Hamilton is still struggling to re-build the centre, using tools and techniques from the last century.
Our geography gives us an opportunity to reinvent Hamilton in ways that no other city in North America has ever had an opportunity to envision. We need to develop capacity not to catch the next wave, but to become the next wave. In this, we need to recognize the critical importance of a geographic structural realignment of Hamilton's patterns.
In "Models of Growth: towards fundamental change in learning environments", David Cavallo, elaborates on "Paradigms":
"In Second Thoughts on Paradigms", Thomas Kuhn states that paradigms consist fundamentally of three elements: exemplars, models, and symbolic expressions. We find Kuhn's construct useful for thinking about what needs to be developed in order to create different mindsets and practice about learning.
Exemplars - stand for the canonical examples of the new paradigm.
Models - provide a way of thinking about what one should expect to happen, what behaviours are paradigmatic.
Symbolic expressions - (the language of description) serve an explicatory purpose. Rather than failing by attempting new blueprints, we attempt to create an emergent design that does not plan every step in detail, but searches for models of robust growth and uses Kuhn's description of the components of paradigms to provide principles.
We are wasting time trying to create urban form based on old texts instead of focusing on our geography to allow a new kind of economy to emerge, which will generate its logical urban form: a new kind of form that cannot but turn Hamilton into a world city.
The literature on globalization is now quite bewildering in its breadth and complexity. Distilling the essence of this literature is thus nigh on impossible, yet one clear implication is that the contemporary world is characterized by new spatial formations in which network morphologies hold sway. It seems we live in a world where everything flows. Bauman thus writes of liquidity as the defining characteristic of contemporary society: liquids may not bind or unite, but are extraordinarily mobile. These flows ooze, seep and flow around the world, often spilling over the 'dams' and 'defenses' designed to impede their progress. The use of hydraulic metaphors implies a need for theories able to make sense of these new geographies of flow.
Accordingly, sedentary thinking in the social sciences is slowly being supplanted by mobile theories. Yet there is one area of critical inquiry which appears stubbornly recalcitrant to the onset of mobile thought. This is the realm of urban politics, where policy-makers and academics alike seem reluctant to accept that governance involves anything but the organization and control of local assets. Likewise, the political mantra 'think globally, act locally' proliferated amongst urban governors in the 1990s, yet one major consequence was a rash of prestige projects designed to attract international investment (assumed to be global) to a particular city (assumed to be local). The result of this 'spatial atomism' is a world where cities imagine themselves to be islands of economic competitiveness, pitched in a global battle for jobs and dollars.
-- Positioning cities in the world: Towards a politics of flow, by Phil Hubbard.
Incidentally, "giant cities often do contract and densify around their old centers and waterfronts" as in Vancouver or New Westminster; or as in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - but they do so for entirely different reasons than Kunstler's prognosis on urban futures.
This essay was first published on Metropolitan Hamilton.
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