Monday, March 30, 2009

walkable talk


SPECIAL TO THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR
Dreaming of a walkable world

, The Hamilton Spectator

StreetBeat appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday(Mar 30, 2009)

Hugh Dobson is on the line. He has a few words for me. Ten, to be exact:

"The world has too much transportation. Two feet are enough."

Dobson worked for many years at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters. He mapped, plotted, studied water quality.

He's retired now, lives in the Burlington core. His dander's up because the grocery store near his house was squeezed out by new condos. And the other food stores are beyond his walking range.

So Dobson's now doing some formulation. He has made a list of the places we need to go in this world -- work, grocery, bank, library, medical clinic, park -- and is now trying to weight them, according to how often you need to visit each place.

His formula is still a work in progress. But he wishes we could buck this big box trend, where the only place to shop, go to a movie or educate our kids is miles away.

I tell Dobson his call is most timely. I'm just about to make a call myself, to the Montreal home of Mary Soderstrom.

She has a new book called The Walkable City and will be in Hamilton Saturday, April 4. She'll be attending a panel discussion at 2 p.m. at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, part of this year's gritLIT festival.

Soderstrom knows a thing or two about Hamilton. A few years ago she wrote Green City, and showcased 11 centres around the world. There was much surprise that Hamilton made the list.

But she pointed out that by the 1930s, Hamilton had more parks per inhabitant than any other Canadian city.

But there have been missteps since then. We've been awfully accommodating to the car and it's no wonder that in her new book Hamilton doesn't get cited as walkable.

We reach her at the two-storey row house she and her husband bought in the '70s, in the area north-east of downtown.

On this day, she has already been out for a 75-minute walk, past parks, shops, the school where her kids used to go. Yes, they walked there.

The neighbourhood is called Mile End. The area's garment factories have gone north or offshore. Now the arts have moved in. For instance, software giant Ubisoft has its flagship studio here, with 1,800 programmers, designers, artists. So there is the opportunity for these people to walk to their work. New young families are moving in.

Density matters. "I've heard that you need about 10,000 people for a walkable shopping street," Soderstrom says, a place with a small grocer, clothing store, drugstore, restaurant or two.

Density scares some people. They think it's dangerous. Quite the contrary, Soderstrom says. "You get foot traffic, eyes on the street. We've been in this house 33 years and we've never been broken into."

Her husband walks to the office, about 35 minutes. They do have a car, but only log about 4,000 kilometres a year.

"I've said that when this car dies, I don't want to buy a new one. Besides, in the next block there are three cars parked at Communauto." That's a Montreal car-share operation, where subscribers have access to cars for an hour, a day.

Soderstrom says by North American standards, Montreal is walkable. But Europe is bliss.

She takes us strolling along bustling rue Mouffetard, a Paris street that's part of an old road that led to Rome.

And that street is central to what she'll be saying when she comes to Hamilton. "The walkable city should be as viable in the 21st century as it was in the 18th century. Get out there and walk."

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