Creating a healthier Hamilton
More traditional urban design may lead the way, experts sayPublished on Jan 04, 2008
Trudging through sidewalk snowbanks days after a big winter storm has passed may be an accepted rite of passage for many Canadians, but Gil Penalosa sees it as a double standard.
No one questions spending money to clear the streets for cars, he says, but the buck almost always stops at sidewalks.
The implicit message is that pedestrians are less important than motorists, says Mr. Penalosa, an Oakville-based consultant who advises cities on how to create healthier communities.
Yet even in Hamilton’s wealthiest and most suburban areas, more than a third of people don’t drive, including because they’re too young or old, he says.
“How do we expect people to use public transit if they can’t get to the public transit. How do we want kids to walk to school if the sidewalks are all full?” Mr. Penalosa says.
“You’re not asking people to plow the road in front of their house, so why is it you’re asking people to plow the sidewalk.”
Former commissioner of parks, sport and recreation for the city of Bogota, Colombia, Mr. Penalosa’s consulting work now takes him around the world, arming him with an array of examples of how other cities have become more friendly for walkers and cyclists.
It isn’t always a question of money. He cites the example of Odense, Denmark, a city of about 160,000 people.
To encourage bike use, traffic lights are timed for the speed of cyclists — 20 km/h. Motorists can still avoid stops and starts by maintaining the proper speed, but a Odense official told him the policy makes a more fundamental point: that a person on a $50 bike is as important as a person in a $50,000 car.
In North America, transportation master plans in Vancouver and Seattle have meanwhile given priority to pedestrians and cyclists.
“These are cities that are doing extremely well from an economic point of view,” Mr. Penalosa says, suggesting Hamilton could also benefit from such a switch.
“In an ever-more globalized world, the best carpenters and the best musicians and the engineers and the doctors, they can live anywhere they want to, so why would they live in Hamilton?” he asks.
“The only way to really attract and retain the best people to Hamilton is to have a fantastic city.”
Mr. Penalosa says winter needn’t be a barrier to cyclists, either. In Copenhagen, a city of similar size and climate to Hamilton, four in 10 people use bicycles as their main mode of transportation.
But people also have to feel safe in doing so, he says. Physical separation from motorists is crucial.
“Pedestrians, cyclists and cars, they go at very different speeds, so you cannot really mix them,” Mr. Penalosa says.
“In some cities, they just put a bicycle lane, but obviously with a bicycle lane you’re not going to solve any issue,” he says. “Cyclists are not going to cycle if they know that the only thing between them and an SUV is a line painted on a pavement.”
Alison Bochsler, a physical activities specialist with the City of Hamilton, says better bikeways and walkways are just one component of the puzzle.
The city is also re-examining how neighbourhoods are designed. The old way of doing things — of creating mixed land-use neighbourhoods, where people live within walking distance of most amenities — may be the wave of the future.
“Most of the areas that we develop now, the suburban areas, are all housing. It’s just one land use, so there’s really nothing to walk to,” Ms. Bochsler says.
“We need to kind of go back to that grid-like system with mixed land-use, more connected streets. All of the cul-de-sacs and whatnot that we’ve created with the idea of creating safer neighbourhoods actually makes it a lot more difficult for people to get from one area to another.”
The result, she says, is more reliance on cars and less physical activity — which doesn’t help efforts to combat air pollution, traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions or the growing obesity problem.
Ms. Bochsler notes, for instance, that every hour spent in a car per day increases the risk of obesity by six per cent, while each kilometre walked per day cuts it by nearly five per cent.
As elsewhere, Hamiltonians are struggling with bulging waistlines: more than a third of city adults are overweight — and nearly one in five is obese.
“We need to be encouraging people to get out and be active more often but we also need to have the infrastructure that’s supportive to do that,” Ms. Bochsler says.
“A lot of these things are simple things that we could incorporate. Make sure we have sidewalks when we’re putting in new residential areas. There’s ideas to have shading so that people have refuge from the sun and whatnot. We just need to make sure that when we’re designing places that we’re keeping that in mind.”
Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton, agrees the design of new subdivisions often encourages car use, including because their many cul-de-sacs makes them difficult to service by bus.
But she says businesses also play a role by creating commercial environments that aren’t pedestrian friendly, like the major malls and Meadowlands shopping centre in Ancaster.
A way to fix this would be — once again — to return to putting shops closer to the street and parking out back.
“We used to know how to do this well. You walk into Westdale, you walk into Dundas, and those are communities that were designed at a time when, out of necessity, we were tuned into what it meant to plan at a more human scale,” says Ms. Lukasik.
“We’ve shifted to this approach that is so far way from that,” she says, predicting that rising oil prices and global warming will force a return to the former ways.
“We’re going to have to function within a human scale because the other approach just isn’t going to work anymore. We won’t have the luxury of being able to hop into cars, zipping around whenever we feel the need.”
Mayor Fred Eisenberger says that shift in thinking has already begun, citing the resurgence of Locke, Concession and Ottawa streets as commercial hubs, often on the strength of neighbourhood clientele.
He favours taking the next step by creating civic squares in downtown areas that are closed to vehicular traffic, an idea being studied for Gore Park as part of a transportation master plan for the area.
As a forerunner, the mayor suggests holding take-back-the-downtown days or weekends to introduce people to the concept — not just at Gore Park but in downtown Stoney Creek and Dundas as well.
“I think it’s taking back the pedestrian aspect of our core areas,” Mr. Eisenberger says. “It gives people the opportunity to spend more time on the public transportation system getting downtown and then walking the downtown in a much more friendly manner because there’s no traffic you have to fight.”
The overall goal — as with the growing number of recreational trails and renewed emphasis on more traditional neighbourhood design — is a more active, healthier community, he says.
“It’s a bottom-line costing issue,” he says. “Obviously, we want people to be healthy, but it’s better for the community as a whole, in terms of health care, that they remain healthy, as opposed to putting the money into the after-effects of not being active and maintaining poor health because that then creates a health cost that is becoming more and more unmanageable.”
Thought I would share this article from the Dundas Star - related directly to our sidewalk shovelling situation...