In the “you just can’t make this stuff up” department, here’s one to stick in the time machine and revisit in a few decades. It was Women in Urbanism in Aotearoa who first called this out.
New Zealand has a population very similar to British Columbia’s with 4.9 million people versus B.C.’s 5.0 million (2019 figures). Granted, they are surrounded by ocean on all sides. New Zealand does not have the influences of Seattle, Portland, and other places that are working towards creating “Fifteen minute cities”. This concept sees other modes of travel beside private vehicles as being organized to promote walkable, bikeable, accessible communities within reach of schools, shops and services.
It was work by Victoria Walks in Australia that researched the distance that senior citizens would walk to shops. To everyone’ surprise, that distance turned out to be exactly the same as a young person, which was one kilometer. That’s a pretty healthy metric for making commercial areas more sociable, and less vehicle dominated.
Research by Transport for London shows that making streets more pedestrian and cyclist friendly increased time spent on retail streets by 216 percent between shopping, patronizing local cafes and sitting on street benches. Retail space vacancies declined by 17 percent. But the best news, and this is also in line with research conducted in Toronto and in New York City “people walking, cycling and using public transport spend the most in local shops, spending 40 percent more each month than car drivers”.
But sadly the great success of London’s pedestrian focus in commercial areas had not reached the developers of Hamilton, New Zealand.
Chloe Bommerde of Stuff.Co wrote the story about a “top developer” in the City of Hamilton who was aghast that Ward Street, a main commercial street had temporarily stripped parking off the street. For a few months planters and pedestrian furniture placed, and the road painted with colourful designs. This is a strictly time limited installation that will have an evaluation by all users in July, and aimed to connect two downtown parks with a safe street to walk, roll and bicycle on in the downtown commercial area. You can read about this temporary project here.
This was part of Waka Kotahi’s 29 million dollar Innovating Streets Project designed to help town councils to create pedestrian friendly spaces to encourage walking and cycling. Waka Kotahi is the Māori name for “the concept of ‘travelling together as one’ and embraces integration, affordability, safety, responsiveness and sustainability.” Since 2008 it has been the name of the New Zealand Transportation Agency.
Hamilton developer Matt Stark’s reaction was like stepping back in Vancouver thirty years ago. This developer liked the business as usual approach to downtown streets, calling the redesign an “embarrassment” and actually saying the changes “set the city up to fail and stop progress on other streets in the city”.
It’s no surprise that Mr. Stark who is planning a sixty million dollar development on a car park site did not want access impeded to his new development or other businesses on the street, and felt that walking half a block would deter business on the street with the loss of several on-street parking spaces.
But it also shows how far we have come in Canada in trialing different ways to share streets and establishing what works best for different situations. That has also been a positive outcome of the pandemic, learning how to prioritise people ahead of vehicles in moving on city streets.
To get an idea of what Hamilton’s main street district looks like, take a look at the YouTube video below at 2:27.
If you take the time on Google Streetview to go down Ward St you might come to a different conclusion about this project. That block of Ward St is utterly chaotic from a pedestrian point of view — big empty stretches (particularly because of the very large parking lot) and long featureless storefronts, one of which is a car service business and another which is blank except for the car access to an underground parking lot. Several properties are vacant and the remains of the demolished buildings that used to sit on them serve only as walls to contain parked cars. Apart from a couple of small restaurants, one of which is for fast food, there doesn’t seem to be anything you’d want to walk to, let along walk by. In fact, the next block is already a pedestrian street and it has all the things you’d expect to want to close a street for: pedestrian scale, suitable stores on either side, etc etc. From this viewpoint, the block of Ward St now in question looks like the perfect street to use as parking so that people can easily walk to the pedestrian street.
Now, I’m a big fan of closing streets in city centres. Exeter, England is a great example. But it looks like I agree with the developer on this one.
No. The “top developer” is just another toffish man-baby who’s convinced the world exists solely for him to issue instructions to. New Zealand is filled with them. I’ve been to Ward Street in Hamilton. It’s a parallel downtown collector with some mixed uses that terminates at the high street. It’s a perfect candidate for pedestrianization and the loss of 50 or so on-street parking spaces is not an inconvenience. It’s just change, as horrifying and distasteful as that is to some people.