Big dreamers converge at mid-sized city forum
Conference speakers say innovation, youth keys to successful community
Buildings can’t talk but the setting for the CityAge conference this week spoke volumes on the topic at hand: how mid-sized cities like Hamilton turn the past into a winning future.
The host building was the Cotton Factory at Sherman Avenue North, a 117-year-old former mill turned into a hip industrial and event space with its exposed girders and pockmarked creaky wooden floors. A panel discussion was held in an amphitheatre at McMaster University’s $84.6-million downtown health sciences centre on Main Street West at Bay Street.
The former is an example of “repurposing” a space into one that incubates innovation; the latter, of the academy venturing beyond its ivory towers to be integrated into the core of a community.
It’s the first time the CityAge series has come to Hamilton. The conference has also been held in cities such as San Francisco, Hong Kong and London.
Thirty speakers and 185 conference attendees discussed ideas on the present and future of mid-sized cities.
One session kicked off with slam poetry recitations from the Hamilton Youth Poets, such as Victoria Wojciechowska: “I know the Earth spins on the axis of the wheel of fortune/and the hierarchy of tragedy is best left unspoken/its unit of measurement a pillar of salt/the mirror image between privilege and luck.”
Here are a few other notions and ideas, if less cerebral, to emerge from CityAge: 1) Mid-size looms large
A competitive advantage for cities like Hamilton is attracting talent for the quality of life and opportunity.
“This isn’t a big city, you don’t have to compete with 50,000 others for a particular job,” said Sean Fedorko, from a company called Radius CoWork in Erie, Pa.
What else does a city need to sell itself to new talent? “You need craft breweries and Thai food, that’s obvious,” he quipped, but also a “smart ground game” to show the entire life for a family available to them. 2) Class is in
Bringing universities — buildings and, most of all, students — into a city’s core offers enormous benefits, said Tony Araujo, an assistant vice-president at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus. He spoke of the transformative effects Laurier has had on the renewal of that city’s once-decrepit core: there are 3,000 students enrolled and 225 employees and 12 buildings adapted for the campus. And a positive spinoff, if an unintended one, he said, is a greater sense of safety downtown with all the new “eyes on the street” from students. 3) Dream on
The word dream was uttered perhaps a dozen times at one session: how critical it is to imagine, and imagine big, when it comes to seeing your city in new ways, and then chase that vision hard.
“You need to have dreamers who have such a belief in what they are doing, you can’t talk them out of it, because a million roadblocks will come up,” said Glen Norton, Hamilton’s economic development director. 4) Expand the circle
The mayor of St. Catharines, Walter Sendzik, cautioned that as cities innovate, renew and grow more prosperous, the rising tide will not lift all boats. He suggested compassion must always be in focus.
“If you see the community as a circle, visualize who is inside and you see family and friends and coworkers — you don’t see the homeless, or those who suffer from mental illness,” he said. “As we build transformative economies, we can’t forget the people who feel they are being left behind.”