City plan­ner has big vi­sions for the fu­ture of Hamil­ton

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - NEWS - ALEX BOZIKOVIC

This is part of Step­ping Up, a se­ries in­tro­duc­ing Cana­di­ans to their coun­try’s new sources of in­spi­ra­tion and lead­er­ship.

City plan­ning is of­ten about big vi­sions: shap­ing city blocks and tran­sit routes and sky­lines. But Hamil­ton, Ont., plan­ner Ja­son Thorne fo­cuses his en­ergy on small and in­tan­gi­ble things – live mu­sic, street fes­ti­vals, help­ing cy­clists get around – that cre­ate a sense of place and pride. And it’s work­ing. Since 2013, Mr. Thorne, 45, has been the gen­eral man­ager of plan­ning and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment for the City of Hamil­ton, and in that time the city of about 500,000 has gone through a tremen­dous resur­gence, par­tic­u­larly in its long-suf­fer­ing his­toric down­town. Mr. Thorne’s lead­er­ship, and a city struc­ture that breaks down si­los, has helped this along in many ways.

“My job is in­cred­i­bly di­verse, and that’s ex­cit­ing,” Mr. Thorne says. “Es­pe­cially in a mid-sized city, you need to bring to­gether a whole bunch of dif­fer­ent parts if you’re go­ing to do re­ally ef­fec­tive city-build­ing.”

For Mr. Thorne, that means draw­ing to­gether com­mu­nity ac­tivists, artists, en­trepreneurs and de­vel­op­ers to drive the city for­ward. “If there is a se­cret to Hamil­ton’s suc­cess, it has been the work of these groups and in­di­vid­u­als,” he says.

Mr. Thorne, who spent much of his ca­reer in the pri­vate sec­tor and then worked for a provin­cial agency, has played a piv­otal role in all that work, too. He’s over­see­ing a water­front de­vel­op­ment in­clud­ing a de­sign com­pe­ti­tion for a pub­lic park and a neigh­bour­hood shaped by high-qual­ity ar­chi­tec­ture. He’s also boosted the city’s mu­sic scene, and added a swath of her­itage build­ings to the city’s reg­istry.

These dif­fer­ent ef­forts fit to­gether to ad­vance the goal of mak­ing bet­ter places. Mr. Thorne has an un­usu­ally broad port­fo­lio for a sin­gle civil of­fi­cial: land-use plan­ning and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, but also tourism and cul­ture, trans­porta­tion, by­law en­force­ment, busi­ness li­cens­ing and park­ing. In many cities, these ac­tiv­i­ties are han­dled by sep­a­rate staffs who may have in­com­pat­i­ble goals. In Hamil­ton, they’re all part of the same depart­ment. As a re­sult, “we’ve been able to move for­ward some re­ally in­ter­est­ing ini­tia­tives that wouldn’t be pos­si­ble if you had those func­tions in si­los,” he says.

For ex­am­ple: ef­forts to am­plify Hamil­ton’s sta­tus as a mu­sic city. “Build­ing on that is a big part of our cul­ture strat­egy,” Mr. Thorne said. Hamil­ton gave pro­tected sta­tus to mu­sic venues in city plans, so they can’t get squeezed out by neigh­bours with noise com­plaints. The city also im­proved park­ing and load­ing at these venues: “We put to­gether spe­cial load­ing zones around our mu­sic venues, and that was put to­gether by our park­ing [staff],” he said.

There’s an im­por­tant in­sight here: that the small stuff mat­ters. Seem­ingly bor­ing things such as park­ing poli­cies can have a ma­jor ef­fect on how peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence and see a place.

And if you want to change one as­pect of ur­ban life, it helps to think in a holis­tic way. Hamil­ton has bike share, a sort of pro­gram that’s a given in many for­ward-look­ing North Amer­i­can cities. But how do you add new cy­clists? Un­der Mr. Thorne’s lead­er­ship, the city has started of­fer­ing free mem­ber­ships to new im­mi­grants who live in Hamil­ton, wel­com­ing peo­ple who may be new to ur­ban cy­cling. And thanks to Mr. Thorne’s in­put, Hamil­ton’s tran­sit au­thor­ity of­fers cy­clists free rides with their bikes up the steep es­carp­ment that cuts through the city – through a pro­gram named “Moun­tain Climber.”

Mr. Thorne also cham­pi­oned a ro­bust pro­gram of declar­ing her­itage build­ings, which are im­por­tant to down­town Hamil­ton’s ap­peal. “When it comes to peo­ple and busi­nesses who are re­lo­cat­ing here, we of­ten hear that Hamil­ton is a very authen­tic ur­ban place, and there’s not many of those in this re­gion,” Mr. Thorne said. “That comes from the his­toric ur­ban fab­ric – so those older build­ings be­come some­thing that’s im­por­tant to eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.”

“A lot of it ties back to arts, cul­ture and her­itage.” And yet, where her­itage pro­tec­tion is of­ten seen in op­po­si­tion to new de­vel­op­ment, that’s em­phat­i­cally not the case for Mr. Thorne and his col­leagues. Down­town Hamil­ton is now see­ing mean­ing­ful pop­u­la­tion growth and de­vel­op­ment, and the city has wel­comed this with dra­matic changes to its land-use pol­icy. This year, a new plan for the down­town core added “very sig­nif­i­cant den­sity in­creases,” Mr. Thorne says ac­cu­rately, while also pro­tect­ing her­itage and af­ford­able rental hous­ing.

This would be very hard to ac­com­plish, po­lit­i­cally and pol­icy-wise, in most other cities. As a re­sult, if land de­vel­op­ers bring for­ward a pro­posal in the right place, they can move ahead through a quick and straight­for­ward process. This is how plan­ning should work, but it usu­ally doesn’t: In ma­jor Cana­dian cities, such poli­cies are of­ten ar­ti­fi­cially strict, giv­ing city plan­ners more power to ne­go­ti­ate in a “lengthy and la­bo­ri­ous process,” as Mr. Thorne cor­rectly ar­gues. “We didn’t want to do that,” he said. “We don’t want to plan through la­bo­ri­ous ne­go­ti­a­tion; we want to be up­front … and deal with the things that mat­ter.”

And there are, Mr. Thorne adds, many of those. “You have to be­gin with a great plan and great plan­ners,” he said. “But that’s only the be­gin­ning of build­ing a great city.”

Name: Ja­son Thorne Lo­ca­tion: Hamil­ton

Big­gest in­flu­ence: “From trav­el­ling and vis­it­ing as many cities as I pos­si­bly can.” Best piece of ad­vice: “Learn to

lis­ten well.”

HAN­NAH YOON/THE GLOBE THE MAIL

Ja­son Thorne – seen walk­ing through Hamil­ton on Oct. 31 – is try­ing to bring artists, ac­tivists, de­vel­op­ers and en­trepreneurs to­gether to help the city ad­just to a tremen­dous resur­gence.

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