At times one gets the impression that a large number of Hamilton residents would happily see the Hamilton CBD left to rack and ruin. This is evident not only in opinions given in comments in social media and letters to the editor, but in peoples’ apparent shopping preferences. Yes, we’re talking about The Base, which features an expansive car park ringed by shops and surrounded by a sprawling industrial area, far from any significant concentrations of residents; the would be new (and private) town centre without any townfolk.
Yet given its distance from people and amenities, why do so many shop at The Base and shun the CBD? One cannot ignore that recent low-density greenfields development in Hamilton’s northeast, served by big roads, puts many people in the newer and relatively affluent suburbs at closer proximity to The Base than the CBD. That The Base is shiny and new doesn’t hurt either. And if the abovementioned opinions are to be believed it’s that Hamilton City Council has the audacity to make people pay to use the public roadspace to store their cars on! That last one makes me chuckle, although without a doubt The Base’s hassle-free, no cost parking has real appeal, and especially so when a city has been so singularly developed to prioritise private motor vehicles.
Okay, so far, so car-dependent development of the type we Kiwis are well acquainted with. Retail and jobs far from where people live, necessitating heavy cross-town traffic and obligating most to own and operate private motor vehicles. That car ownership is expensive is nothing new, but when the alternatives are lacking and the city laid out so as to necessitate long distance trips, most readily overlook this drain on time and personal finances because the alternatives seem unthinkable.
Yet apparently Hamilton’s planners and developers see the future in further sprawling, car-dependent ‘burbs on the city fringes, such as Rotokauri and the area to be served by the eyewateringly expensive Southern Links project, which is projected to cost a cool $600 million. And yet, as private motor vehicles continue to decline in popularity at the expense of smartphones, bicycles, scooters, skateboards and shoes, the city may find itself hobbled by the myopia of the current leadership, with so many lifeless cul-de-sacs, congestion befitting a far larger population and the tyranny of non-motorised distance. One wonders if the powers that be think millenials and Gen Y’ers are something only found in other cities.
So what is to be done?
Hamilton’s CBD and The Base are alike in that they would both benefit from larger numbers of people living in closer proximity. Specifically within walking and cycling distance. From the perspective of the CBD, this sidesteps the parking issue and would bring a much-needed vitality to the city streets; I recall visiting Garden Place after having been in the UK for 5 years, and counting a mere 15 or so people in all directions. Admittedly this was January and many would have been on holiday, but the impression was of an overbuilt ghost town.
With so few people anywhere outside business hours, is it any wonder a small number of Hamilton’s increasingly visible homeless population have been able to intimidate passers by and drive even more people to shop at The Base instead? That drunken fights are a regular occurrence in the city streets during the wee hours? That we now need private security personnel and CCTV in the city’s heart?
So how do we get more people to live, work and play where the jobs and amenities are?
In the case of the CBD this means ongoing densification in the inner suburbs, served by safe walking and cycling routes, and apartments in an increasing proportion of its vacant office space. Mixed use development, as described in this excellent documentary from Canada’s CBC News (starting around 14:29). And of course Hamilton City Council also needs to decide what it is going to do with cyclists in the CBD – long overdue!
Meanwhile, The Base, being privately owned, could – if zoning allowed – develop apartments too, and although the distance from amenities might make it a less appealing prospect for many, I’m sure that with some mixed use development and some landscaping many who work there would be happy to live nearby.
And all of Hamilton would benefit from the reduced demand for motor vehicle journeys too. And as residential numbers grew, a busway linking the CBD to The Base would increase the appeal of living in both.
So why isn’t any of this happening yet? Well, in spite of most planners and developers’ apparent tendency to play it safe, to a certain extent it actually is. Some detached houses in the inner suburbs are slowly being converted to multiple-tenant dwellings (although not on the scale of what’s happening around the University), and new developments like The Village Quarter will demonstrate the benefits of mixed-use (homes directly above commercial space) over sleepy dormitory suburbs separated from amenities by long car journeys.
However, we still seem very far from the paradigm change that changing economic and technological conditions are inexorably leading us to. We can only hope that these trends will accelerate as refugees from Auckland’s housing afforability crisis begin to arrive in greater numbers.