Paul Wilson: The man from Edinburgh says our heart's hurting

An architect and urban designer from Scotland takes a stroll with us through downtown Hamilton. He finds us both wonderful and wanting.

Nathan Ward is an architect and urban designer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His work takes him around the world. And whenever he touches down in a new place — be it Barcelona or Berlin — he goes for a walk. A long one.

It is the National Urban Renewal Conference that brought Ward to Hamilton this week. And around nine o'clock on his first evening here — even though his body would be telling him it's two in the morning — he set off from his downtown hotel to hike to the waterfront.

He went down Bay and came back on John. The harbour did not seem well connected to the core, but he liked what he found when he reached the water's edge. And he got home safe and sound, even though in the final block he had to push through a cloud of marijuana drifting off an alley near John and King William.

CBC Hamilton asked Ward if he would be up for a walk with us. We'd be interested in hearing what he makes of this place.

Then a frown

We begin at the newsroom, James near Wilson, and head north. Ward likes the storefronts. He's admiring those big old windows at Mixed Media. Then a frown.

"Do you really need four lanes?" he asks, while we stand at Cannon, waiting for all that noisy westbound traffic to pass. Most cities, he says, are starting to realize the car's been king long enough.

Up at Christ's Church Cathedral, he admires their "pocket park" with fountain and benches. Sometimes, he says, small is all you need.

Heading south on the street now, we have to step aside to let oncoming pedestrians pass amidst the flowers and produce on display along the sidewalk in front of Lighthouse Market.

A chance to say hello

Urban planner Nathan Ward says Hamilton is facing some challenges, but has a lot to work with. (Roger Gillespie/CBC)

An annoyance? Hardly. "It gives you a split-second chance to say hello to someone on the street," Ward says.

He's taking it all in. The Coca-Cola ghost ad from generations ago. The Portuguese flag out front of Vasco da Gama. The galleon over Ventura's restaurant.

"This street has a real buzz to it," Ward says. "People start to feed off each other. Ideas bounce around."

We get down to King East, around Gore Park, and it's a different story.

The panhandlers are out in full force today. And dogs that look dangerous. There is no mix of citizenry here. For most, luck has passed them by. Some would find this scene threatening.

Zero tolerance

"I would feel uncomfortable sitting here," Ward says. He talks about a rough stretch of Edinburgh where they initiated "zero tolerance for bad behaviour" and turned the area around.

Is that democratic? "If the majority are scared off by the minority, where's the democracy?" he asks.

But Hamilton would also have to do something about the traffic around King and James, he says. We're on the sidewalk and shouting at each other to be heard. "Why would you have the main street in your city as a highway?" Ward asks.

"This is a place at its low ebb... yet it feels like it should be the heart of Hamilton."

Too many parking lots

Time for a ride to the top of the city's tallest office building, the 25-storey Stelco Tower. The top half has been empty for years. The view is 360 degrees. Ward looks north, south, east, west and decides this city has too many parking lots. "They leave holes in the community."

On the plus side, he realizes from this bird's-eye view that "this is a very green city." That escarpment, that water - many cities, he says, would envy such features.

Back on ground, we see some treasures — the Pigott, the Bank of Montreal, St. Paul's, the Lister, Treble Hall, the TH&B.

The sad Connaught

And the sad, empty Connaught. "It's got a real sense of grandeur," Ward says. "It looks like a New York apartment building."

He suggests we look after our old architecture. "You get rid of history, you get rid of the soul of the place."

Final thoughts? "From what I've seen and heard, Hamilton strikes me as a place that's lost its confidence a bit. It's been knocked down and doesn't know where to go next.

"You need inspiration, someone who can really talk the game. Someone who knows Hamilton, someone with the ability to push and cajole and get things done."  @PaulWilsonCBC

You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.