Placemaking in Hamilton, A Driver for Economic Growth

Several months ago, the Ontario Association of Architects, in partnership with the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce presented a panel discussion, “Hamilton Placemaking as a Driver for Economic Growth.” The event featured talks by Jason Thorne (General Manager of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Hamilton,) Steve Kulakowsky (Partner, Core Urban, Inc.,) Sonja Macdonald (Principal, Civicplan,) Rob Zeidler (Partner, The Dabbert Group,) Richard W. Allen (Director of The Renew Hamilton Project, Hamilton Chamber of Commerce.)


The discussion was held during the 2015 Supercrawl, a local festival with a success story of explosive grassroots growth that leveraged the creative energy of its arts sector. This set the perfect stage to have this type of discussion; with a  community that is eager to grow and link its neighbourhoods. Rob Zeilder, who has several successful properties in Toronto, talked about the importance of placemaking in a building.

“It’s about people, not about the place. People make the place,” he comments. Having recently purchased the Cotton Factory, Hamilton’s Centre for the Creative arts, he mentions the importance of programming the space to create a long-term financial model. Through strategic repairs, Zeilder says that maintaining the authenticity of the space and opening the space up can create new spaces for the community to build something together.


Moving from interior to exterior, Steve Kulakowsky tells his story of the urban revitalization his company carried out on King William Street, which consists of the Lister Block, Empire Times and the soon to be completed Templar Flats. By making design decisions like inserting cobble stones for the street, widening the sidewalk for pedestrians and increasing the density with mixed-use development, they have created an attractive area to where new economies can be stimulated in the downtown core.

Sonja Macdonald brought an interesting voice to the conversation. As an urban researcher, she recognized that it’s what emerges from a place and its individual elements that make a community unique. She says a city’s character draws distinct strengths in creating multiple economic strategies. She calls out the town of Dundas, which through its strong historical context has driven its economy and created unique opportunities, such as filming and tourism, to increase its economic development.


But it’s Jason Thorne who can’t point to one specific move that has driven Hamilton’s economic growth, but many small, brave moves. And that these little interactions, developed by the local businesses and community, are what has created urban renewal. The bottom-up, rather than top-down approach, where local people are the ones making the investment is what has made significant change in the city. It’s not outside developers coming in, it’s all inside moving out. Property by property, block by block, citizens and entrepreneurs are the ones making the change and growing the city.


So what does the future hold for this growing city? Transit. Hamilton’s LRT is a once in a lifetime placemaking opportunity for the city. But it just can be a track that is runs through the city—that would be an ultimate failure and its citizens know that. What it brings is the most potential to spread deeper in the many communities that make up the city. Neighbourhoods which were once divided by districts, can now come together through streetscaping, art and design to create new identities and new connections through development.

All images by Richelle Sibolboro

Richelle Sibolboro is Managing Editor of OpenCity Projects