Born and raised in Hamilton, Jason Thorne worked as a city planner out of Toronto in a number of different positions before returning home in 2014 to head up the Department of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Hamilton. While visiting Winnipeg in September to attend the Canadian Urbanism Conference, the Speak Up Winnipeg team caught up with him to talk of similarities with Hamilton and other Canadian mid-sized cities, the value of the arts in city building, and the importance of a good plan.
Speak Up Winnipeg: How has Hamilton changed from when you were growing up to now?
Jason Thorne: I grew up in Hamilton in the 80s and 90s, and that was an era where there was not a lot of investment happening, especially in the downtown core and in the older parts of the city. What’s different today? I’ve been back in the city for just over three years and it really is remarkable the transformation that’s been happening, especially in the last five years or so. It’s an exciting time to be heading up Planning and Economic Development in Hamilton.
SUW: What are the most pressing issues facing Hamilton today?
JT: The most pressing issues facing Hamilton today are probably not a lot different than other cities our size in the country, and probably not a lot different than Winnipeg. The good news is we’re growing. We’re seeing investment in parts of the city that had experienced decline for quite a period of time. That can be a good thing, but it’s also something that has to be carefully managed. When we have this growth coming in to our city, where do we want to direct it? How do we want to make sure that it fits in to the existing fabric of the city? We’re a city that’s quite proud of our heritage and our historic buildings. How do we make sure new development is helping revitalize what’s already there? And how do we make sure that all Hamiltonians are benefiting from this, that what’s happening is not just benefiting people who are fortunate enough to already own homes or some of the city’s newcomers to the city, but the people who are already there? That means we struggle with making sure we’re providing for significant affordable housing and employment opportunities. Those sorts of challenges are just all the more important when your city is growing.
SUW: Are there issues that are unique to mid-sized Canadian cities than those of Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary?
JT: I think there is certainly a shared experience among Canada’s mid-sized cities that make them different from the Torontos, Vancouvers, and Montreals. Like Winnipeg, Hamilton doesn’t have the luxury of tens of millions of dollars for major public investments and major iconic public institutions, so we have to make the best with what we’ve got. When we have the opportunity to make a public investment we do it very smartly and strategically so we can leverage as much possible benefit out of the resources we have. Likewise, I think another advantage of a mid-sized city is it’s very partnership-oriented and very accessible. As important as we city planners are to what’s going on in Hamilton, I can tell you that what’s really driving the revitalization there are the entrepreneurs, the small business owners, the artists, and the musicians. Those are the folks that are really starting to turn Hamilton around. In a mid-sized city there is more opportunity for those individuals to make a mark.
SUW: Hamilton is being increasingly regarded for its emerging art scene. Likewise in this regard, Winnipeg is commonly recognized as punching above its weight class. How does Hamilton leverage the arts to achieve city building objectives?
JT: There’s certainly no question that arts and culture is one of the major catalysts of the revitalization that we’re seeing in Hamilton. We see that in some of the events that take place, like our famous Artcrawl event. I think we leverage that as much as we can, to try to create opportunities for artists to be successful and to help shape the city. I see a lot of that when I walk around the streets of Winnipeg as well. I think one of the things that we very much share in common is both the respect for arts and culture and the recognition of them as being integral to our cities’ economic development and future.
SUW: Why is a good plan important? What makes a good plan?
JT: I think a good plan is important to any city, but especially a growing city. I know it’s not always easy to get the public excited about a big long range plan but I can tell you those long range plans really do make a difference. It’s where the really big decisions are made about the future of your city. Where are you trying to go? How are neighbourhoods going to change? It’s important for cities to always be thinking 25 to 30 years down the line because that reflects life cycles of development. The stuff that we see getting built in our city today is stuff that was planned in some cases 10 to 15 years ago. It takes that long sometimes to turn ideas into bricks and mortar. So it’s really important to get things right at the idea stage because some day those ideas are going to turn into real change in your city, so you want to make sure you have the plan right at the outset.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.