You have to like any city planner who says the best piece of advice he has is to learn to “listen really well”. But Jason Thorne is no ordinary planner~as the City of Hamilton’s general manager of planning and economic development for six years he’s seen the historic downtown revitalized and Hamilton  emerge as a “music town” with venues and  enthusiastic performers coming to the city.

Located on Lake Ontario with a population on the plus side of 500,000, Hamilton has unique opportunities to reinvent itself with Mr Thorne’s very broad portfolio, which includes “land use planning and economic development, but also tourism and culture, transportation, bylaw enforcement, business licensing and parking” .

The Globe and Mail’s Alex Bozikovic describes how the small stuff like “live music, street festivals, helping cyclists get around creates a sense of place and pride.”

By working directly with community activists, artists, business people and developers , Hamilton has had a design competition for a major public park and a complete renewal on its waterfront with new development. Thorne has also brought in standards for good design in neighbourhoods, and ensured that heritage houses and  buildings from Hamilton’s past as part of the steel belt (60 percent of Canadian steel was manufactured here) are recorded and registered by the city.

To reinvent Hamilton as a music place, Thorne has ensured that musical venues cannot be closed by noise complaints, and has worked to improve transportation loading and vehicular parking close by the music venues. Hamilton was an early adapter to Bike Share, and the transit service gives cyclists free rides up the steep escarpment cleaving the city  through a program named “Mountain Climber.”

Density has been tied into downtown redevelopment, but instead of being prescriptive about planning requirements, Hamilton will consider development applications on their merit. If proposals fit into the downtown scale and use applications can proceed if heritage status is protected and affordable rental housing goals met.

Mr. Thorne sums up his planning philosophy as “You have to begin with a great plan and great planners. But that’s only the beginning of building a great city.”


Here is a YouTube video of a drive through Hamilton that gives you a sense of the street infrastructure, the amount of heritage brick buildings, and the location on Lake Ontario’s waterfront.

Images: Gteam.ca CBC.ca


  1. As much as I love to sing the praises of good city planning, Hamilton’s rebirth has been the result of one heck of a lot of work by a very large group of people, and began a couple of decades before Thorne came on the scene. Most of the positives listed in the article arguably pre-date him as well.

    Hamilton has always had a very vibrant music scene, both because of location – midway between Toronto, Buffalo, Guelph and other cities – and because of very low housing costs. Bands could locate there to live, and have access to dozens of venues within a half day drive. As a bonus, local music bookers and festivals tended to have a pretty broad definition of what they would present, so it was possible to build an audience and make a small living. I’d also mention local community radio stations, especially CFMU at McMaster University.

    The downtown revitalization arguably began about twenty years ago when arts organizations started buying or renting spaces on James North, and then houses in surrounding neighbourhoods. It was only after grassroots groups started taking over, renovating, and moving into vacant storefronts, that the City really took an interest. The James North Art Crawl was the thing that demonstrated that you could get people out of their (mostly suburban) homes and back to the part of Hamilton that most people avoided at night.

    It also helped that Hamilton has managed to maintain some really great media outlets , especially the Hamilton Spectator newspaper, which despite repeated cuts since way back in the days of Conrad Black, still has some of the best reporters and writing that you’ll find anywhere in Canada, and CHCH TV, which still does daily newscasts, and seems to be maintaining their place at the center of Hamilton news.

    What makes all of this possible is a city with Capital S SOUL. In an age when civic pride is something created by marketing teams, Hamilton still knows that its roots are industrial, and unionized, and that some grit and smoke makes things real. Hamilton people support their local team (the Tiger-Cats of course) and go out of their way to help each other out.

    People there go out of their way to try new ideas, and are prepared to commit to new projects for years to make them work. There’s a real sense of “We need this, so lets just build it” that I don’t see anywhere in Vancouver. (Of course there’s also bikers and Mafia, but somehow that seems to enhance things, not hurt them.)

    Ultimately what I saw in Hamilton, and assume is still there, is a powerful community spirit and an almost unstoppable sense of pride in the place where people live. And when I say “pride” I mean the kind of feeling that comes from deep inside of you, and from the people around you, not the faux-pride that surrounds spectacles like the Olympics or tourism marketing.

    I do give Hamilton’s city council credit for understanding that it takes more than condos and signposts to build a city; that art, and music, and parks, and walkable streets also matter. And to go way back, I still think it’s incredible that someone in Hamilton decided to build a stadium (Copps Coliseum,) a fantastic library, a hotel, a farmers market, and a shopping mall, all in one place, right in the middle of downtown.

    At the end of the day Hamilton will likely never be the flashiest or swishiest city on the map, and I expect that it will always be a little dingy around the edges, but it will also be a place where people really, really like to live, and where a lot of people seem to be able to make their dreams come true.

    It’s also one of those places that you carry with you for the rest of your life after you’ve lived there.

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