A Hamilton foundry circa 1935. Courtesy Hamilton Public Library.
A Hamilton foundry circa 1935. Courtesy Hamilton Public Library.
Sometimes the road you take can lead you places you don’t expect.
Shortly after my book on botanical gardens, Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens (Véhicule Press, 2001) came out, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton/Burlington, Ontario asked me to give a talk. I’d never been there, and I must admit I found it a little incongruous that a place like Hamilton, Canada’s Steeltown, was home to such a large and well-regarded botanical garden. After all, Hamilton has been home to heavy industry for a century which polluted both its harbour and the air above it. And, despite the beauty of the RBG, I might have continued to think that had I take the Queen Elizabeth Way into Hamilton from Toronto.
The QEW runs along a sandbar protecting the harbor and what you see from it is a classic, hellish Industrial Age landscape: steel mills, railroads, ships, smoke, flames, warehouses, and factories. Some are no longer used, but their rusting carcasses only add to the general impression of a gray, metallic wasteland.
But there is another approach to the city from the north, and by chance I took it, driving inland from the shoreline of Lake Ontario, flirting with the Niagara Escarpment. On this route you leave behind the sprawl that is creeping southwest from Toronto, and swoop past forested hillsides where the waters of one of the greatest wetlands in the region reflect the setting sun at the end of a long day. Coote’s Paradise, the RBG itself, a pair of well-maintained cemeteries, a graceful high bridge and a 19th-century manor house line this route into town. Drive along it, and you think the city you are entering is entirely different from the one glimpsed from the Queen Elizabeth Way.
How could this be? I wondered, and so I started asking questions. Very quickly I learned that the two visions of Hamilton are actually two sides of the same coin: the profits from industry actually paid for safe-guarding the green space.
Hmm, I thought: this is interesting. At the time I had begun to play around with the idea of a book on the way that people make urban places green, individually and through their institutions. Part of my motivation was concern about the North Americans have been choosing suburban life for the last century in order, most would say, to have the benefits of clean air and water, and closeness to green things. The irony is, of course, that in wanting have a little nature to call one’s own. we’ve allowed our cities have spread deeper and deeper into the countryside, creating a Green Paradox. My plan was to look closely at selected cities which demonstrate some trend or question about the complicated relation between people and nature in urban setting.
As I learned more about Hamilton, I found that it demonstrated as few other places do today the way ordinary people will work extremely hard to have their own bit of nature. The neighborhoods near Stelco and Dofasco where workers have lived since the early part of the 20th century still are full of well-kept gardens surrounding houses built for industrial workers and their families.
A block from the railroad line, four blocks from a steel plant, but the owners of this house have nurtured their garden for decades. Hamilton is no longer a bustling industrial giant. Trees are invading the formerly busy company docks in places.
A block from the railroad line, four blocks from a steel plant, but the owners of this house have nurtured their garden for decades.
Hamilton is no longer a bustling industrial giant. Trees are invading the formerly busy company docks in places.
After that first visit, I decided Hamilton had to be one of the cities to include in my book.. Three years later Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places was published by Véhicule Press. Besides Hamilton the other cities I selected because they demonstrated one aspect or trend are:
Babylon, because it was one of the world’s first major cities, and because it is the site of the legendary Hanging Garden; Provins, France, because this jewel of a medieval city south of Paris shows how people lived in walled cities for millennia—and has the added feature of being a place where 21st century people go about their lives amid 14th century surroundings. The City of London and Bloomsbury, because London was the first major agglomeration of the Industrial Age. Polluted, dirty and rich for centuries, it demonstrates the perils overcrowding brings and how the well-off built oases for themselves in the city.
Chicago, because it is where North American suburbs truly began. Cheap and quick house construction was perfected here, and Frederick Law Olmsted drew up a plan for living with nature in a green suburb served by commuter rail lines. Chicago today is also important because it shows what happens when whites flee blacks, when the rich and the comfortable fear the poor.
Irvine, California, because it is the quintessential planned suburban city. Since the 1960s Irvine has been transformed from a vast ranch just south of Los Angeles into a planned city—a mix of housing and light industry in a low-density, nature-friendly environment.
Singapore, because it also is a green, planned city, but completely different from Irvine. Its design resembles Le Corbusier’s sketches of his high-rise Ville radieuse, but unlike most urban areas inspired by the Swiss architect, it works very well.
Tanga, Tanzania, because it began as a planned community which was colonial headquarters for the Germans in East Africa, but since has become a collection of sprawling neighborhoods filled with small houses built by the residents The city also has complicated relationship with its hinterland: it is dependent on water from rivers flowing down from the East Usambara mountains, which are threatened by deforestation and climate change.
Kochi, India, because it is a city with a different sort of water problem, one which may become worse if global warming brings about rising sea levels. It has very high literacy rates and some enlightened city officials, and what happens here may point to green solutions in other rapidly growing cities.
Shanghai, because this fast-changing Megacity’s officials promise that 35 per cent of the city’s area will be green space by 2010. This means tearing down crowded central city neighborhoods to make parks and building high-rises in the outlying areas with horrendous air pollution and the disappearance of agricultural land around the city as consequences.
São Paulo, because it is the largest city in the western hemisphere. Its location on hills where the Tieté and Pinheiros rivers come together makes construction more difficult than in the flat plains around Mexico City, the other enormous Latin American agglomeration. But São Paulo is a curiously green city, with people who are resilient and inventive.
In future posts I’ll talk a little more about what I found in some of these cities, the roads I intended to take and the detours which often led me in directions I hadn’t expected.
Tags: Exploring the City, Hamilton