While outsiders may look around in bewilderment when Hamiltonians refer to “the Mountain,” we know exactly where it is.
The area atop the Niagara Escarpment can’t be missed, with “Mountain Access” signs at all key roads. This striking geography will always be an important part of our identity as Hamiltonians.
While it’s hard to miss, Hamilton Mountain is also easily misunderstood.
Often when we think of the Mountain, the conjured image is a homogenous area of the city, with street after street of the same, often suburban, landscape. In reality, the Mountain is incredibly diverse with a rich history and interesting planning legacy.
The Mountain contains everything from older established walkable neighbourhoods, to postwar housing communities, to newer suburban neighbourhoods. There are great shopping districts along with traditional shopping centres. It’s got a major post-secondary institution, Mohawk College, and one of the city’s best historical landmarks, Auchmar.
The cultural history of the Mountain is equally impressive. Among many examples is the story of George Horatio Summers. Back in 1902, Summers took out a lease on the property at the top of the Wentworth Street Incline Railway and opened the Summers Stock Theatre Company. The 700-seat outdoor theatre was very successful with crowds of 73,000 ascending the Incline Railway each summer season to attend the open-sided air-cooled theatre.
Although more than 100 years old, the idea of a festival like this, set on the Mountain Brow, remains inspiring and leaves us wondering why someone hasn’t picked up this idea where Mr. Summers left off. For that matter, it makes one wonder why, unlike Pittsburgh, we decided to demolish the incline railways. These were powerful tourist attractions that were such an important and unique part of the public transportation system.
From a city-building perspective, the Mountain’s urban planning legacy is equally interesting. In particular, the older part of Hamilton Mountain, the area generally north of Mohawk Road is interesting from a design standpoint and holds amazing potential as our city grows.
City planners had the foresight to lay out a street system based on a grid pattern that would offer self-contained neighbourhoods, similar to the pattern seen in our lower city.
Within each large-grid is a neighbourhood park and (originally) an elementary school, which was walkable by local neighbourhood kids. The larger arterial roads, carrying more traffic and commercial space, were confined to the edges of the neighbourhood.
This has a number of benefits. First, neighbourhood amenities including shops, school and parks are within walkable distance for neighbourhood residents. Second, traffic on interior streets can be kept slower, with faster speeds on the arterial reads.
Third, the grid pattern provides multiple routes to get around rather than the more modern subdivision design which has a limited number of neighbourhood entries, funnelling traffic onto a typically congested arterial road. Fourth, major transit routes can service these arterial roads in an efficient way ensuring that residents in the neighbourhood grids are always within walking distance of some form of transit.
This is in contrast to the typically suburban form, prevalent even today, of more curvilinear streets with cul-de-sacs, which is far more automobile-oriented, and not conducive to walking or transit.
One of the most important benefits of this design is that it is future-ready.
This established grid-pattern provides an excellent blueprint for intensification as our city grows. There is an opportunity for growth and intensification along major commercial streets, while leaving the interior of neighbourhoods relatively intact.
Streetscapes on major arteries could easily increase in height in many areas, accommodating more mixed-used commercial/residential development. In turn, this would increase residential density, jobs and economic vibrancy.
As our city grows, the issue of intensification will affect every neighbourhood. Some areas are better designed to accommodate this growth and the northern part of Hamilton Mountain is one such place.
Further, parts of Hamilton Mountain are primed to become vibrant hot spots similar to what is happening to other areas in the city.
This is great news for all of Hamilton.
This article was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator.