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Designing a better Hamilton

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Using the Hamilton waterfront for parking has to end with the new City of Hamilton Plan (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

A war of words between the Government and the Corporation of Hamilton, not helped by an ambiguous statement from the City that led to this newspaper incorrectly reporting that it had not received a draft City of Hamilton Plan, has obscured a more important truth.

The future of Hamilton concerns virtually all of Bermuda, and any decisions on its future requires the widest and deepest consultation possible.

The draft planning document unveiled last week is an excellent foundation for the beginning the discussion. It should not be its conclusion.

The Corporation of Hamilton’s logo is “Bermuda at its best”. This is more than mere verbiage; Hamilton is very much the centre of Bermuda. It is where the vast majority of Bermuda works, shops, entertains, exercises, relaxes and lives. There are few Bermuda residents who do not have some kind of stake in the City.

So any discussion on Hamilton must involve the whole community.

The first question that needs to be answered is what kind of city does Bermuda want?

Few would dispute the idea that it should be more than a place where people go to work. It should be a living city, literally and figuratively. Hamilton and Bermuda would benefit if more people lived in the City, and there was less pressure on the rest of the island.

This food truck is a feature of life in the City of Hamilton (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Increasing the proportion of homes in Hamilton is a place to start. This is perhaps even more vital now, as the Covid-19 pandemic made the idea of remote working more acceptable. Office workers, especially, found they liked it. Even if they return to the office, it probably will not be for five days a week.

So if Hamilton is to remain a busy and vibrant place, then people need to live in the City. Then they can step outside of their homes to buy food, to go for a walk, to the gym or for a meal with friends. In turn, this reduces the pressure on rush hour and infrastructure, and stops the City from dying at night.

The Government has been encouraging more development in North East Hamilton, traditionally the poorest and least-advantaged area. This process should continue, but the reality is that expanding the residential nature of Hamilton needs to go from Front Street to North Street, and from King Street to Woodbourne Avenue.

This closed retail store on Front Street is a sign of straitened times (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The planning document correctly rings the alarm bell about the high level of ground-floor vacancies. Past planning rules have made it difficult to have anything other than shops or restaurants on ground floors, but as tourism has declined and shopping generally has changed, these spaces have become harder to fill. Bermuda’s other structural challenges, from high labour costs to a tax system that punishes retailers, hurt as well.

Regardless, physical shopping is likely to continue to be superseded by online buying, and Hamilton needs to adapt. Allowing a wider variety of activities at street level must be part of this. The plan rightly allows for more flexible uses, but this needs to be thought through. There is room for more experiential uses, along with varieties of restaurants, gyms, yoga studios and the like, along with the traditional shop.

Outdoor dining became a feature of the pandemic experience and must be continued (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Covid-19 also demonstrated that al fresco dining can and does work in Bermuda, even in January. But this should be tied in to more innovative uses of open spaces generally, including — and especially — on the waterfront. This newspaper has been criticising the use of the waterfront for car parking for 40 years.

Certainly, this is a source of revenue for the Corporation of Hamilton and brings foot traffic to retailers, but there is a better way. The corporation needs to find a way to shift parking away from the city centre so that these areas can be freed up for activities and more grass and trees. Everyone will benefit.

The time is long overdue for Reid Street to be pedestrianised between Burnaby Street and Queen Street, and for similar pedestrian areas to be identified where outdoor activities, entertainment and dining can take place in the day and at night. Like the waterfront, this will bring people — residents and visitors — to Hamilton.

Hamilton also needs to be safe. Vagrants and beggars need to be discouraged from the streets, but this must be tied in with helping agencies so that this not simply a punitive exercise but changes how we treat the vulnerable. In that sense, charting a future for Hamilton is a holistic effort, and not simply a matter of zonings.

Traffic needs to be managed better — walking and use of bicycles should be encouraged, as should the ability to park and charge electric vehicles.

Hamilton is Bermuda’s cultural centre, but its cultural institutions need to be promoted and helped. This happens to some degree already, but more needs to be done.

These ideas are just a start. Others will have more and better ones. But Hamilton is indeed the heart of Bermuda, and it needs to be energised and beautified. The Corporation of Hamilton does a better job than it is often given credit for, but it cannot do it alone and nor can the Government.

This consultation cannot be a matter of box-ticking. Bermuda needs a vibrant capital and it is up to us to make it happen.

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Published January 27, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated January 26, 2023 at 1:30 pm)

Designing a better Hamilton

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