Thinking Horizontally

Text Ian Chodikoff

As Canadians continue to settle in larger urban areas, the challenges of maintaining the viability and attraction of small-town life becomes increasingly crucial. For the Municipality of Chatham-Kent, comprising a network of 13 towns spread across 2,500 square kilometres in southern Ontario, a request for proposal was made in April 2003 to undertake a study on ways of revitalizing their public spaces, main streets, natural waterways and landscapes that could bolster economic growth and development opportunities. Chatham-Kent is roughly 100 kilometres east of Detroit. Its economic power is comprised mostly of cornfields and automotive industries. Collectively, the municipality has a population of 100,000 with roughly 45,000 people living in Chatham. The goal of the study was not to focus on Chatham but to examine the dynamic of the entire network of communities that comprise the municipality, and to study such elements as tourism, riverfront developments and main street improvements.

Kim Storey and James Brown of the Toronto urban design firm Brown and Storey Architects were invited to lead an ambitious study to outline some of the many urban development opportunities for Chatham-Kent. Storey grew up in Chatham, where her father’s architecture firm was succeeded by the firm of Jorden & Cook Architects, which became one of the partners in the study. Storey Samways Planning is another collaborator in the study where one of the partners is Kim’s brother. This seemingly folksy design collaborative helped maintain a high degree of comfort and sensitivity when conducting interviews and research throughout the process. The study began with a dramatic two-day bus tour through the 13 towns, setting the tone for a series of important focus groups involving several stakeholders representing every facet of the municipality’s life and livelihood. Thus, folksy became an urban strategy of the first order.

Solving the problems of a region with many disparate settlements within an urban network bisected by several natural waterways and the convenient Highway 401 led Brown and Storey to refer to the municipality as the Horizontal City. The scope of the study examined everything from faade improvements to bringing in more galleries and visual arts events, thus creating an “art town” for places like Highgate. Tourist management, another important potential design opportunity could be found in places like Dresden. With the famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin nearby, Dresden is a town with a rich cultural heritage and a compact concentration of historic main street buildings. The lakeside town of Erieau, a narrow strip of land surrounded on both sides by Rondeau Bay and Lake Erie, used to receive tourists who would travel directly into town by rail and be dropped off in front of their lakeside resort. With the potential to rebuild its tourist or recreational infrastructure, Erieau could rehabilitate the existing infrastructure that was established during its heyday 80 years ago and begin a new lease on life. Other areas to reconsider are riverfront geographies like the stunning, if underdeveloped Wallaceburg, a town straddling the Sydenham River. Strategic interventions such as the main intersections in Wheatley or Thamesville offer a chance for service sectors to re-inhabit these small bits of urban infrastructure.

In the town of Blenheim for example, Brown notes that large parking lots became commonplace behind the existing fabric of the main street. The backsides of these buildings were underutilized. If these faades could become as operational as their traditional frontages, then a new form of urban space could develop across the back end of these buildings, turning the empty parking lots into an opportunity to improve the businesses along Main Street.

One interesting result of the study was that the citizens of Chatham-Kent have rediscovered the importance of their downtowns. The concept of the main street has regained the confidence of the citizenry who can now begin to think of creative ways of pairing urban design with new economic development opportunities. The results from the study are travelling throughout the municipality until the end of this year.

Further to the study for Chatham-Kent, Brown and Storey have taken their investigation and used it as a basis for their Spring 2005 urban design studio at the University of Toronto where students had the opportunity to test the possibilities for tourism and economic growth for the region. One of their students, Nima Javedi, developed a series of land-use possibilities that could be applied to the town of Thamesville. Javedi looked at phasing infill projects, both architecture and landscape, as a means of triggering a new process of small-town development. In this semi-urban agglomeration of Chatham-Kent, an architect has to think in both micro and macro terms simultaneously, while tempering grandiose ideas with the provision of new design initiatives to help the residents and small businesses make their communities thrive.

What’s going to happen next is anybody’s guess. Approved by Council in early September, the Municipality of Chatham-Kent has recently announced new guidelines for the Community Beautification and Downtown Revitalization Grant Program where $150,000 has been allotted on a one-time-only basis: for an improvement project, applicants can apply for up to 50% funding, to a maximum of $10,000. This isn’t much money, but it is a start where a small town can begin to look to the future. Another recent development in Chatham was revealed in an announcement made by Minacs Worldwide, a business process outsourcing provider, to build a new facility in Chatham which represents 300 new jobs. There is hope for the Horizontal City.

Because Highway 401 cuts right through Chatham-Kent and because the municipality is so close to the US border and close to so many Canadian and US markets, schools and industries–both in Southern Ontario and Michigan– Chatham-Kent is well-positioned for future economic growth. The challenges to ensure successful small communities in Canada often involve a high degree of sensitivity to local needs and the recognition of existing physical attributes within each community. There will always be a place for small communities in Canada as long as there is recognition of its heritage, geography and proximity to new economic development opportunities that won’t compromise its main streets and cultural identity.