Recreation versus utility in urban issues

Few things devised by man really ever go away. Plenty, however, go out of use and become exotic or quaint — no longer of practical utility. But sometimes the utility of something can persist and even grow again, and yet this may be difficult to see through all the recreational use.

What the hell am I talking about? Tourist trains, for one. Trains have gone away as transportation in most of North America, but tourist trains abound. When looking up Port Stanley as a possible place to visit a few months ago, I found that there was a tourist train between Port Stanley and St. Thomas along the old London & Port Stanley line. Note that St. Thomas is pretty close to the 401 highway, while Port Stanley is much further south, on Lake Erie. I thought it would be pretty neat — drive to St. Thomas and take the train to Port Stanley and back. Unfortunately, this tourist railway deliberately prevents usefulness, since the only boarding is done at Port Stanley. (In fairness, the Waterloo Central Railway between Waterloo and St. Jacobs does allow one-way trips.)

The bicycle hasn’t been a major mode of transportation in North America for the better part of a century. At the same time that driving has become the predominant way to travel, bicycling has stayed around as child’s play and recreation. Go to any Wal-Mart and you will find a wide selection of mountain bikes with 20+ gears and fancy shocks. At the specialized bike shops you’ll also find ultra-light road bicycles for the spandex-wearers. At neither place are you likely to find many comfortable utility bikes, with fenders, baskets, skirt guards, and lights. And neither mountain bikes nor road bikes are well-suited to being used for utility cycling. Yet when I look at what people use to get around town here in Kitchener-Waterloo, it’s almost always the ubiquitous recreational bicycles.

Walking is no longer considered a serious mode of transportation. Parks, however, abound with all kinds of recreational trails; often you’re supposed to drive to the park so that you can go for a stroll. These paths tend to be under the oversight of parks departments and feature signs saying they are closed at night. And being recreational trails, why would anyone want to use them in foul weather? Presumably this is why the path through Waterloo Park is not paved, despite being extensively used as transportation.

The Iron Horse Trail has its share of irony. It’s a rails-to-trails on the old Grand River Railway right-of-way. Though it is paved and even plowed, it isn’t lit and is “closed” at night. What used to be a passenger railroad was converted into a recreational trail, which incidentally is now used as transportation by many people.

I would suggest that the focus should be more on recreation as an adjoint to utility, not just recreation for its own sake (perhaps with utility as an afterthought). When your regular travel take you through a park, that enriches each trip — as opposed to the few times a year you might get to an out-of-the-way park. Focusing on making a recreational space useful can end up adding more to the quality of life for many more people.

Similarly, downtowns also should be about utility and not just recreation. As Jane Jacobs wrote, “You can’t rely on bringing people downtown; you have to put them there.” After the post-war suburban sprawl took hold, downtowns suffered. Some tried to convince people to come back through demolishing buildings and providing plentiful free parking to compete with the suburbs, to little effect. Others, like Waterloo and Kitchener, built downtown malls in the failed hopes that people would come downtown for them (instead of the suburban ones). Unless your downtown is an amazing tourist spot, it just cannot be sustained as an occasional destination. Downtowns need to be places that are used in a variety of ways on a daily basis — for utility, not just recreation.

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5 responses to “Recreation versus utility in urban issues”

  1. Dave P. says :

    Iron horse Trail could be so much more – in addition to what you describe, road crossings are poorly marked, and frankly unsafe. The crossing @ victoria and nearby @ west both have a “best of luck cyclist or walker” vibe to them.

  2. locklin says :

    Well put. When people are engaged in recreational activities, they can be picky, but for utility, they go with what works. People pick over exotic alloy frames for a recreational bike that will be used a few times during the summer, but for getting around town, most people just use whatever bike they can find (often a “recreational” bike collecting dust in a relative’s garage*). Utility is much more about convenience than extravagance. For the same reason, a convenient route through a park or down town will be heavily travelled, whereas an extravagant, recreation-tuned park will only see fair-weather strollers.

    *This is actually an unfortunately short-sighted behaviour because a bike designed for utility will, in the long run, provide a more comfortable and convenient mode of transportation that is less likely to be abandoned when a person becomes able to afford a car.

  3. Marie says :

    I was just talking to friends today about how downtown Kitchener and Waterloo were the places to be on Friday and Saturday nights when the movie theaters were there. You could meet all your friends lined up outside. Now they have to drive to the outskirts to see most movies. It’s a shame the Princess Cinema is rarely near capacity regardless its location. It’s just not the place to be for teens. We clearly need something interesting at the core – more interesting than a concrete pad and bell in front of a dead mall.

    • Michael D says :

      It’s not clear to me that the core needs anything like that. To be sure, downtowns are definitely the right places for things like large markets, museums, theatres, and so on. But I’d argue that what makes or breaks downtown and uptown here isn’t any individual large attractions, but the regular and lively use of a diversity of destinations and areas.

      Your reminiscences are of what remained of city cores at the tail end of their abandonment by people with newfound car freedom. But I don’t think re-establishing the core can really be done by getting suburbanites to occasionally come downtown — it needs to first attract a larger base that is interested in keeping more of its use in the core. That can then provide the foundation for new destinations of city-wide interest.

      By the way, I don’t think that mall will last the decade: the space has too much potential to remain as one story mostly inward-facing retail. And all the above having been said, I’d agree that downtown could use a cinema; at this point it could probably again support a couple of mainstream screens for sure.

      • Marie says :

        I don’t mean to suggest movie theatres will save the day – not now that we can watch movies at home, but that we need things of interest to draw people. There has been a positive change in the uptown since the Whole Lotta Gelata opened because suddenly we have a sidewalk cafe-type establishment where people stop to chat to people they know sitting outside.

        That mall used to have a bowling alley, pool tables, a bar, a fitness center, and a good quality Zehrs. It’s a shame it’s gone so far downhill because it’s right beside my house! Funny they could never attract very good retail stores. Someone must be losing some money on this one.

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