Main Street LRT will help preserve Brampton’s heritage, not destroy it

I grew up in Brampton not far from Main Street where the new LRT is proposed to be built. As the fifth generation of my family to live in Brampton I am well acquainted with its heritage and I treasure it. Having moved away as an adult and subsequently having spent two decades learning about cities all over the world it dismays me to see that the planned LRT to downtown Brampton is facing such determined opposition. Based on my experience I can assuredly say that the Main Street route for the LRT will not destroy Brampton’s heritage, but will instead help save it.

Public transit works best when it connects buildings that people use the most. Most often this means efficiently connecting where people work and where they live as well as where they shop and go to school. Alternative proposals tout routes that tend to avoid such places by following ravines, rail corridors, or low density streets. This is not the way to go.

When I left Brampton to go the university I came back in the summers to work in order to pay for my schooling I signed up with a temp agency that placed me in many of the factories and warehouses that have traditionally driven the local economy. Many of those factories and warehouses have since closed. This is no fault of Brampton’s but rather it is a reflection of how Canada’s economy is changing in response to advances in technology and low-cost global competition. The future of the country’s, and Brampton’s economy, is with knowledge-driven jobs. My work, and the work of many others, shows that such jobs are gravitating to vibrant, well-connected downtown locations.

Over the past half-century Brampton has grown from a small town to a municipality of over half a million people. This era of urban planning was also one that was dominated by making accommodations to the car. The Region of Peel is mostly characterized by large tracts of houses in one area, major employment areas in another, with shopping and recreation somewhere in between. This style of development requires a lot of driving. Brampton’s historic downtown is one of the few beautiful local exceptions to this pattern. It is an outlier that can prove to be a major economic asset going forward if it is developed responsibly.

The LRT is not a threat to the heritage of downtown. There are countless examples from European cities in particular that demonstrate how LRTs can be integrated into dense urban neighborhoods. The two main threats to the downtown’s heritage are cars and neglect. Cars require a great deal of space, for driving as well as parking. Accommodating them in locations like downtown Brampton often means destroying the very essence of the place that gives it its special character. Additionally, the downtown cannot be treated like a museum. Places where development is highly constrained tend to stagnate and decline. Truly vibrant places need more people and fewer cars. The Main Street LRT is the best way to deliver this combination.

Port Credit in Mississauga, and the downtowns of Kitchener and Hamilton are similar in many respects to downtown Brampton. They will be Brampton’s primary local sources of economic competition in the coming decades and they all have LRT plans in the works. Knowledge-driven businesses are increasingly opting to locate in such lively urban-style locations. The young and talented employees that work in such businesses are likewise choosing such locations and are driving less. Whichever jurisdictions that best integrate their LRT with their downtown will put their communities in a position to lead the 21st century economy.

Jane Jacobs famously claimed that new economic activities need old buildings. A strong economy will in turn act to protect local heritage. Brampton needs to attract the businesses downtown that will invest in heritage properties and repurpose them to new uses. In 2008, the Gummed Papers factory, one of the oldest factories in Brampton, was demolished in contravention of local codes. My great-grandfather helped build that building which first opened its doors in 1913, and my grandfather worked there for over fifty years. It is truly heartbreaking to see our heritage decimated in such a callous manner. The best way to protect it is to bring more people and development to Brampton’s downtown. And the best way to do that is with an LRT right down Main Street.