Renowned Urbanist Gil Penalosa Calls On Amherstburg To Be 'Bold And Ambitious'

Renowned urbanist Gil Penalosa implored Amherstburg residents to be “be bold and ambitious” in building a progressive, pedestrian-friendly community in an inspiring speech to a sold-out crowd at the Libro Centre Tuesday night.

“Quality of life has become the most important tool of economic competitiveness,” said Penalosa, the first speaker in the Amherstburg Community Foundation’s Thought Leader Series. “With vision and action, you are going to have a healthier and happier and more vibrant Amherstburg.”

Penalosa urged the town to focus on parks instead of parking, engage our aging population and ensure that trails on the outskirts are linked to an interwoven network running through town. He called for a 30-KM speed limit on neighbourhood streets, enhanced park programming, increased winter activities, more open street opportunities and more and better bicycle lanes as part of a concerted effort to encourage active transportation and healthy living.

“The streets are public spaces and they belong to everybody,” said Penalosa, who wore a shirt emblazoned with the Town's new logo.  “There is nothing as important in the city as a sidewalk. The sidewalk is the life of the city.”

Penalosa is the founder and chair of 8 80 Cities, a non-profit organization with the guiding principle that communities should be designed for both 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds. He has advised decision-makers in more than 350 different cities on creating healthy and vibrant communities. His stop in Amherstburg was shoehorned in between meetings in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Oslo, Norway.

“Think about 8 and 80 with every decision you make,” said Penalosa, who urged the town to embrace a ‘pedestrian-first’ philosophy. “If it’s not safe for an 8 or 80-year-old, it’s nothing.”

Penalosa said Amherstburg should look to other cities for inspiration and that size didn’t matter when it came to building great communities, pointing, for example, to Wasaga Beach, which has a bus service, and to Cochrane, which has a bike-sharing program.

He said the town should start treating its parks “like community centres” and that Amherstburg should offer more for residents to do in the winter, suggesting enhanced lighting, outdoor movies and even shutting down a street for ice skating.

“We’ve got to rethink the winter,” he said.

While many of Penalosa's ideas most certainly come with costs, they are excellent starting points for a community discussion about building an even better Amherstburg.

His comments on parking might be the most controversial as the issue seems to divide Amherstburg residents. Many people say they have never had a problem parking downtown, even for big-ticket events like Art by the River. Others are firm in the belief that parking in the core is an issue that needs to be confronted. 

“Parking is one thing you have tonnes of,” said Penalosa, who toured the town in preparation for his lecture. “Way too much.”

It was a fascinating presentation and you could see the wheels turning in the heads of everyone who heard him deliver it.

Everyone walked out of that room wondering how they could make Amherstburg an even better community and I can’t wait to see what grows from the seeds that Penalosa planted.

Thanks to Richard Peddie and the Amherstburg Community Foundation for organizing this event.

“We are doing this because we want you to learn more, do more, create more and aspire more to make Amherstburg one of the best small towns in Ontario,” said Peddie. “Standing still is not an option.”

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  • Donald McArthur
    commented 2019-08-31 11:06:28 -0500
    Thanks, Jen! The presentation was definitely inspiring! It gave everybody ideas and fuel for further thought. Excited to see where it leads.
  • Jen Desjardins-Grondin
    commented 2019-08-29 22:14:20 -0500
    Nicely written article. Well done. This presentation by Gil Penalosa was incredibly inspiring and clearly outlined tangible and actionable opportunities for Amherstburg. Let’s be open to change and make a real, positive impact on our community.