The Expressing Vibrancy project has revealed dozens of interesting relationships between the factors we studied, the people who participated and the neighbourhoods engaged.  Our understanding of what makes communities culturally vibrant has become more refined.  Yet at the same time this process and our partners have opened us up to a number of disciplines that would not normally be considered 'cultural' by most in our sector.

We're excited to begin sharing our findings, and to continue the learning and dialogue that will come from creating a cross-disicplinary definition of culture and vibrancy.  Below are the first 10 findings we've selected to share and more will come over time.

Each finding is focused on providing an insight into what we've learned, but also to direct you to further learning and engagment in each area.  To express our vibrancy we must engage in action, and we hope these findings encourage you to do just that.

Take me to the river

Small park 1

Natural spaces were selected as the top ‘cultural space’ by all demographics when rated against 10 other options including:  music venues, art galleries, theatres, libraries, movie theatres, and heritage sites.

Neighbourhoods rich in natural elements were described as healthy, safe and full of pride, and those without were described as dangerous, disorganized and poor. 

Whether it’s tree-lined streets, hanging baskets outside storefronts, or public parks, the presence of natural elements combat the negative effects of poor architecture and vacancy, provides shade and spaces for social interaction, and adds colour, texture and life to a street.

The notion that access to nature is part of culture is a growing theme across the country, and something that cities and citizens can easily play an active role in improving

Links to learning more about nature in our communities:

Royal Botanical Gardens              

McQueston Urban Farm

Hamilton Tree Program               

Hamilton Conservation Authority

Cities are for People

Cobalt staff

Neighbourhoods are not vibrant without people; especially an active and diverse mix of people engaging in a variety of activities.  Areas that rated the highest by participants of the study showed a mix of pedestrians, cyclists, parents with children, seniors, people hopping on and off of transit, shopping and socializing.  The more active people, the higher the rating. 

This sense of an engaging space for people links with every category of our study. 

It connects to urban design, sites of creative engagement, accessibility of natural spaces, the diversity of populations and their ability to mix, and the ability to access information about events and other opportunities for community interaction.

Neighbourhoods with restrictive signage rules, a lack of cultural and social hubs, short or unpredictable hours of operation, high vacancy, uninspiring architecture or a lack of natural elements will struggle to become ‘cities for people’.

Learn more about building cities for people:

Cities for People Project                    

Hamilton Neighbourhood Action Strategy

Tactical Urbanism Hamilton                

Now you see me, now you don’t

Access to info

Visibility is a common thread we discovered throughout the project.  The ability to view other people through shop windows, see children playing at the playground, or through the glass of a transit shelter significantly altered the comfort level and willingness to participate for the majority of study participants.

80% of participants in the study chose “people in view” as the second most compelling factor that encourages them to enter a space.  General cleanliness was the top rated factor.  The ability to see others engaging helps us to overcome fears of safety and acceptance, and encourages us to cross the threshold into a particular space.

We noted that participants in the Active Exploration survey of the study had mixed feelings about whether they needed to see people like themselves to make the ‘engagement leap’.  Younger participants (18-24) were more likely to align with their own age group, needing to see their peers within a space.  While adults (25-45) were comfortable and inspired by spaces with mixed populations.

Learn more about urban design guidelines and façade improvement:

Hamilton Urban Design

Hamilton Façade Improvement Grant

Size (or rather scale) Matters

Urban design

Of the eight neighbourhoods studied, seven have Business Improvement Areas, and the other has an informal network of community organizers.  On the average, a BIA’s designated area covers a 1-kilometer stretch.  Wthin this zone, the BIA’s assist in marketing and promotion, business development and retention, citizen engagement, cleanliness, festival and event creation, etc. 

BIA’s have the ability to be an excellent tool with their connection to City Hall but rely heavily on the property and business owners in their neighbourhood to play an active role.

Three of the neighbourhoods studied extend well beyond this 1 km average, in some cases more than double, and we feel this is a major part of their unique struggle.  This is evidenced by the relationship between BIA length and rating within the vibrancy video segment, as well as ratings in the Taking Stock phase of the study with shorter BIAs benefiting froma  concentration of amenities.

Focusing neighbourhood development within realistic boundaries based on impact instead of a sense of inclusivity or equity, and changing the funding relationship for BIA’s could have a positive effect on vibrancy.

Learn more about Business Improvement Areas:

Hamilton BIAs

Ontario BIA Association          

We say ‘culture’ you say …?


The answers to one question in the Active Exploration survey took us somewhat by surprise – likely because we spend all day working on defining culture.   Precisely the reason for the question:  “How would you define the culture or cultures of this street?”

The answers given were not selected from a list, but freely given into a blank box. The vast majority of the responses could be broken down into two categories: ethnic (“it’s an Italian / Somali / Caucasian neighbourhood”), and economic (“it’s a poor / rich neighbourhood”).  Terms fitting into these categories were used by the vast majority of participants, regardless of their own demographics.

Where neighbourhoods differed was in the words used beyond these two categories that started to include terms such as: community, artsy, hipster, boring, commercial, quaint, safe, etc. 

Neighbourhoods that were rated higher on the vibrancy scale by study participants were also those that were defined by terms beyond the two standard categories (ethnicity and economics).  So despite the dividing lines often caused by studies focused on these two factors alone, a community can still effectively express a sense of cultural vibrancy while embracing its genuine ethnic and economic identities through its unique assets and activities.

Learn more about the ethnic and economic diversity in Hamilton:

Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion                       

Hamilton Vital Signs

At the Crossroads

Urban design

Intersections and parking lots are vibrancy killers.  The larger the intersection or more visible the parking lot, the greater the damage done.

Throughout the study, participants were united on the issues faced at intersections.  Increased exposure to traffic, increased number of and volume of sounds, poor pedestrian infrastructure, and a void of assets adding to a sense of place and identity – intersections are not designed for people.

This also revealed a dislike for curbside parking lots, while roadside parking spaces were not an issue.  The larger and more visible the parking lot resulting in a lower rating, in some cases by a factor of 30-40%. 

While this can seem like a difficult one to solve, we’re curious if public art can be used to re-imagine existing intersections, and if adding natural elements like porous concrete/grass surfaces, low shrubs and trees to parking lots can make a significant difference.  Clearly urban design issues of building setbacks, sidewalk widths and speed limits can also have a positive effect in shifting the experience at these necessary spaces in neighbourhoods.

To learn more about inspiring intersections check out:

Canadian artist Roadsworth               

City of Hamilton - Art in Public Spaces

Copenhagen Green Parking               

A Sidewalk Grows

Ce n' est pas toujours frais


The definition of culture is often unique to each individual, but if we’re to support it with investment, policy and programs we need to understand where we as a collective draw the line.  We set out to test the ‘cultural line’ on a few different sectors that are often on the edge of what is culture and what is not to test local impressions.

One definition that became abundantly clear was that chain operations hold very little cultural merit.  Chain coffee locations (Starbucks or Tim Horton’s) are considered cultural by very few (25%), but independents (Mulberry Coffehouse or Café Oranje) are supported by a majority (66%). 

Similarly chain restaurants (East Side Mario’s) with a brand that implies an ethnic connection are not deemed cultural (19%), while those viewed as independent (South Sea Chinese Restaurant) are considered cultural by the majority (78%). 

So while coffee shops and restaurants have the ability to add cultural value to a neighbourhood as social hubs, culinary experiences and gateways to learning about other cultures, we don’t value them all the same.  This should encourage us to support zoning, financing and business supports that enable locally-owned and operated independent restaurants and cafes.  

To learn more about local businesses, coffee culture and culinary culture check out:

Hamilton Chamber of Commerce                    

This Must Be the Place

op Up Hamilton



It’s in the air we breathe

Air quality

Cities are big complex places with lots of different kinds of people to keep happy.  So it’s rare that we find things we all agree on despite our myriad of differences.

With natural assets rising to top of so many cultural lists, we wanted to probe this category a little deeper to understand the value of specific assets.  Is a tree more important than a shrub?  How does a waterfall stack up against a hanging basket?

Without a shadow of a doubt, the most important natural element is air quality. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re 14 or 84; rich or poor; rural or urban.  Air quality was selected as the top natural asset by 97.7% of our participants.

While this must seem logical to all of us, its rather staggering considering how little we spend on air quality monitoring and enforcement.  Changing our air quality is almost entirely in our own hands.

Learn more about the air you breath in Hamilton, and how you can play a role in improving our air quality:

Environment Hamilton – BAM!             

Ontario Air Quality Health Index        

Clean Air Hamilton

It takes two baby

Taking stock

Cobalt has made every effort not to make this a process about scoring neighbourhoods as winners or losers, but instead highlighting their unique attributes.  This was done on the understanding that different attributes are considered attractive to different people.

With this desire, we’ve also considered when the presence of specific unique attributes or combinations thereof translated into a high participant rating.

Of the top rated neighbourhoods, all had at least two Taking Stock factors where they excelled.  Each had a unique combination – Natural Elements and Urban Design, or Diversity and Creative Engagement – making their community distinct and genuine, while also revealing there is no silver bullet factor or combination that is a must-have to generate cultural vibrancy.

Areas that only had a single Taking Stock factor in which they excelled, or those that had similar ratings across 4 or 5 Taking Stock factors did not result in positive ratings by study participants.

Expressing Vibrancy - Compare Nieghbourhoods