These shoes are made for walking: Downtown field trip helps students connect to local politics

April 13, 2023

Political science professor Martin Horak speaks to his class at King and Richmond streets during a downtown field trip to examine the impact of political decisions on London's core.

Political science professor Martin Horak speaks to his class at King and Richmond streets during a downtown field trip to examine the impact of political decisions on London's core. Story and photo by Megan Stacey, Western News

What better place to put learning about local government and urban politics into practice than in the heart of the city? Western News joined a group of political science students and local experts on a tour through downtown London, Ont. during a Friday afternoon class. 

Covent Garden Market, 1 p.m. 

Martin Horak’s class gathers at a corner of the Covent Garden Market while shoppers head to their favourite vendors. Chatter and the smell of coffee and pastries fill the King Street landmark. 

The professor of political science introduces his special guests for the day’s tour:  

*John Fleming, BA’89, former chief planner with the City of London and an adjunct lecturer in the department of geography. 

*Sandra Miller, MLIS’21, a heritage activist who also describes herself as a city-builder. 

*Mark Tovey, history professor and curator of Western’s Cronyn Observatory. 

The first stop – the market and its outdoor square – sets the tone for the tour. 

One of the cornerstone revitalization efforts in London’s core over the last few decades, the bustling market was built to attract visitors downtown, but also to “create an essence that calls people, both Londoners and outsiders,” Horak tells his students.  

Over the next three hours, they will see examples of successful past political and economic decisions to breathe life into the city’s downtown and discuss some of London’s challenges. It’s become a tradition for Horak and his class. 

What I really love about it is that it gets us out of the classroom. When I teach urban politics, it’s all about the politics of what we call the built environment, the actual space we live in,” Horak says.  

He wants his students to see how political decisions play out in a city, including the real-life results. 

“It’s different than reading it in a book. It’s not abstract. You see it.” 

King and Talbot Streets, 1:30 p.m.  

I spent five years of my life trying to get light-rail rapid transit here,” John Fleming, former chief planner at London city hall, tells the class. “But rapid transit was here before, from downtown to the gates of Western on streetcars.” 

The streetcar system, which took its first trips in 1875, is long gone. It’s been absent in London for more than three-quarters of a century, since electric streetcars were discontinued in 1940.  

A new bus rapid transit line has since been built on King Street, a 2021 project that continues today with the rest of the “downtown loop” and the “East London Link.” Construction on the final rapid transit route, running between downtown and the city’s south end on Wellington Road, is expected to begin this summer and last for three years. 

The special guests and the details they share with Horak’s students offer an inside look at the city. 

Being outside the lecture hall really helps me connect with the material better. Listening to people who are in the field talk about it is really useful,” third-year political science student Inayah Issa says. 

“I’m not from Canada, so being able to go on a field trip and learn about the city I’m studying in gives me a lot of in-depth knowledge about how the municipal system works, how the infrastructure works, which is really interesting.” 

The class moves a few paces to the north for their next stop. 

Budweiser Gardens, 1:45 p.m. 

“It’s one thing to build it. It’s another thing to actually have it be successful. This is a very successful downtown arena, but its development was controversial,” Fleming says to the class, gathered on the steps of the Bud. He highlighted the history of the site, from its earliest days as a hotel to the economic battle preceding the arena project. 

Budweiser Gardens aligned with a larger North American trend promoting big entertainment venues as a way to improve the attractiveness of a downtown area. The aim was to draw visitors from outside London to attend sports games and concerts and spend money at other local businesses while they were here.  

Horak and Fleming tell the students many cities now also prioritize frequent, lively activities to create an overall “vibrancy” downtown. 

“That communicates a feeling about whether you want to linger,” Fleming says. 

 Their lingering now done, students head to the next phase of the tour. 

Heritage highlights, 2:15 p.m.  

With stops along the route, including the buzzing King and Richmond intersection, and the renovated and redesigned Garvey Building at 201 King St. – once a grocer, it’s now Innovation Works, a co-working space and hotbed for social enterprise – the class traverses much of the core. 

“Shout out to the tech industry for redeveloping heritage buildings,” Miller says, recognizing Info-Tech Research Group for a $12-million renovation on Ridout Street. 

She points out several heritage properties along the tour, with some historic buildings now home to local businesses and other sites still on her radar, where she hopes to see new life take hold in future.  

CitiPlaza, 2:45 p.m. 

It used to boast London’s biggest commercial names, like Eatons and Eddie Bauer, Simpsons and Sears. Fleming recalls the downtown mall’s heyday – even a helicopter flight to mark its opening. CitiPlaza, formerly Galleria London, and even before that, London Square, has reinvented itself many times over the decades, the students learn. 

As times changed and suburban malls closer to home drew more shoppers, the downtown hub changed, too. 

Now it’s a mixture of offices, call centres and a smattering of retail, with London City Hall and the Middlesex-London Health Unit taking up residence inside the mall. The Central Library and Wolf Performance Hall are popular anchors. 

Miller tells the class about the power of reusing and redeveloping spaces to build more resilient and sustainable cities. 

“Open up that flexibility and see the potential and possibility,” she says. 

Next, it’s out the doors and back onto the street for another lesson.  

Dundas Place, 3:15 p.m. 

“Our goal was to turn a street into a place,” Fleming says as the class walks west on Dundas Street, down the pedestrian-friendly “flex street” designed to be closed to cars for festivals and special events. It was completed just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.  

“We wanted this to be the living room of the community, a place you can always go – you don’t need a reason. We wanted a democratic space anyone could access.” 

The $16-million renovation replaced underground assets like century-old watermains, but also redesigned the top of the street to make it more people-centric, such as removing the curbs and installing large planters and bistro sets for sitting and chatting. 

“It’s a canvas that could be painted many different ways,” Fleming says. 

The walk continues. 

Richmond Row, 3:45 p.m. 

From the old to the new, the class hears about the historic roots of Richmond Street before ducking into the lobby of One Richmond Row, a luxury downtown apartment with a unique twisting black-and-white appearance, nicknamed the “Jenga Tower.” 

It’s the perfect finale to a tour about downtown revitalization. Horak and his guests leave the students with some parting thoughts. 

“Care about your community, participate in local government,” Fleming tells the group. 

“And vote!” Miller says emphatically, speaking to the importance of municipal elections.  

The students are leaving the unique Friday afternoon class with a deeper understanding of the city they call home. 

I’ve lived here for four years, but I never really look around. I have learned so much,” sociology and political science student Anjali Bhaheeratha says of the tour. 

Horak’s class will reflect on what they’ve learned in a report, with their observations and analyses later posted on a blog. Horak uses the tour to get students to make connections with the material they learn in lectures and readings. 

“You can see things and feel things that you don’t otherwise notice in the classroom. We’re connecting the study of urban politics to what’s happening on the ground,” he says. 

“Politics isn’t just about abstract things, it’s about the way we live – and live with each other – in cities. I love exposing students to just understanding what their city is about, what makes it tick, and what’s interesting about it.”