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Jim Dunn, a professor at McMaster University, attaches a 360-degree video camera to the research vehicle before driving through Hamilton’s Stinson neighbourhood, on Wednesday.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

McMaster professor Jim Dunn spends a lot of time on The Hamilton-born academic is not shopping for a house: For him, the site for real-estate addicts is a crucial research tool in probing how the city is transforming.

From the prosperous, trendy neighbourhood around the campus of McMaster University to its east side, where empty storefronts and fast food joints still dominate, Hamilton is a city of contrasts.

Next month, Dr. Dunn will head to the streets to capture a record of those differences, before the massive change that has begun in the real-estate market erases the legacy of 20 years of postindustrial decline. Driving a Prius equipped with a camera mounted on its roof, Dr. Dunn and his team will film and analyze images of each street in the city, trying to find the elements that make some neighbourhoods more livable than others. If the project is repeated every year as Dr. Dunn hopes, it would provide neighbourhood advocates with evidence for the problems and solutions they see on the streets and create an archive for future researchers to mine.

"Things are moving fast and changing fast here … Hamilton is a fabulous natural laboratory for urban change," said Dr. Dunn, a professor in the department of health, aging and society.

Few academics have used Google Street View or technology like it to study what drives gentrification. Most recently, two Harvard researchers who worked with Street View images found that gentrification was slower in United States neighbourhoods that once had a higher percentage of African-Americans, as opposed to ones that had concentrations of Latinos or Eastern Europeans.

Residents who showed up at a community forum one evening in Hamilton this month were eager to talk about how documenting what their communities look like from year to year can help to get resources from the city. Even simple things like creating a park on a piece of land that once was a factory parking lot has led to more neighbourhood friendships, said one community organizer. And having objective, visual evidence of the benefits of beautifying the city can rally other communities.

For now, one of the first research projects the images will be used for is a comparison of Victoria, B.C., with Hamilton, based on their child-friendly features. Rather than just counting playgrounds, or the number of street crossings, the research by one of Dr. Dunn's master's students is probing the esthetic appeal of the two cities, looking at the condition of the streets, litter and the the barriers between sidewalks and roads. Poorly maintained neighbourhoods can lead to anxious parents who are unwilling to let their kids roam free, impacting their development.

Those theories will also be tested by showing the footage to different audiences in Hamilton. Parents may see things the researchers don't. The idea behind creating an image archive of the entire city is for it to function like a blood bank to which epidemiologists can repeatedly return to test theories about the causes of illness.

"We have data on two things about neighbourhoods right now," Dr. Dunn said. "Who lives there and opinions on what it's like to live there. Images give us objective data on the neighbourhood."

Dr. Dunn has a personal stake in the city's future. He grew up in Hamilton, at a time when Stelco employed more than 25,000 workers, left for graduate work at Simon Fraser as the recession of the 1990s turned downtown malls into shells, and came back just as Hamilton City Centre – the city's former Eaton Centre – was renovated into new office and retail space.

He's confident the city is moving in a positive direction, particularly as Go Transit increases train service to Toronto over the next decade. How that will happen is up to the planners.

"It's abstract to look at land use and density from geographic databanks," he said. "This is looking at what people's experience is like."

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