Stepping Back from the Centre Plan

The Best Laid Plans

We are always making plans: big ones, little ones, some that are highly specific, and others that are heavily detailed. We make traffic plans, transportation plans, economic development plans, heritage protection plans, and urban renewal plans. We plan in order to upgrade our system of education, our health care system, and so on. Each plan may be important, but wouldn’t make much sense apart from the others. That would be like exercising one’s left bicep to the exclusion of every other muscle in the body: silly, if not perverse. From experience we know that privileging a few features of the city’s fabric – heritage, density, transit, traffic flow, or whatever – is usually more destructive than beneficial.

Look around. Think about it. Local examples of single-minded, one-dimensional developments abound. Halifax is a veritable Smithsonian of overbearing “one-liners.” The most recent and egregious example is The Borg. In its shadow, “resistance is futile; prepare to be assimilated.” Earlier examples include the clearance of Africville and the subsequent erections of Mulgrave Park and Uniacke Square; the street closures and block consolidations that resulted in the Cogswell Interchange, Scotia Square, and Metro Centre; Queen’s Square and Highfield Park in Dartmouth; and Halifax’s own Fenwick Tower, Quinpool Centre, and many more.

Of course, individual health is about more than just the body; it’s also about one’s mind and spirit, hopes and dreams. Indeed, it’s about all of the parts working together in harmony. At a larger scale, it’s about “we,” the human parts, living and working together to make the world a better place. A living city is also a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. So what kind of city is Halifax?

Bits-and-Pieces? On-Again-Off-Again? Or Leaps-and-Bounds?

Leaps-and-Bounds cities are always optimistic. They seem to bounce from strength to strength, effortlessly leaping from one success to the next. Never in doubt, they are confidently assured of a boundless future. You know the kind of place … and Halifax isn’t one of them. Of course, from our founding as a colonial outpost to the present day, we’ve had our moments in the sun. Most of these moments coincided with a time of global conflict. Every time the sun goes down – and it always does – we find ourselves back in the shadows.

We have much in common with On-Again-Off-Again cities, which tend to be pessimistic. We expect the worse and are never disappointed when it arrives. We lack self-confidence and take little pride in our own accomplishments. We are resentful not only of those “from away,” but those who left and later returned, bathed in glory. Just as a colonized people turns to its motherland for paragons to emulate, we too look anywhere but here for models to fawn over. We are forever grabbing what we can, when we can, because we may never get another chance. As a result, we’re easily seduced by carpetbaggers. We suffer tub-thumpers gladly, but often fail to finish the things we’ve started. Feeling second-rate is a grievous condition: forever uncertain, never able to plan with confidence, always waiting – and then, at the last moment, making a grab for whatever is passing by. In particular, we have a bad habit of over-reaching. Here again, The Borg comes to mind.

While we have nothing in common with Leaps-and-Bounds cities, we also have little in common with Bits-and-Pieces cities, which take life as it comes. They’re outwardly prudent; given their lot, they have to be. They are also inwardly wistful and romantic, and more than a tad mysterious. They plan patiently over the longer term. They have to be frugal and tend to make an art of it: saving the best, keeping it in good repair, and adding a bit at a time.

Lunenburg is not a fully-fledged city, but it’s our best local example of a Bits-and-Pieces city. Like Halifax, it was founded as a palisaded military outpost with a terraced street grid on the side of a rocky peninsula overlooking a fine natural harbour. Lunenburg has evolved over several generations, always centred on its open square and developed in harmony with its original grid. Not unlike a domestic mantelpiece, Lunenberg’s Grand Parade was reserved for buildings and monuments of civic importance. It remained open until the town decided to place something of civic importance there and had the resources to do so. Over time, its Grand Parade has become a place of great distinction. Meanwhile, the original street grid and lot subdivision plan were carefully extended out to the natural limits of the town’s initial site. Once the original grid was filled, the more spacious grid of Lunenburg’s so-called “New Town” was laid out on the mainland, at the neck of the peninsula. These patterns on the land are only a small part of a much larger urban story. Even small building details such as the “Lunenburg Bump” acknowledge the site, its orientation, and the street grid, as well as changes in technology, culture, and domestic life. As Lunenburg evolved into a contemporary community, it retained the distinctive imprints of each of its generations. With each generation respecting what it inherited, we now derive pleasure from the outcome: a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Lunenburg shows how the patient addition of carefully considered pieces can result in an urban settlement that is both healthy and deeply moving. Such places are worthy of our admiration and encouragement. Unfortunately, Halifax can’t seem to learn from them, due to our chronic lack of confidence and lack of patience. More’s the pity.

Here We Go Again

Not so long ago, generous ambitions informed the initial public exercises for the Centre Plan. Now we find ourselves asking where all that promise has gone. It seems that those many different enthusiasms have been reduced to just one: the management of population growth, roughly projected as 1% per year over the next 15 years. Is that really The Plan: to accommodate 40,000 new residents by designating and intensifying urban “corridors” and “centres”? Surely not. That could be the germ of an idea, but it’s hardly a real plan.

We must remember that this is not where the exercise started. It started with the Regional Plan, adopted in 2006 and revised in 2014. The current draft of our Centre Plan refers its readers to the “Guiding Principles” in that document. In the draft Centre Plan we should expect to find evidence that those broad principles have been absorbed into its words, images, and diagrams; and, more importantly, that those principles can be found in the physical forms and spatial organization that the draft Centre Plan presents. Why the concern? For better or worse, the Centre Plan and what it produces will be our legacy. We expect it to be a collective vision of what Halifax should become in the not-so-distant future. But so far, this is not the case. The Plan’s broad vision has yet to materialize. Instead, it’s a welter of disconnected fragments of equal weight, barely distinguishable from one another. Perhaps it’s down there somewhere – maybe down in the weeds? But what if there is no bigger picture? In its rush to close the loopholes in our current Plans and to streamline our approval processes, has it lost the optimism of those earlier contributions? Has this whole cumbersome effort become yet another missed opportunity?

Unfortunately, we believe so. In fact, we believe that streamlining the Centre Plan in this expedient way will prove to be an expensive mistake of epic proportions. Should this narrow view prevail, future generations will live with our short-sightedness. Sadly, we know the costs and the burdens that are imposed by such a singular focus, having ourselves been hamstrung by the heavy-handed planning and design decisions of our predecessors in Halifax. So why do we persist?

Stepping Back Further

 Lacking distance or perspective, we remain immersed in our own experience and have great difficulty imagining how things might be otherwise. More to the point, we can’t even distinguish what’s junk, what’s fake, what’s irreplaceable, and what’s of inestimable value. Visitors to Halifax tell us of its beauties, its intimacies, and its distinguishing qualities. We are taken aback because we lack the critical distance to appreciate these things ourselves. Ironically, we exercise these abilities when we visit other cities. Surely we can manage to do the same here: to look at Halifax “from a distance” with fresh eyes, to appreciate it critically as a new and different place. For instance, consider the following.

Working With What We Have

At the dawning of our own brief episode, our military forebears had a short shopping list and a clear mental image of what they were looking for. They were urgently involved in a global conflict and on the lookout for a site that combined the properties of a deep-water port with those of a defensible fortress. They knew what they were looking for and where to look, and that’s what they found. That’s also what they claimed, without regard for the longstanding claims of the original inhabitants of the place. We’ve since come to admire this location’s many natural qualities as a town site and as a place to raise our generations of children, looking to the future with a cautious optimism.

Despite all of the tub-thumping, sound and fury, overblown dreams, and built blunders in this city, much of what we’ve inherited also happens to be of the highest quality. On-Again-Off-Again cities are like that: up and down. When they’re not burning up with excessive energy and making bad decisions, they have a way of exercising sound judgment and excellent taste. We can recognize this in our new central library and our massively popular skating oval on the North Common. The same applies to the Public Gardens, as well as the Dartmouth Common and the precious campus of Christ Church adjacent to it. Our forebears built and passed down regional hospitals and health care facilities, as well as three distinguished universities: Dalhousie, St. Mary’s, and the Mount. Very different circumstances led to the post-WWI Hydrostone neighbourhoods and the post-WWII Westmount subdivision. After a less than promising beginning, each has matured into a community of great character and distinction. At the scale of the metropolitan region, the Nova Scotia Housing Commission (now defunct) played a central role in the measured expansions of Halifax and Dartmouth through its Planned Unit Developments of Forest Hills Village, Lower Sackville, and Millwood Village. All told, these planned communities are home to some 50,000 households.

While the list could go on, one series of objects, streets, public spaces, and public buildings stands out as the civic heart of Halifax. With George Street as its spine, it follows the slope from the Citadel and the Town Clock down to Lower Water Street and the harbour. This civic series has evolved gradually since the city’s inception in 1749. From the top, the series includes the Town Clock (1803), a gift from Prince Edward, Duke of Kent; the Grand Parade (1749), home to our War Memorial and Cenotaph, City Hall (1890), and St Paul’s Church (1750). Crossing the Grand Parade, we arrive at Barrington Street and Number One Government Place, a compact, understated contemporary building that steps neatly down the slope to Granville Street. From there, we may observe and enter Province House, Nova Scotia’s Legislature (1819), said to be one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in North America, with its House of Assembly and its finely detailed and comfy Legislative Library. The grounds of Province House include a fine statue of Joseph Howe (1804–1873), journalist, politician, public servant, and poet. Below him, and directly across Hollis Street, stands the original headquarters of the Bank of Nova Scotia (1930), a fine example of Art Deco architecture, with its stunning banking hall. Next to it is the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, with its charming collection of folk art and its sculpture terrace overlooking the Federal Building. Beyond it are Lower Water Street, the Provincial Law Courts, the city’s ferry terminal, and the Halifax Harbour.

This ensemble is a remarkable achievement, the work of generations, of countless hands and minds, all dedicated to augmenting the city’s history. The result is a compressed, detailed, intricate, and varied story in built form that would rival the best that other cities have to offer. Compositionally, it’s straight-forward: a string of beads with varied shapes, intensities, significances, and hues. Tracing this route from top to bottom requires no more than thirty minutes and can be great fun. When one is in the mood to explore it in more depth, over hours or days, it can also be deeply moving: a compelling presentation of many overlapping and complimentary parts.

Stewardship

The point is this: It can be done. We know how to do it and we’ve done it before. Taking a page from the playbook of Bits-and-Pieces cities, we must accept the obligation of sustained stewardship, to care for what has been passed on to us in trust. That “body of work” – for that’s what it is, a body – is irreplaceable. It’s the foundation on which everything else will be built, in the present and in the future. As patient and thoughtful stewards, our first responsibilities are to ensure that this base is in good repair and that previous errors are either corrected or replaced.

Stewardship of a city must embrace its future as well as its past and present. Thus, “critical stewardship” requires us to see and understand the city’s parts as well as its whole, and to see them as interdependent systems in both space and time. Clearly, what’s being added has obligations other than maintenance: to observe, understand, and respect what’s already present and how it got there; to learn from it and enhance it; and to benefit from what’s best in it. As stewards, we must be sensitive, searching, and intelligent; and when it’s called for, we must be bold. What we add has the power to bring new meaning and deeper significance to what it is joining, whether that’s a busy commercial street, the centre of town, or a quiet neighbourhood. Our new central library is a brilliant example of these qualities. Even with its fresh, new face, it belongs where it is. Although it’s a new voice, it manages to become a member of the choir: same page, same key. Through its lens we experience entirely new possibilities for a public library, as well as for Spring Garden Road and the larger Centre Plan area.


Unfortunately, we are deeply concerned by what we’ve seen of the Centre Plan so far: by its severely narrow focus and its demeaning, piecemeal process. Although our generation will be its authors, its impact will be felt much more by those who follow. Sadly, they will suffer from its shortsightedness. We have done much better – and we can do much better.

J. Grant Wanzel / 1 Dec. 2016