People often lament the state of urban design in Halifax, and for good reason. The city is home to a string of mistakes stretching back decades. Think Cogswell Interchange, Fenwick Tower, the Maritime Center or, more recently, the new Convention Center which presents pedestrians with a massive blank wall stretching an entire city block along Market Street. In each case, when the project was being presented to the public, politicians and officials were smiling and heads were nodding up and down in agreement. Each time they claimed that a good decision had been made and that there was a public process which produced an optimal outcome. In actuality nothing, could be further from the truth. There is, however, a process called the design charrette that facilitates exceptional urban design, but it remains unused in Halifax.
The latest example of pedestrian unfriendly design was unveiled in a public meeting on December 15, 2016. In this case, representatives from the government and their local firm under contract, introduced plans to replace Le Merchant St. Thomas Elementary School with a new building that is conspicuously separated from the sidewalk by the large asphalt parking lot- only part of which is shown below.
This suburban-style site plan will be imposed on a neighborhood that is fundamentally urban in character; highly valued for its visual charms, pedestrian-oriented nature, and high quality of life. It’s one of the few neighborhoods left in North America where people can raise children in a environment where they can walk anywhere they please: movie theaters, groceries, restaurants, the library, a skating rink, museums, a waterfront and more.
The process that produced this flawed site design excluded the vast majority of the community. You had to be on one of a handful of school committees or have owned a house adjacent to the school grounds in order to be contacted. Tellingly, only a couple dozen people attended the presentation on December 15th. That’s a shame because the school is the heart of the neighborhood.
The process, to the extent one existed, was poorly executed. Differences of opinion quickly devolved into squabbles, which contributed to an undesirable outcome. The project’s management team failed to realize that everyone who lived in the neighborhood was a legitimate stakeholder. Importantly neither the province nor the design firm they hired was trained to facilitate a design-centric process that produces a pedestrian-oriented site plan.
The correct approach would have been to execute the aforementioned design charrette, a structured approach that enables a broad range of stakeholders to participate in a multi-day, design-oriented process that produced the kind of pedestrian-oriented site plan that is needed on the Le Marchant school site. Charrettes have repeatedly proven successful to overcome a range of barriers and complexities associated with pedestrian-oriented design. They foster inclusivity, understanding, and optimal outcomes. They don’t produce buildings separated from sidewalks by large parking lots.
We live in a time where information is literally at our fingertips, yet in planners and architects in Nova Scotia remain blithely indifferent to the design charrette irrespective of its ability to bring people together to produce humanizing results. And that is a loss for all of us. Research has shown that people value two things above all else in a community. The first is basic services such as roads, affordable housing, and healthcare. The second is aesthetics - which includes the physical appearance of buildings and their relationship to human beings. Whether we realize it or not, we respond deeply to what surrounds us. Entire industries are built around this fundamental desire. It’s why we prefer travel to Europe over New Jersey. So why are we replicating suburban New Jersey in our urban neighborhood?
The answer has already been largely provided, but it is worth reiterating that a lack of inclusion, communication, and commitment to good urban design, will always produce negative outcomes. Nova Scotia needs a cultural shift to stop repeating the mistakes of the past. Planners and architects need to work much harder and more collaboratively with communities to build visually delightful, pedestrian-oriented places that make people on sidewalks feel better about the spaces they inhabit. Getting planners and architects trained on how to plan for and execute charrettes provides the mechanics for this cultural shift.