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A Common Plan

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Issue: 69 Section: Environment Geography: Atlantic Halifax, Fall River Topics: public space

April 14, 2010

A Common Plan

Participatory design and the Halifax Common

by Jayme Melrose

Port-a-potties on the Halifax Common. Haligonians will have to get used to this look, because according to the Halifax Regional Municipality's plan, "the Commons" will be used for more big-name concerts. What would a people's plan look like? Photo: Katie McKay

HALIFAX—“No planner worth their salt would make a planning decision without consulting the public first,” said Maureen Ryan, a senior planner with the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM). But in January, when HRM presented its plan for spending $3 million on the Halifax North Common (a section of the Halifax Common), the consultation was little more than an information session at which residents had the opportunity to submit written comments.

However, even if a meaningful consultation had taken place, citizens, academics and community planners agree that consultation is not enough. They say the planning process, especially for a public space like the Halifax Common, can and should be collaborative and participatory.

“We need to develop a vision together first,” said Kate MacKay of the Cities and Environment Unit, a team of community planners that has helped dozens of First Nations develop their own community visions. “The vision has to be tangible and action oriented,” and can inform decisions, such as how the Halifax Common should be used.

“Community visions develop genuine engagement,” said MacKay. “They are locally focused... This is more important than ever. We have so much local talent.”

Most public input opportunities consist of a presentation followed by an opportunity for the public to ask questions or make comments.

“You go to the forums, speak your few minutes, write your letters—and then you have no idea who gets them or what happens to that information,” said Pam deNicola, a long-time activist for the protection of farmlands and watershed in West Hants, a municipal district adjoining Halifax County.

"Most opportunities for input are one-way and one-time-only; there is rarely space for dialogue or for ideas and concerns to evolve," said deNicola.

“At the basic level, people need to feel heard,” said Maureen Ryan, who is heading a design process that bucks the trend of mere consultation. Ryan is Senior Planner on the Fall River Community Vision project, a planning process that uses community engagement to shape the plan that will guide future development. “[Participants] need to know their input was taken into account in decision-making.”

Community visions are a lengthy process offered through HRM's Community Planning Department. The goal is to work closely with residents to develop a plan for the esthetic, economic, and physical direction for their community. This vision then becomes their policy document. The Fall River Community Vision is a pilot project in HRM to test the process of making planning decisions with a more engaged public.

“Planners are here to help determine financial and technical feasibility of...ideas, and to ensure residents have the community development skills to carry out their projects,” not to make the design decisions for a community, said Ryan.

The Imagine Bloomfield Society used a similar process to create a vision for the Bloomfield Centre—a response, according to Imagine Bloomfield’s website, “to the need to maintain a community centre in the North End of Halifax that can serve the diverse needs of citizens”—when the future of the centre was in jeopardy. The project and process were resident-directed. Instead of seeking feedback on a particular vision, the Society asked people to contribute their own vision.

The outcome? Imagine Bloomfield created a feasibility study and gave it to HRM. Shortly after, HRM hired a consultant to do a feasibility study which came to essentially the same conclusion. “We could have done it for $25,000 instead of the $75,000 they gave the consultant!” said Susanna Fuller, laughing. Fuller is a director of Imagine Bloomfield. “The lesson is that the public can come up with an alternative solution. Plus, you end up with a stronger community.”

Ryan echoed the benefits of participatory design with respect to Fall River. “It's huge! We have an engaged community. People are working together to create their own festival and database of volunteers. People are re-energized and celebrating the good work of the community as a whole.”

Participatory design allows conflicting stakeholders to work through problems. By engaging with each other, participants expand their perspectives and change views.

“There certainly is a case for participatory design,” said Jill Grant, professor at Dalhousie's School of Planning. “[Examples show] it works best at the small scale, where people are working on a local problem. At that scale, residents [can] see the impacts of their actions and take responsibility.”

Why, then, is participatory design not more widely used?

First, participatory design processes take time. Developing a design or plan can take years, and politics tends to work in shorter time periods. Second, they take a lot of volunteer time, and many people do not have large amounts of spare time to offer unpaid. Finally, collaborative design takes flexibility—a person might think she has the best idea, but then it combines with another, goes off on a tangent, meets new material, and blooms unrecognizable—not an easy process for everybody.

Originally, the Halifax Common was a wetland, a scrubby floodplain for Freshwater Brook, where people pastured their animals. As the population of Halifax increased and the area urbanized, notions of the appropriate use of public land and the politics of land management became more complex. Today, the Common is a central park, a thoroughfare, and, according to HRM’s new plan, will soon be $600,000 more mega-concert-friendly. (HRM’s plan includes a hard, permanent sub-surface under some areas of the grass to make it more adaptable to concerts and seating.)

Some Halifax residents feel the Common’s focus should not be on big-name shows that shut off the public space for concerts you need a ticket to get into, but there is no room for meaningful dialogue on the subject.

“What if the civic-minded could put their energy into construction rather than opposition and frustration?” said Fuller. “What combination of softball, community garden, stream restoration, concert venue, art installation, lounging, doggie heaven would Halifax come up with? How far could the citizenry make $3 million go?”

Jayme Melrose is a gardener who daydreams of daylighting urban streams, and creating other productive landscapes. An original version of this article was published by the Halifax Media Co-op.

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