A Common Plan
“No planner worth their salt would make a planning decision without consulting the public first,” says Maureen Ryan, a senior planner with HRM. But in January of this year, when HRM presented their plan for spending $3 million dollars on the Halifax North Common, the 'consultation' was little more than an information session, where residents had the opportunity to submit written comments.
Even if a meaningful consultation had taken place, some 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 done in a collaborative and participatory manner.
“We need to develop a vision together first,” says Kate MacKay of the Cities and Environment Unit, a team of community planners that has helped dozens of First Nations communities develop their own community visions. “The vision has to be tangible and action oriented.” The community vision can then inform decisions, such as how the Halifax Common should be used.
“Community visions develop genuine engagement,” says MacKay. “They are locally focused and focus on capacity building. This is more important than ever. We have so much local talent.”
Most public input opportunities consist of a presentation of sorts followed by an opportunity to ask questions or make comments. Letters can also be sent to councillors and newspapers.
“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,” says Pam deNicola, a long-time activist for the protection of farmlands and watershed in her West Haunts community.
Most opportunities for input are one-way and one-time-only; there is rarely space for dialogue or for ideas and concerns to evolve.
“At the basic level, people need to feel heard,” says Maureen Ryan, who is heading up a design process that goes against the trend of meaningless consultation. Ryan is senior planner on the Fall River Community Vision project. “[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 aesthetic, economic, and physical direction for their community. This vision then becomes their policy document.
“These people [residents of Fall River] are very capable,” says Ryan, who believes it’s not the job of planners to make the design decisions for a community. “Planners are here to help determine financial and technical feasibility of their ideas, and to ensure residents have the community development skills to carry out their projects.”
The Imagine Bloomfield Society used similar process to create a vision for the Bloomfield Centre when the future of the centre was in jeopardy. The project and process were resident-directed and every attempt was made to involve as many residents as possible. 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!” laughs Susanna Fuller, a member of the Imagine Bloomfield Board of Directors. “The lesson is that the public can come up with an alternative solution. Plus, you end up with a stronger community.”
Ryan echoes the benefits for the Fall River community, “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.”
The Fall River and Bloomfield processes are both examples of participatory design. One of the key benefits of participatory design is that it allows conflicting stakeholders to work through problems: by engaging with each other participants have the opportunity to expand their perspective and change viewpoints.
“There certainly is a case for participatory design,” says 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.”
Of course, there are downsides to participatory design processes. First, they take time. Developing a design or plan can take years, and politics tend to work in shorter time period. Also, they take a lot of volunteer time from citizens, and many people do not have a plethora of spare time to offer unpaid. Finally, collaborative design necessitates flexibility – a person might think they have the best idea, but then it combines with another, goes off on a tangent, meets new material, and blooms unrecognisable – not easy for everybody.
Which brings us back to the Halifax Common. Originally, it was a wetland, a scrubby floodplain for Freshwater Brook, where people could pasture their animals. As the population increased and the area urbanized, notions of appropriate use and the politics of land management became more complex. Today, it is a central park, 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 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’s currently no space for meaningful dialogue on the subject.
“What if the civic-minded could put their energy into construction rather than opposition and frustration?” wonders Fuller. What if a collaborative design process had been used to create the Common plan? “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?”