Thursday, July 7, 2011

Report from Halifax

I recently had the opportunity to spend a lovely weekend in Halifax and I can report that that’s a city that knows its place.

My hotel was on the waterfront and I was able to explore the town from the naval base to the public waterfront to the shipping terminal to all around Point Pleasant Park and up to university, the Citadel, and Public Gardens Area. (A lot of walking in three days!)

When you’re in Halifax, you know you’re in an area with a rich history and cultural heritage. And there’s no doubt that you’re in a maritime city. The sights and sites are a constant reminder, as is the seafood. There’s a wealth of restaurants from upscale to diner-style.

The city has done many things right in terms of placemaking to help visitors and residents know all about the history and culture. Of all the places I saw, two stood out as especially excellent and unique places, Point Pleasant Park and the public waterfront.

Point Pleasant Park is aptly named. It encompasses the south end of the Halifax peninsula. It’s a large park with a great network of trails. Judging by the high level of use by residents, it is an important part of the quality of life in Halifax. (Although as I was marveling about how wonderful the park was, I did overhear one young boy asking his mom ‘why am I here again?’ to which his mom replied, ‘to spend some family time.’ Kids, eh?) I greatly enjoyed sitting on the cobble beach looking out across the water and listening to the mild surf of this protected waterfront. Even mild ocean surf has a much lower, booming sound than our Great Lakes waves. But upon entering the park, I saw two familiar but unwelcome views – a beach closure sign due to bacterial contamination after a heavy rain (the ocean wasn’t contaminated, it was where a city stream empties onto a beach), and an invasive plant site (they were controlling Japanese knotweed with geoblankets). Otherwise the park was excellent, with many small monuments and other features and lots of way finding signage.

The public waterfront consists of about one mile of boardwalk/public spaces right at the downtown area, from the naval base to the shipping terminal. It features slips for tour boats (including tall ships and even Thomas the Tugboat), eateries and pubs with waterfront seating, monuments and lots of way finding signage. The downtown ares just up hill from the waterfront includes hotels, shops, restaurants and bars, office towers, and a skywalk. It all makes for a great place to spend an afternoon watching the harbor (or should I say harbour) activities and the people.

This mile of public waterfront is a small fraction of the miles of waterfront, the rest of which is mainly industrial, and includes what appears to be a petrochemical plant across the bay. What is now the public waterfront used to be industrial as well. Several decades ago, a group of forward-looking individuals who realized that the economy was shifting away from heavy industry got together to see how they could help the town thrive despite that shift. A waterfront commission was created and designed and nurtured the development of what is now a wonderful public waterfront that is an important economic asset to the town. So even in Halifax, placemaking needs to be guided. I don’t have any information on the controversies of the time or how well the plan was originally received, but it worked. The pace of construction indicates that the area is still seen as a good investment. Thousands of visitors and lots of residents appreciate the commission's work.

My area, Sault Sainte Marie Michigan and Ontario, is known as a place of natural beauty, not for boutiques and lots of fine dining and upscale nightlife. That point was made clear in the in-flight magazine I read on my flight to Halifax. Porter Airlines is a regional carrier based in Toronto with service to Thunderbay, Sault, Sudbury, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, St. John’s as well as Chicago, New York, and a few other major US destinations. The in-flight magazine offered highlights of each of the airline’s stops. For all the towns, these highlights were shops, eateries, night clubs, except for the Sault. The one spot highlighted for the Sault was Whitefish Island, a natural area on the remnant rapids of the St. Marys River. I like that.

Sault Ontario has done a great job of making a public waterfront. We on the Michigan side have a way to go. Our working waterfront offers challenges to creation of public spaces, but so did Halifax's (and like Halifax, the lovely public waterfront in Sault Ontario used to be a crumbling industrial site). We can figure out how to do it here, too.

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