[Re]Presenting Halifax #8: Public Lands as Connective Tissue or Cancer?

The [Re]Presenting Halifax series revisits historical and contemporary maps, diagrams and other interpretive readings of the Halifax region. See my first post for the full aims of this project and more information about contributing to the series.

HALIFAX – The previous [Re]Presenting Halifax installment explored the morphology of the city through its most basic and anemic form: street pattern. Yet, despite this skeletal representation, relatively little of the city’s structural form — as experienced on the ground — is visible through the street network alone. For this reason, it is useful to look elsewhere — to what not only defines large scale spatial patterns in central Halifax, but that also impacts its social and economic structure.

The form and scale of public land holdings and other mono-functional, amassed plots located on the peninsula demonstrate an alternate network, albeit a simple and fragmented one. Large swaths of peninsular Halifax have been claimed by public and pseudo-public entities — universities, schools, federal agencies (i.e. the Department of National Defense and Parks Canada), the Waterfront Development Corporation, and other provincial and municipal bodies. While the City can leverage their own properties, it often has little control or influence — or even communication — with these other “public” land owners. Yet, the use or mis-use of these parcels — specifically on the peninsula — can drastically impact the flow, permeability and vitality of the city itself.

In this sense, the question arises: What is the morphological impact of public lands and other large mono-functional zones held within the tight confines of a peninsula? Do they act as connective tissue uniting otherwise separate communities through common ground? Or a cancer that fragments, segregates and adversely affects the health of Halifax?

Figure ground; the built fabric of peninsular Halifax (most urbanized portion only). The Common and Citadel lands appears as a significant urban "void".

Reverse figure ground; open space in peninsular Halifax

Public land holdings (separated by holding agency) on peninsular Halifax

Grouping plots together, the city is almost legible from these largely public uses alone. It suggests the importance of public institutions in the make-up of Halifax. A large area in the far north end varies slightly in its inclusion of a large area home to big box, mono-functional sub-urban style development, but it is near impossible to separate due to the immediate juxtaposition of DND lands, Halifax Forum and a large Canada Post sorting outlet with relatively little internal circulation paths or connections to the surrounding grid.

Public land holdings (amalgamated) on peninsular Halifax

Public land holdings (as extracts) on peninsular Halifax

Areas that remain after public and mono-functional extracts are removed

The resulting "Living Blocks"

Composite

Reviewing the images above, a few things immediately jump out:

  • Public uses are largely clustered — especially education and military functions;
  • The block pattern of the city can be separated  into two strong orientations based on the shore line; the dividing line runs along the Chebucto-North Steet axis;
  • Spring Garden Road – between Robie Street and South Park Street – is a crucial path that ties the largely residential areas in the west to what is currently the commercial and retail centre;
  • The Hydrostone exists largely on its own due to both  DND lands and a low-density commercial suburban strip; this commercial zone also seems to fragment this “side” of the city, as there is no Spring Garden equivalent to act as a connective path (North Street may serve this function to some degree, but is severely limited due to traffic congestion);
  • The city’s spatial separations – through lands devoted to military and eduction – is mirrored historically by soci0economic settlement patterns – north end as working class neighbourhood and south end as affluent neighbourhood;
  • The rail cut effectively cuts off the western shore of the Northwest Arm from the peninsula while DND and dockland area restricts access to large portions of the eastern shoreline;
  • While many communities and towns throughout the province lament the centralization of public functions in Halifax, it is clear that centralization is also occurring at the scale of the city;
  • The future of the city is largely related to the treatment of these large parcels regardless of program or ownership.

Are these “zones” the ties that bind or break? Many capital cities experience a “cancer of bureaucracy” — a largely spatial affliction caused by the centralization of government functions — but are the symptoms exacerbated in Halifax due to the presence of DND and multiple post secondary “urban” campuses? Beyond spatial concerns about flow and permeability, do the positive economic effects associated with having a strong base of public functions outweigh the negative economic effects (i.e. reduced tax base)? Do these zones improve or prevent social cohesion among segregated groups?

Looking to the future, will these zones grow or shrink in size? Can the city afford to allow any additional land to be added to these already dominant “patches” of non-residential and arguably non-living pieces of peninsular Halifax? Instead, should the city actively be trying to “reclaim” pieces and encourage the intensifying land-use for some of these areas (Dalhousie continues to intensify the use of its land), or should it be encouraging the spreading out of what are certainly major employment nodes? Given the heavy presence and centralization of public functions, how will proposed public(ly funded) buildings such as the Central Library or Convention Centre impact these already well established zones?

3 comments

  1. Another interesting post in this series. In some cases the state of public land in this city is atrocious – specifically those lands belonging to Capital Health and the Defense Department. The VG/ IWK/ Grace Complex along University Avenue is probably the worst example – literally an impermeable wall several hundred metres long, with scattered parking structures and other design disasters. With such an incredible boulevard University Avenue should be one of the most beautiful streets in the city, but it’s not. Defense is a tougher problem. Whether we like it or not restricted access is a requirement of a dockyard, although massive amounts of surface parking are not.

    I like the idea of ‘living’ land and many of your observations are bang on. I would include DAL (main campus) in the living category – it may be intensifying but its a unique case where activity happens at many times throughout the day. It’s also permeable, as most of the block patterns is intact. Plus, activity flows outward from the Dal campus towards Quinpool and Spring Garden (just ask South and West End residents!). That said, over-concentration is potentially a concern, eventually you can have too much of a good thing.

    Downtown is certainly experiencing a “cancer of beuracracy”. An office mono-culture, heavily public at that, is to blame. This fact is utterly lost on boosters of the convention centre, which if built will make the sitution worse. Mixed-use Spring Garden is the new centre of the city and the vibrancy seems to be spreading down side streets.
    Thanks for the article, this issue needs a lot of attention. We hear so much about the need to protect the Commons and the Citadel, but there are much bigger problems. I wish this was the kind of analysis that HRMbyDesign had done.

  2. I like the idea of ‘living’ land and many of your observations are bang on. I would include DAL (main campus) in the living category – it may be intensifying but its a unique case where activity happens at many times throughout the day. It’s also permeable, as most of the block patterns is intact. Plus, activity flows outward from the Dal campus towards Quinpool and Spring Garden (just ask South and West End residents!). That said, over-concentration is potentially a concern, eventually you can have too much of a good thing.

  3. I like the idea of ‘living’ land and many of your observations are bang on. I would include DAL (main campus) in the living category – it may be intensifying but its a unique case where activity happens at many times throughout the day. It’s also permeable, as most of the block patterns is intact. Plus, activity flows outward from the Dal campus towards Quinpool and Spring Garden

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