Sharing Ideas to Transform Vacant Site into Urban Gardens… and more

HALIFAX – Once declared by Shakespeare, “What is the city but the people?” suggests he may have been as successful an urban planner as playwright. If people are core to a city, perhaps the way a city is planned and developed ought to incorporate people’s needs, visions and values.

Historically, Halifax has not been known for engaging its people in the process of city building. Strong citizen opposition and lack of engagement in projects such as the Cogswell Interchange, Scotia Square, the Chebucto Road widening and, most recently, the Convention Centre, exemplify this process.

In recent years, the process has been shifting. Citizens were involved in the creation of Halifax’s downtown vision and plan, HRMbyDesign. Over 1,000 people gave input to design the Halifax Central Library. The Fenwick Tower Redevelopment engaged citizens in multi-stakeholder visioning sessions led by a private developer. In this new context of growing citizen engagement, it is fitting that Capital Health, an institution whose primary interest is health of the people of Nova Scotia, be among this list of trailblazers.

Nearly 100 people on Sunday, November 21 sat around small tables in Guild Hall of the Atlantica Hotel, just across the street from the former Queen Elizabeth High School. Today the building sits empty, appearing abandoned to the unknowing eye, yet is the future site of — well, that is yet to be determined. Sharing ideas for what this space could become is what brought these people to a hotel for the entirety of their Sunday afternoon.

In 5-10 years time, this prominent site at the corner of Robie St and Bell Rd will be used for hospital expansion. Demolition begins next month and will be finished by early spring. By summer 2011, community programming should be running on the site.

Traditional process in Halifax would see the site used as a parking lot for the next 5 years. Brian Rankin of Partners for Care, Capital Health made it crystal clear in his opening remarks on Sunday that this site will NOT be used for parking. Quite the contrary — Capital Health pitched the idea of an urban garden to the crowd. This is a natural extension of their preventative health care initiatives including establishing a farmers market at the VG hospital, ceasing sales of fried foods in their cafeterias and offering healthy food at cheap prices in their retail stores.

Next up to the mic was Frank Palermo of the Cities & Environment Unit (CEU) who helped host this gathering. He highlighted the significance of the site as it sits on a prominent corner in the city, on Commons land, near where the beloved willow tree once stood and where memories of school days for thousands of people will live on for years to come.

“Make a bold statement about the future of the city,” Palermo challenged participants. “This is not about a whole series of studies — it is about making something happen. It will only happen if community comes together to make it happen.” Participants were encouraged not to get caught up in how long the garden or other activities will last on the site, but that anything done of quality for even a day can have a lasting impact. It is expected that the activities over the next few years will be incorporated into the design of the hospital’s expansion, when the time comes.

After opening remarks participants were asked to discuss at their tables: What principles should guide the use of the site for the next 5-10 years? Conversation at my table sparked right away as a Citadel High student suggested the homeless community of Halifax could be engaged in upkeeping the garden and benefit from its produce.

Table conversations were followed by presentations from Marjorie Willison of Spryfield Urban Farm on the history and success of that project, Councillor Jennifer Watts on HRM’s urban agriculture work to date, and Garity Chapman of the Ecology Action Centre on case studies and local lessons learned.

During this time, the CEU team compiled a draft list of guiding principles gathered from the first round of table conversations. These principles included:

– All season design and use (perhaps a reaction to the Public Gardens)
– Foster and promote partnerships
– Ecological sustainability / Systems approach
– Community fabric and needs considered in produce distribution
– Accessibility and Inclusiveness
– Teaching and Learning
– Health (lifestyle promotion, kids, therapeutic)

The second round of table conversations asked participants: What would be the fun/bold/easy thing to do? Ideas were then shared with the room, showing strong support for the idea of an urban garden. Complimentary ideas, to name a few, were bike parking, social enterprise and public art. An emphasis of discussion surrounded the process moving forward — to make it as inclusive and collaborative as possible.

There is a common sense that this project could create a ripple effect in Halifax for more public engagement in the development of the city and for landowners to open up their vacant sites to possibilities beyond parking.

Next opportunity to engage: Open House on December 1, 5-7pm at RBC Auditorium

One comment

  1. Have you considered using your site to demonstrate that urban farming can produce income? New farmers in the US and Canada are having success with SPIN-Farming, which is an organic-based small plot farming system that outlines how to make money growing in backyards, front lawns and neighborhood lots. SPIN, developed by Canadian farmer Wally Satzewich, provides everything you’d expect from a good franchise: a business concept, marketing advice, financial benchmarks and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn’t any different from McDonalds. By offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm commercially, wherever they live, as long as there are nearby markets to support them. A free calculator that shows how much farm income can be made from backyards and neighborhood lots is available at the SPIN website – http://www.spinfarming.com/free/

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