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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

[Re]Presenting Halifax #2: Against the Grain

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This is the second installment in a series that 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 – This map is a representation of the waterfront area, city centre, and suburbs of Halifax in 1835. Despite the passing of nearly 90 years since its founding, the original layout of the city remained intact in 1835. The only noticeable expansion is evident in the suburban growth in the north and south (Schmidtville), while paths to the west identify patterns for future expansion.

The inclusion of plot size is one of the most distinguishing and legible features of this map. Within the original city centre, blocks are narrow, with the long edge running parallel to the water. The blocks follow a strong grid pattern, each being approximately 320 feet in length and 120 feet in width (98m x 37m), with 55-foot (17m) wide streets in between. Each block is then subdivided into 16 equal plots. The result is a fine grain and diverse urban fabric, as each plot is a mere 40 feet wide.

The larger plot sizes north of the city centre clearly illustrate the area’s suburban qualities (although exceptions can be found near the naval dockyard and along Gottingen street, close to military exercise grounds where soldiers and workers lived).

So what does this mean for Halifax today? This plot configuration yielded high densities for Halifax, and was certainly not an obstacle for the future modernization of the city. But, like many other cities, parts of Halifax still bear the scars of various phases of urban renewal. Today, many of these same pieces are once again being considered for renewal and renovation. Should the city evolve within its current structure or tear down and start again?

Looking to a piece of the city centre highly altered from its original form (see images below), the changes to the street are significant – from a close-knit fabric still evident in 1957 to a loose weave at best (1997). There is little doubt that this area of the city has unraveled to a point where it is no longer a coherent or legible piece of the city. It is also a piece of the city ripe for redevelopment (most notably, the Cogswell Interchange site) and demands reorganization. The images that follow are based on analysis presented in Beverly Sandalack and Andrei Nicolai’s Urban Structure – Halifax. An Urban Design Approach (1998, TUNS Press), one of the few published morphological studies of Halifax.

The condition of this particular area is most devastating to the pedestrian. By enlarging the grain of the city, porosity has been reduced – choice for the user, as she or he navigates between places, has been reduced. Reciprocity of lines and paths has moved toward singularity. The complexity and overlap inherent to all things urban is simplified and, therefore, less capable of adapting to the changes occurring around it.

The last image (below) is made up of three layers – an aerial view of the city today, the plot structure of 1957 (white lines), and building coverage and commercial distribution from 1997 (back lines and dotes; dated, but still accurate). Whereas services were well-distributed throughout the fabric in 1957, commercial activity has been clustered in larger buildings, often around internal – private – streets. But despite its current state, this areas remain a critical threshold between the city centre and the north (sub)urban areas.

With these maps and diagrams, (at least) three elements that define the quality of (life in) the city are presented: the landscape, the building (defined by plot), and the resulting grain of the urban tissue or fabric. While neither the original grid nor current configuration is connected to the regional topography, the small plot size effectively forged a new, and highly legible topography that mimicked the ground below. The same cannot be said for the superblocks that house Scotia Square or the Metro Centre. Considering these elements of urbanity – building, plot, landscape – are current redevelopment projects being designed with context in mind? What do they produce as building? As fabric? As landscape? What do they reproduce and does this reproduction strengthen or weaken existing conditions?

With the impending construction of a new convention centre and the eventual redevelopment of the Cogswell Interchange, it is necessary to revisit the history of these sites to uncover challenges and potential, and to envision alternatives to what is proposed that move beyond a new development vs. protecting heritage debate; reality is much more complex and heritage is too subjective. Instead, it is better to try and imagine a city that is neither stuck in the past nor chasing the future – how can we make the city come alive for its inhabitants today, so we are not left stumbling through either a museum or theme park?

More than buildings, heritage can be represented in the qualities of the city and, in this case, through the historic parcelization of the city. And it is this high level of density, achieved through the configuration of plot structure, that demonstrates the true strength of heritage in Halifax. The city’s heritage unveils a high-density approach to city building that moves beyond the superblock or tower. By viewing density outside of the confines of the box (building), and looking to the plot and landscape, urban density can be better defined as a high degree of variation – density as diversity in culture and lifestyle. But rather than trying to rediscover this heritage through the principles of New Urbanism or the policy of form-based codes, how can we use the heritage of this place to design a city that only gets better with age?

photo by Shawn Micallef from the Spacing Atlantic Flickr pool; diagrams based on analysis published in Urban Structure – Halifax. An Urban Design Approach


One comment

  1. Excellent article Matt! Particularly your thoughts on rethinking what we consider “heritage.”

    With heritage districts now being assigned, maybe it’s time we also started thinking about Halifax’s modernist heritage (The Nova Scotia Archives, The Killam Library, Fenwick Tower) or our industrial heritage (the peninsula rail cut, the container elevators) or even our more recent military heritage (Shannon Park, the military docks along Provo Wallis st.)?