Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Tell a Better Downtown Story

Read more articles by

HALIFAX – The Downtown Halifax Business Commission (DHBC) recently launched a promotional campaign to “tell a better story” about your experiences downtown – that is, after you get out of your office/home/car to take advantage of the fun factory that our downtown can be. One ad tells the story of the great food I ate, the park I sat in, and the conversations I had during my lunch break – rather than “I ate at my desk today”.

This positive approach piqued my interest, got me thinking about the downtown story I tell, and ultimately lured me to their annual general meeting last Wednesday evening. As I arrived Paul MacKinnon, Executive Director of DHBC, was delivering an entertaining tongue-in-cheek presentation on people’s perceptions of the downtown, informed by their annual survey.

Overwhelmingly (yet not surprisingly) parking shortages emerged as the hot issue. I had to surpress myself as the city-design-geek in me physically cringed. Considering the plethora of challenges and opportunities we Haligonians could speak up about – why does parking always take centre stage? What a dull story: “I tried to go downtown but there wasn’t enough pavement to sit my big auto on for an hour or two, so I didn’t go.”

MacKinnon noted that an event like the Parade of Lights attracts 100,000 people to the downtown –  and no one complains about parking. I sense a hidden story here: “I want to be downtown! I would not complain about parking if more exciting events and activities happened.”

To that story, one might add “If public transportation were more convenient and enjoyable, perhaps I wouldn’t need to drive downtown at all.” Bursting that thought bubble, MacKinnon mentioned how HRM’s 5 year transit plan proposed a downtown shuttle – that was later cut by city council. On the flipside, downtown is expected to earn 80 more parking spaces in the coming year.

Looks like people are getting what they want, based on the narrative they spread. I take this as an invitation to rethink our downtown stories.

MacKinnon told a story of our downtown where “50 years ago, 30,000 more people lived on the peninsula than today”.  Adding that currently 25 new developments are approved but not yet under construction in the downtown area – of which, many sit and wait as surface parking lots.

Might we tell a story of Halifax with fewer patches of single-use pavement? A story where even a few of these void sites are transformed into other uses – oh the experiences we could also have! Spontaneity in public spaces, funky goods found in independent shops, cappuccinos in cafes, playgrounds, performance and art spaces, social innovation squats, dancing in the streets – with more people living affordably downtown! Endless possibilities, really.

For now, I will tell a hopeful story of our downtown that encompasses all of these experiences. I mean, why not? Just imagine what we might create!

… what story are you telling?



  1. Great article, Rachel! How funny that it is posted above a headline from Wednesday noting that Fredericton’s downtown is losing 41 parking spaces.

    I wonder what will happen when the 25 not-yet-started developments no longer act as surface lots. I imagine that the value of the remaining lots will increase, making those fewer parking spaces more expensive. Increased transit funding through increased property-tax revenue, perhaps?

  2. I agree. I think the larger issue is creating a reason for being downtown in the first place. I don’t see much appetite in the average person for being downtown, and the lack of convenient parking just seals the deal. It’s like being invited to a party you’re only partially interested in – if it’s easy to get there/you don’t have anything else on, you’ll go; otherwise, you don’t – the slightest inconvenience makes it even less worthwhile.

    But, if you create something interesting downtown, then all of a sudden people want to be there – parking spaces or no parking spaces. They are motivated by the possibility of having a good time. And magically, the transport system modifies to suit demand, and other businesses open to be part of the action, etc. Parking in downtown is not the issue, it’s the lack of a
    reason to be downtown in the first place.

  3. I had a clinical session at the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth late last summer. My favourite part of the day was taking the ferry back to Halifax and biking along Lower Water street and seeing happy folks enjoying the summer sun, or taking in treats along the boardwalk. Sometimes I’d cut up the hill a tad early and see the Old Triangle patio filled to the brim (which would encourage me to go inside and have a pint or two of my own). 

    There is so much to miss when you are boxed in a car. I hope people and planners come around to this notion and start to question whether more parking spaces will really improve the feel and image of our Downtown core.