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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

[Re]Presenting Halifax: Vacan[t]c[it]y

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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 – This city is suffering from an affliction of vacancy. Not of vacant spaces themselves, but of an inability to make anything of them. Spacing Atlantic will be co-hosting an event this Saturday for the 4Days unconference in an effort to “generate ideas for the downtown’s stockpile of vacant spaces”. With that in mind, this installment attempts to presents two bold alternatives to what are otherwise dead zones within a dynamic urban context. This also provides for further reflection on the previous theme: public land holdings as “non-living pieces of peninsular Halifax”.

Current conditions in the "city centre" of HRM

Alternative condition - farms and forest - for the "city centre" of the HRM

Current Conditions of Peninsular Halifax
Potential condition - urban infill - of Peninsular Halifax

The images above illustrate the extremes: farms, forests, dense building fabric. They pass over all of the interim uses that might fall inbetween. But what they do show is an alternative to our present standard “filler”: parking lots. Perhaps the most uncreative, unproductive, inefficient use of space, parking has become an accepted, and arguably favoured solution (among decision makers and property developers) throughout the HRM and within the city centre in particular. Despite the often slow redevelopment process, consequences or missed opportunities of vacant and neglected sites are rarely considers and almost never discussed.

Surveying the wide range of vacant and neglected sites — even at the coarse grain presented in the images above —one question comes to mind: how can a city function with so many voids within its core? With all these sites unused, misused,  neglected, and seemingly abandoned, what is missing from Halifax? With so much unused space, surely something must be missing.

What are the consequences of such frequent spatial interruptions? More importantly, what can emerge from these conditions? What have others done when faced with similar realities? What can be gained from new approaches, perspectives and interim uses for vacant spaces? When located within the city, at what point are these spaces deemed public spaces in the hope that they will be reappropriated? When should they be? From an archipelago of  “nothingness”, to a network of interim and dynamic “flex” spaces, vacant urban space is available for appropriation — if not expropriation — given the consequences to the surrounding context and long periods of neglect.

Can such voids be repositioned as “flex” infrastructure? Is this useful? Can voids be used to structure radical change; provide spaces for overflow of water, people, waste, experimentation; to adapt and accept future uncertainty? How can the void or vacant space — as an urban (social and spatial) resource — be exploited to improve livability and the ability of the city and its residents to accept the radical transformations that fragile future conditions will surely demand?


One comment

  1. Basically most of the parking lots should become residential. This would bring a lot more balance to the downtown core, making offices a little more desirable and bringing in more people outside of the weekday 9-5 period.

    To some degree this is already happening. People don’t seem to realize it, but there has been a lot of infill in Halifax during the past decade (admittedly of varying quality). Of all the “dying” cities I’ve been to, Halifax has by far the most active construction cranes and the lowest office vacancy rate. The reality is that Halifax isn’t a dying city, it’s a city with a lot of complainers.

    You do touch on a key point though, which is that most of the vacant lands are publicly-owned. This is one serious problem with Halifax – government sits on too much land and they are far too slow to develop it. During poor economic times they buy up land but they are selling it off at a much slower rate. This is tremendously expensive in terms of opportunity cost.

    One of the worst examples is the Clyde Street lots – there was a study to develop them in 2005 or so. It should have been done in about 1995. They are still parking lots.