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Facing change with vision and a transparent approach... in Canada

When visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia, recently, I wandered into the public library, where, on a table in the lobby offering items of local interest, I found a copy of SEEK: the Planning & Design Centre newsletter, published by the Cities & Environment Unit of Dalhousie University's Faculty of Architecture & Planning
on behalf of the Planning & Design Centre.

An effort to connect the public to important local planning issues, it's a good example of vision and transparency for other communities facing change.

The genesis:
In Halifax Regional Municipality [HRM], there is a compelling need for increased awareness, discussion and new ideas to build on what we have and provide a direction for the future. The idea for the Planning and Design Centre arouse from this need... It is a response to the idea that only when a place's citizens are aware, involved and up-to-date on what's happend in their community, can that community work toward realizing a common vision.

And the first issue has some inspirational words:
A great city deals with change through a shared and broadly understood vision; a transparent, open and energetic approach that embraces positive change and action; welcomes popular engagement in shaping the community; and supports a culture that values quality, understands that local design makes a difference and that mediocrity is never acceptable.
HRM by virtue of its manageable size, fortuitous geography and human capacity has unparalleled opportunities to embrace change and shape its own future, to value its history and see that its best days are still ahead. Focus, innovation and imagination will make Halifax into a great city of the 21st Century.

A store-front presence

The goal is a store-front center accessible to the public:
The Planning and Design Centre is a store-front operation that makes planning and design visible, open to discussion and sources of innovation. It is seen as a collaborative enterprise, common ground and a think tank that brings together the public, the business community, the development industry, and different levels of government for a tangible purpose.

Manageable region and list

The list of projects is manageable, and the HRM Region, which includes 23 municipal districts and more than 200 communities, has a manageable population of about 382,200 (as of 2006), about 40% of Nova Scotia's population.

(By contrast, New York City's 59 Community Boards, with minimum staffing support, serve a maximum population of 250,000, the size of a not-so-small city. In New York, organizations like the Municipal Art Society and the Pratt Center for Community Development weigh in on planning controversies or assist communities, but they can't be comprehensive. Imagine if each community board had a store-front planning center.)

The Regional Plan, which became effective in August 2006 spawned VisionHRM, the Community Visioning Pilot Project, implemented in three communities. It states:
The Community Visioning Process is intended to allow a community to determine its own priorities; priorities which will guide the community into the future. The visioning process will not only focus on land use or planning issues, but will respond to a broader range of community concerns and opportunities crossing over many of HRM’s areas of program and service. The visioning process will therefore foster more meaningful problem solving and action planning.

HRM has a new Regional Plan, Cultural Plan, Active Transportation Plan, Economic Strategy and Immigration Action Plan.


While SEEK is a university-sponsored response, involving local professionals, academics, students and members of the wider community, VisionHRM is a public engagement and consultation process:
Unlike traditional planning processes, VisionHRM aims to be a more flexible and comprehensive process designed to allow for meaningful discussion and problem solving as communities set their own priorities for the next 10, 15 or 20 years.

Shared responsibility

While SEEK remains in the formation stage (the link list isn't live), but it's still remarkable. From the newsletter's second issue:

Each of us is touched by the city’s skyline, streetscapes and the landscape of civic and solitary places. The type, quality and intensity of development; the balance between cars and transit; the environment, the economics, the physical infrastructure and the social network not only affect our individual lives, but also reflect our collective values. In a great city these fields are not seen as separate nor are they viewed as the domains of experts. The region is rich with opportunities and we all share a sense of responsibility to be informed, involved and engaged in shaping our community.

The future does not just happen, it is not predicted or projected or incrementally negotiated, or a simple extension of the past. We can have a hand in shaping it. Planning is about establishing a vision, setting a direction and taking informed strategic action. It is not restrictive or mysterious. It cannot be imposed nor can it be seen as the exclusive realm of professionals. It needs to be a process and an approach that is open and inclusive and part of everyday life. Similarly, design quality as it is reflected in every proposal, development and policy cannot be seen as a luxury, expensive or optional. We have to expect and demand creativity, quality and excellence.