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What Halifax is 

A friend flying from Toronto to Halifax on Boxing Day told me about an article in that day's Star. "Everyone was reading it on the plane," she said. No surprise. The piece—headlined "Will Halifax get its groove back in 2008?"—put its finger on local angst about what it called "a year of missing out on the big event." Citing the failed Commonwealth Games bid and Celine Dion's machinations, reporter Michael Tutton writes of concerns "the city's vision is blurry compared to 12 years ago, when Halifax hosted world leaders at a G-7 summit and was declared one of North America's hippest cities by Harper's Bazaar magazine."

Mid-December in this space, I took a turn diagnosing Metro's blatant leadership and vision-for-the-future troubles. Although I praised the HRM By Design plan as our best hope for guidance pending regime change wrought by the October '08 civic election, I said there's valid criticism that the plan's new-look city could be any urban space, and doesn't feel uniquely Haligonian. But what, that column asked, is Halifax?

"Good question, but no easy answers," lots of people told me. "Scared of change," was the next most popular choice. "Halifax is the greatest walking city in the world," said one reader, whose pedestrian bona fides include strolls in Yellowknife, Tokyo, Melbourne and Amsterdam. "A city with soul," said another, a recovered Calgarian. And then there was the reader who sent a note tailor-made for declaring Halifax's Facebook status: "HRM is being ripped off by these design consultants."

Mayor Peter Kelly didn't send an answer, but in the Star he pointed to 2007 accomplishments "such as 2,500 housing starts, the arrival of natural gas on the city's peninsula and progress on a sewage treatment plant." Making Halifax a city with gas? A municipality with infrastructure? Kelly and other city peeps often refer to Metro as "a community of communities," as if we should be proud that this bitterly divided group of towns, villages and neighbourhoods is not more than just exactly the sum of its parts.

The outsiders' view is useful here, beyond Harper's Bazaar's acclaim back in the twentieth century. The Toronto Star worry about the city's "groove" jibes with what I hear from people in the rest of Canada: They see Halifax as the New Orleans of the east, a small port city punching way above its weight in terms of culture and that elusive quality known as "the good times." The Dome's troubles over Christmas got national coverage because Halifax nightlife is a national treasure. Locally, of course, we take the fun stuff for granted. When it comes to planning and development, we save our fights for heritage. The idea that Halifax is a city with soul (character, history, ghosts) and our fear of change both relate to its heritage buildings. Not to mention the quaint streets with low-rise buildings and those walkable little parks. Without its built heritage, Halifax wouldn't be Halifax. But the city can't thrive unless it's about more than history.

HRM By Design would protect heritage properties while allowing new (sometimes tall) buildings on under-used sites such as parking lots and a reclaimed Cogswell Interchange. It demands architecture that compliments historical features—rather than Halifax's recent faux-heritage style of insincere mimicry—while preserving, even improving, that wonderful walkability. The plan is resourceful, practical and thoughtful, and in this it perfectly mirrors Halifax.

Consider our icons. Before it became a postcard, the clock tower was designed to get the troops to work on time. The magnificent harbour has long multi-tasked as the source of food, toilet and parking lot for working ships (like the Bluenose, when it was on the water, not on the dime). The Citadel, Canada's most-visited tourist site, was an army base. The city prefers tools to ornaments, vigour to languor. Given its heritage, Halifax is the sort of place that would hate to be a museum when it grows up

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