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What is Halifax? 

I visited China a few years ago, and heard a tour guide sum up the nation's major cities in a sentence. "Beijing is five years behind, Hong Kong is now," he said, "and Shanghai is five years ahead." It was a lesson in urban planning—not to mention an ad for Shanghai—that stuck. A good city understands itself, and outsiders can easily get a sense of it. Exploring the streets of Beijing, the showpiece capital, and bustling Hong Kong, the tour guide's astute formulation got me thinking of home, because there's a simple question I can't answer: What exactly is Halifax?

The Halifax Regional Municipality isn't the city that never sleeps or the city of lights. It's a historic city that has shockingly little protection for its heritage buildings. We're terrified of the future, although Halifax is traditionally an innovator and is currently swimming in universities. Ultimately, Halifax is confused and adrift in a leadership vacuum. Which is a problem.

Our best hope—at least until next October's municipal election—is the HRM by Design planning effort. The design task force has been working since early 2006 to improve the Regional Centre (the urban heart of the municipality, from peninsular Halifax to the Circumferential Highway in Dartmouth). Focusing on several specific areas within the Regional Centre, their project involves bringing professional designers and regular citizens together to brainstorm about what the city and area need; choosing options at public sessions; and reporting to city council about what the public has endorsed.

The latest public session to go over the plan for the downtown Halifax area happened November 28 at the World Trade and Convention Centre. About 500 people accepted the open invitation to see and critique the "Preferred Downtown Scenario" before it leaves citizen hands and goes for council approval in early 2008.

The plan as presented was a tribute to the power of public thinking, laying out a vision that accommodates the next 25 years of projected population growth, while protecting our heritage properties and walkable streets from even the crassest developer. The comments from the crowd about the plan were, for the most part, completely fucking annoying.

People came armed with statements to make that had no relation to the preferred scenario or the months of labour that shaped it. Larry Haiven epitomized the axe-grinders, standing to talk about the example of Bologna, Italy—which Haiven just happened to have written about for the Herald. He then proceeded to read extended chunks of his article to the captive audience, saying far more about a writer's ego than HRM by Design.

As the plan's been developing, the best persistent criticism I've heard is that the plan reads like good urban design out of a textbook, but that there's nothing about it that's inherently Haligonian. Which brings us back to the question: What exactly is Halifax? Is it one of those "I know it when I see it" things? Or can it be defined and accentuated? This is a public discussion we need to have. I invite your answers (email,) and I'll prepare a report for presentation in the January 3, 2008 issue.

Liquid paper #1: In last week's issue, Philip Doucette was incorrectly identified as Paul Doucette in writer Sean Flinn"s crafty "Live free and DIY hard" story. We apologize for the error.

Liquid paper #2: Staying with last week's issue, Ruth Metechkin's "Private schools" article—about local education students having trouble getting local practice teaching placements—mistakenly said Mount Saint Vincent is the only local university with a Bachelor of Education program. In fact, the Universit<0x00E9> Sainte-Anne Halifax campus offers a one-year intensive BEd program. We regret the error, and we understand if we have to go to the principal's office.

Send your descriptions, definitions and discussions about Halifax by fax to 425-0013 or email

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