News / Halifax

Tristan Cleveland: Let's turn the Halifax Common into more than empty space

To get the most out of such a huge area there should be seating, food vendors - and water fountains you can touch.

T-shirt weather in late October on a Sunday, and there is no one using the Halifax Common.

Tristan Cleveland / For Metro

T-shirt weather in late October on a Sunday, and there is no one using the Halifax Common.

I live two blocks from the Halifax Commons, one of our city’s largest parks, yet I have no decent place to enjoy a walk outside. That is how badly the Commons needs a new Master Plan, and happily, it’s getting one.

Let’s turn it into a place where people actually want to spend time.

When you look at parks in the heart of other cities like San Francisco or Montreal, you see hundreds of people having picnics, playing frisbee, slacklining, flirting, laughing, and enjoying life. In Halifax, there is no such great place to come together. We’re deprived of a basic element of the good life.

Last Monday, an internationally respected public-space designer, Maki Kawaguchi, spoke at the Art of City Building Conference in Halifax. Her firm, Gehl Architects, revolutionized the design of parks by objectively measuring their performance, applying the same rigour that engineers use to design bridges.

But while bridge engineers can measure durability, what can park designers measure? For Gehl Architects, it’s all about people: how many come and how long they stay.

A funny thing about their definition of failure—a lack of people—is that many in Halifax believe it’s a good thing. Fewer humans around, I’m often told, just means more space and comfort.

The idea sounds like it makes sense on the surface, but it has two fundamental flaws. First, parks cost nothing to enter, so if there is no one there, it can only mean the park is not offering people what they want. Second, whatever we think we want, the evidence Gehl Architects has gathered demonstrates that in reality, people are attracted to places full of people.  

“Even if you have beautiful spaces,” Kawaguchi told me, “if people aren’t using that space, it’s not going to energize it. When it’s empty and vacant people don’t want to go there, it’s scary and perceived as unsafe. People love seeing people.”

For this Master Plan, we need to do better than throwing ideas on the grass and hoping they work. Engineers don’t build cars by piecing together lovely-sounding things and hoping for the best. They test, measure, and improve, and we should do the same.

Rob Leblanc, CEO of Ekistics Planning + Design, tells me technology is making it easier than ever to measure how many people spend time in a park. One system he uses, Miovision, allows a video camera to do the work of dozens of people doing it manually. “Once the video is captured, machine vision algorithms will count people, bikes, etc.”

And since park designers have already been measuring what works in other cities, we should start with those tried-and-tested ideas here.

For that, we need to create good places to linger and spend time, something in addition to the sports fields. We need seating and lots of it. We need trees to protect from the elements. We need ponds or fountains people can touch, not the current huge fountain locked up behind a fence. And we need food vendors, because nothing attracts people like food, and it could help pay for everything else.

And putting a full-sized hockey rink in the unused space in the centre of the Halifax skating oval, like one proposed last week by Ryan O'Quinn, would be a huge help.

Whatever we do, we just need to make sure it’s working. We can’t afford to allow more than 40 acres remain so much flat, empty grass. As Kawaguchi told me, “It’s what happens outside of buildings, outside of your private life, that makes the city. It’s the pulse.”

The Commons is the heart of halifax. Let’s make sure it’s beating.

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