"I know there are horrible things written about me on the internet," Phil Pacey tells me as we talk in the Heritage Trust's Barrington Street office. "I don't read it."As president of the trust, Pacey is in the unpopular position of opposing parts of the new HRM by Design process, which has been spun and celebrated as a progressive planning initiative that will turn Halifax into the ground zero of urban chic.
Specifically, Pacey doesn't like the proposed relaxed building height restrictions which, he says, will threaten more than 100 historic structures downtown. Many of these buildings now are situated in areas with tight restrictions. Allowing greater height in essence dangles a huge financial incentive for owners to let the buildings' heritage designation lapse so they can sell to developers of high rises.Our conversation dovetails with observations I've made of new development. In general, I like the trend toward New Urbanism, with its ethic of tight urban living, street-level shops and so forth. But as worthy as the trend is, we have yet to get it right.
Look at any photo of any pre-WWII city in North America---the pics of Barrington Street in this issue of The Coast, for example---and you'll see the culmination of a centuries-long tradition of urban design and architecture. The planners and builders of the day got it right: There's a human scale to the buildings, pleasant transitions from private to public space (through facades, awnings, placement of store signage, clocks and the like) and streetscapes with a sense of proportion that invite pedestrian and community use.
But coincident first with the wide use of the automobile and then with the adoption of post-modern, ironic and self-mocking architectural styles, that fine tradition was scuttled, tossed out as a useless relic of the past. Instead, we got car-centred concrete and glass canyons, deadened city cores and suburban wastelands.Only now, almost a century after throwing away the best, are we rediscovering the worth of architecture and design that facilitates, rather than hinders, vibrant city life. Of course there's a learning curve: The new condo developments downtown are a theoretical move in the right direction, but in practice they're all wrong---the storefronts don't jibe with the street, the facades don't please the eye, everything's all out of proportion with everything else.
On the public-space front, we don't plant proper street trees any more---the entire field of "urban forestry" seems predicated on the hatred of large trees. So-called "street furniture" consists of torturous contraptions pumped out by self-indulgent art school students instead of, ya know, benches for people to comfortably sit on. We don't even know how to build a decent sidewalk: There's no sense of purpose or sensible focus.
And, in typical 20th century fashion, our solution to bringing more people into the city is brash and brutal: simply shove them into bigger and taller buildings. But here's the deal: there were about 15,000 more people living on the peninsula before all our high rises were built than there are now. How's that? Because the old city was built sensibly, compactly and beautifully.
Remarkably, some of the old buildings and streetscapes remain, at least for the present. "One of the things that heritage buildings do for us is to give us lessons of how to build," says Pacey.
And he's right. We don't need overly tall buildings to have a decent city. In fact, they hurt the effort.