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  • Writer's pictureJohn Chisholm

Thinking Small

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

In the summer of 1959 Bill Bernbach had a big problem. The ad agency he worked for had a contract to promote a car called the Volkswagen in the United States. Bernbach’s big problem was a little car. It was the end of the fifties. America was in love with big bombastic vehicles made in the USA. Advertising at the time simply listed features, mainly SIZE (the bigger the better obviously), horsepower, colour, top speed, and ever more bells and whistles like fender flares and other space-age looking but completely nonfunctional bits. How could Bill sell an small, ugly, cheap, under-powered foreign car to the American public? Not to mention the whole Hitler thing.

The ad Bill created changed the way advertising worked. It changed the car industry. It changed the company and the world. It changed the way people thought about cars. But it didn't change the car. 70 years later the car, surely among the most loved manufactured things in history, has changed little. Today millions of passionate people still cherish their VW's.

The ad tapped into a sense of disconnect that the public was feeling as a result of being pressured to buy and consume more and bigger for so many years. This was especially felt by younger people. Advertisers eventually realized they were story tellers. They wrote the roles the customers would choose to play. They assumed the customer was smart and had their own personal vision of life and living that didn't need to be defined by an out-sized, over-built car.

It seems to me the politics and places of the city are the same.

It's Time For Halifax to Leave the 1950's Thinking Behind

Everything that's happening in Halifax is too big. It's all out of proportion with the scale of our city, the pace of our lives, and the way we curate our culture. It's Monopoly gone mad. Each new thing adds to a cacophonous giant unusable, unfriendly clutter.

More troublesomely, it also aggregates wealth and power in the hands of a very few. Rather than creating a city with a message, it all just seems to pose unanswered questions: Why is this important? What is this supposed to be? Who are we? Where are we going with this? Who will live here? How will this be paid for? Progress is not about just racing forward, it means moving toward our goal. If we're going in the wrong direction progress is about turning around, adjusting course, and being clear about where we're going.

There's much talk about a new Progressive Era. I think that's right. The progressive era was a kind of peaceful citizen revolt against, big business, monopoly, poor quality, inequality, and too showy excess. We need a new progressive era in our city as much as in our politics, and in truth the two are related. Great city centres are easy to define. They are fractal... meaning many great small parts make up a greater whole. They are human scale, living, and coherent. On a great city street you would not walk more than 10 metres without some sort of point of contact with the built environment - a door, window, walkway, crossing, tree, something relatable. In great city centres pedestrians don't have to press 'beg buttons' to cross a street.

In Halifax, which is actually the tiniest of cities, whole blocks are blank walls or faux-fronts on blank walls. On one of our most living streets, Quinpool, crossings are double the allowable distance apart in NYC and 'beg buttons' are the norm around our city. There's no direction, no flow and most ironically given the work at hand... no actual public centre to the city. The Herald building space should have been our city centre... and maybe it will be one day when that awful Convention building comes down or gets reimagined, but we have other opportunities at hand... the Cogswell space, the Quinpool/Robie St. Pats space, the Container Pier Space; any or all of these spaces could be broken up and divided out to make a real centre for the city.

Imagine diversely held small developments with owner occupied small business, creator spaces, and places where we could gather to do business, share ideas, build community. These kinds of economies keep capital in the community and increase it's churn, more local wealth spent locally more often. The tremendous building blocks we are using may serve the egos and finances of a very few old men, but we need a city that serves a broad base of households, businesses and visitors... in that order. Even the waterfront tourist area is segregated giving it a Disney-eque feel at best and a truly desolate feel out of season.

I'm including in this post two galleries taken on a family walk through the town yesterday; a sunny Sunday afternoon on the Labour Day Week End. This is what our town looks like. This is the reality.

Tear Down That Wall

So, let's start by breaking up the monopolies, the desolation and the segregation. Each new development should be a gathering place, not a big box conveyor belt for wealth extraction. Scotia Square was the Berlin Wall of our city. We should have learned. But instead we've repeated the same mistakes since the sixties, allowing the same old men to make more of the same old mess. When opportunity for redevelopment comes up break down the properties to sizes where local owner/occupiers could make the space in a human size building block. Where each person lives works and plays in and around the property they own things are always going to be better. Each redevelopment property should be of a size that regular people with great ideas and solid businesses could buy, own and live in the city. For a case study of the problem imagine two streets. One is filled with owner occupied houses with a mix of young families and older residents.  The other is student flats neglected by absentee landlords working to get every last penny out of the community. Everyone has seen an example of each. Scale this up by orders of magnitude and you can see the problem with our city centre. We need to actively break the strong-arm hold these monopoly robber barons have on our city. We need to create an environment where many new local investors can live and own and create the kind of city everyone wants the world over. In a word, we need to think smaller.

Compare these photos from Halifax this week with images of the same places in Halifax downtown from 50. 60, 70, years ago.

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