From the ground up

Urbanophiles gather at the Art of City Building conference. Photo: Submitted

A Halifax event explores what it takes to build a great city

Sitting in a conference room with a bunch of folks talking about the future of cities may not top the list of some people’s priorities in these COVID-weary times. But Jayne Engle is not some people and — as the McGill University academic, urban planner, and author is happy to tell you — the Art of City Building is not just any conference.

“I love it,” she says about the conclave that has, for six years running, attracted urbanophiles from across the world to contemplate how people can make their metropolitan spaces more inclusive, humane, and beautiful.

This year, the free day-long event takes place at the Halifax Central Library, and virtually on Zoom, on Sept. 19. (See the schedule here.) “I love how it welcomes bold proposals and perspectives,” Engle says. “I love its scale of ambition, because that’s certainly what is absolutely needed at this time.”

Engle moderates the session on Sacred Civics, which flows from the eponymously titled book, Sacred Civics: Building Seven Generation Cities she recently co-edited with fellow urban policy researchers and writers and Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook and Julian Agyeman. The speakers, all of whom contributed essays to the book, will discuss how a city’s design be radically inclusive of Indigenous and Black citizens, newcomers, and other equity-seeking groups.

Jayne Engle moderates the Sacred Civics session. Photo: Submitted

Other sessions include: Future of Work: Living in Cities We Don’t Work In, which examines the impact of remote working on urban design; the “Art” in Art of City Building, exploring concepts of aesthetics and beauty in the built landscape; and Cities, Interchanges and Cultural Districts, investigating how cities can embrace, honour and reflect the cultural diversity they contain for everyone.

The ideas are big because, says principal consultant at Catalyst Conversation Strategies and conference organizer Kjeld Mizpah Conyers-Steede, they have to be.

“There are a lot of things happening within our cities that people are talking about,” he adds. “We’re bringing big ideas to inspire and provoke challenging conversations about how cities can rediscover themselves and navigate economic and social change … We’re talking about systemic barriers. How do you develop cultural districts? How do you have that connection? We’re actually using models from Halifax to showcase what people are doing to start the conversation.”

One such person is Pam Glode-Desrochers, executive director of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre and one of the speakers at the Sacred Civics session. “Pam’s vision is really about an inclusive participatory culture and platform,” says Engle, who notes that Glode-Desrocher’s efforts to find a new home for the centre at the foot of Citadel Hill epitomizes one of the resonant themes of the conference.

“The reference to ‘seven generations’ in the book’s title comes from the ethos of many Indigenous teachings, in which we should always look at least seven generations into the past, for the ancestors to be informed about any major planning or decision-making process. It’s also incumbent on us also to look at least seven generations into the future. We also see it as a metaphor for thinking long term; for building things with the mindset of centuries rather than how we normally see things, which is in years or decades.”

Other speakers at the Sacred Civics session include: Koifi Boone, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning from North Carolina; Jonathan Lapalme, Montreal-based co-director of Dark Matter Labs; Jennie Stevens, a professor of sustainability science and policy from Boston; Indy Johar, London-based co-founder of Dark Matter Labs; and Chung-Tiam-Fook.

CBC Radio host Portia Clark moderates the Future of Work session, which gets features speakers Isaiiah Olateru (CEO of 100 Xponential of Halifax), Hioussam Elokda (managing principal of Vancouver-based Happy Cities), and Alexandra McCann (executive director of Organization for Innovation Driven Entrepreneurship of Halifax).

Kjeld Mizpah Conyers-Steede is one of the conference organizers.

The “Art” in the Art of City Building session includes Ray Gracewood (president of Area 506 Ventures of New Brunswick), Margot Durling (creative director at Fathom Studio of Halifax), Halifax-based urban designer Christine Hemple, and New Brunswick government consultant Meghan Morrison.

Abigail Moriah, founder of the Toronto-based Black Planning Project, moderates the Cities, Interchanges and Cultural Districts session, hosting Treno Morton (community engagement specialist at Inspiring Communities in Halifax), Madeleine Spencer (owner of California-based Diamond Heart Enterprises), Seattle-based urban strategist Kate Joncas, and Halifax-based strategist for African Nova Scotian communities Carolann Wright.

Says Conyers-Steede: “If we had a million dollars, we’d bring everyone here and have a week-long conference dedicated to this work. There’s people all around the world, around our region, who are doing amazing things in urban planning.”

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