The common good

Halifax loves its green spaces, but they’re shrinking quickly 

One of my favourite views of Halifax is from Citadel Hill, looking not out to the harbour, but west over the city, especially at dusk. 

Now, cranes and construction projects crowd that skyline. As we look up at the new towers emerging around us, we might not be noticing what’s disappearing. 

According to Statistics Canada, cities are losing trees, park space, and other vegetation at a prodigious rate. Researchers used satellite imagery to look at the amount of greenness in cities across the country, at three points in time. 

Halifax maintained its greenness from 2001 to 2011. Then in 2019, there was a decline of three per cent. When they repeat the study in a few years, there will be even less green on those satellite images, given the unprecedented pace of development recently.. 

That may mean progress, but the cost is high. Trees and shrubs reduce energy use by keeping cities cooler in the summer; they also filter air pollutants and have a long list of health benefits for humans. 

A slew of studies over the last decade testify to the advantages of living in areas with ample green space. It reduces deaths, mostly from cardiovascular disease. Patients with a view of greenery recover more quickly. Children who spend time outdoors are less likely to develop myopia and other vision problems. 

There’s also evidence that exposure to nature is good for our mental health, lowering the risk of depression and anxiety. 

People who spend time in nature sleep better and have less stress. Then there’s the impact on attention, memory, and creativity — all improve with time in green environments. 

It’s not yet clear why green spaces are so good for us. But you don’t need to know to benefit. 

In British Columbia, a program launched earlier this year allows some doctors to give a prescription for the outdoors, through free passes to National Parks. 

Here in Halifax, many people innately know green space is good for them. Every year, on the first warm days in April and May, people of all ages spring up like dandelions around the North Common, lounging on blankets, playing catch or frisbee, walking their dogs. You can sense their gratitude for the sun and the vista of green in which to enjoy it. 

But our green spaces are eroding. 

It might be a stretch to describe the lower west side of Citadel Hill or the corner of Bell Road and Summer Street as paradise. But Joni Mitchell could have been thinking of these spaces when she famously wrote her song about paving and parking lots taking over the natural landscape. 

In 1763, the Common was 93 hectares of undeveloped land. Today, there are many public buildings on the Common: hospitals, schools, the sprawling university area, a museum, and homes. You could argue much of that serves the public good. 

But we keep chipping away at the remaining green space. There is paved parking at the bottom of Citadel Hill, and a new parking garage has risen on Summer Street off Bell Road. The Oval has a pavilion building and space for the refrigeration units. A professional soccer stadium has taken over Wanderers Ground. A hospital expansion is underway. A new pool is planned. 

And now, the Halifax Common Master Plan aims to gussy up the remainder. 

It makes a laudable commitment to more open, green space. But it also talks about more seating areas, more food vendors, and warming huts on the north side of the Oval, a sundeck connecting the playground and the new pool in the Central Common, which will also have a new pavilion for showers, changing rooms, offices, and storage. 

Then there’s the vision for a major gathering area, around the current fountain on the North Common, which will be reimagined as a series of water sprays. It will include a concrete plaza with wide steps, a performance structure with rain shelter, seating, and shade structures. 

New concrete paths will converge at a pedestrian roundabout near the middle of the North Common, and meander through a raised trellis with displays and benches. 

It sounds lovely. But every built, curated, paved part of it will take away from natural green space. 

That panoramic western view from Citadel Hill includes the Camp Hill Cemetery. It both protects a chunk of skyline and provides a sylvan break between the cranes and human structures. 

I think about the people buried among the trees and shrubs there and I’m grateful to them. Because that’s one piece of green space that could only ever be developed over their dead bodies. Literally. 

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