As most of you know, I’ve just started a new position at the Dalhousie University School of Planning. I’ve often thought that one barrier to effective public consultation in planning is the lack of knowledge about urban planning issues, such as the relationship between density and public transit provision or how a municipal plan sets out land use guidelines. It’s great to find out that Dal students are on the same page.
A few years ago, two undergraduate students, Byung Jun Kang and Uytae Lee, started producing videos that aim to educate the public about a variety of planning issues. The videos are between three and six minutes in length, and they often use humour to illustrate thorny issues. In September 2015, they incorporated as a non-profit co-operative called PLANifax that includes Byung Jun and Uytae as executive directors, three board members (current students and alumni), and many volunteers. Students do all kinds of work such as GIS mapping, finding planning documents and getting permission to use them, filming, and conducting interviews with planning staff. For example, third-year student Juniper Littlefield has directed and narrated a number of videos and Uytae (now in his fourth year) has acted in many.
Some of the videos are general in nature, such as their “Planning Basics Episode 1: Planning Process” (2016) which gives a brief overview of how planning works in Canada, including the Planning Acts, regional and municipal plans, and the role of planners and councillors. This is the first in a series aims at people who know little about the planning process, so I’m really interested to see how it progresses.
Transportation is a major theme in the videos: an upcoming initiative will involve how we use transit maps for navigation and information. In “A Case for Protected Bike Lanes” (2014), students partnered with local paper The Coast and the Halifax Cycling Coalition to show the cycling environment on some of the city streets by showing how dangerous it would be for a pedestrian to use the narrow afterthought of space on the right side of the road. They peppered the video with statistics on cycling safety: in the city’s Active Transportation Plan, over 40% of Halifax residents expressed an interest in cycling if it were safer. Halifax’s transportation plan states that it wants to double the rate of cycling by 2026.
In “Cars vs Pedestrians” (2015) students discuss the proposed hike in Provincial fines for pedestrian crossing infractions to almost $700. They ask whether our crosswalks are set up to encourage or deter use, showing examples of intersections that are difficult to cross as pedestrians: long signal timing, deceptive curb cuts, very long blocks present real barriers.
“What you Need to Know about HRM’s Centre Plan” (2016) goes over the region’s newest planning initiative and interviews some of the planners at HRM, and lets people know how they can get involved in the process.
Some of the videos explore historical issues. In “Down with the Cogswell Interchange” (2014) students explore the historical and present-day plans to take down the interchange and replace the streets with a more traditional grid street pattern. The stretch of arterial overpasses is just 1 km long, and doesn’t do much to handle traffic anymore. Students do a good job of reviewing the critical planning decisions that changed history, such as Gordon Stephenson’s A Redevelopment Study of Halifax, Nova Scotia (1957). It was based on this report that city council decided to build the interchange, among other ill-fated decisions like demolishing the existing African Canadian community Africville (which the students show as the proverbial “elephant in the room” at about the four-minute mark in the video). They really packed a lot of information into a six-minute video!
In a video profiling Halifax’s Viola Desmond (2014), a black businesswoman in the city with a hair salon on Gottingen Street, students touch on the history of racism in the city. Desmond’s car broke down on a business trip through New Glasgow in 1946, and while waiting for it to be repaired she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She was asked to leave because she was sitting in the whites-only main floor seating, refused to pay the one-cent difference in ticket prices to sit in the other section. She was eventually escorted out by police and spent the night in jail on a tax evasion charge. This occurred nine years before the famous Rosa Parks incident in the US. Desmond took action against the Province of Nova Scotia, who didn’t formally apologize and pardon Desmond until 2010. Her gravesite is in the Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax.
PLANifax shows a tremendous initiative by students, many of whom are undergraduates who moved to the city to study planning. Their “outsider view” on the city and region is critical, because this distance allows their work to be instructive for anyone who is just beginning to understand planning as a practice that shapes so much of our urban environment. Here’s hoping PLANifax can live up to its hope “to be to planning what Bill Nye was to science”!