I moved to Halifax a year ago, and one thing I noticed was that planners in the city did not work together or collaborate much. There is a silo effect which allows people to work quite separately from each other, even if they’re working on similar projects, like integrated mobility planning and transit scheduling. As a mid-sized city, I also felt that it was a tough nut to crack–it’s too big for everyone to know everyone else, but too small to have a lot of informal social events like Meetups. This lack of social cohesion is palpable even among our students: at Dalhousie there is little connection or collaboration on events between the undergrad and grad students.

Our School has actually done research on this: Dr. Jill Grant, Dr. Patricia Manuel, Dr. Eric Rapaport, and Dr. Ahsan Habib recently finished a project on plan coordination in municipalities with Dr. Pierre Filion at the Waterloo School of Planning. The research is featured here. Masters student Meaghan Dalton’s working paper, “Building a culture of collaboration: Internal collaboration as a tool for coordinating plans” (2016) analyzes interviews from 92 planners across Canada from the Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Halifax, and St. John’s city-regions. The interviews were conducted in 2014 by the research team. In her content analysis of the interviews, Dalton found that a culture of collaboration in planning was most present in Vancouver, which has a long history of consensus-building, while Edmonton had a more recent positive trend towards formal and informal practices and structures. Planners in Toronto, Halifax, and St. John’s were much less likely to work in collaborative environments. And we know from both theory and practice that this impacts plan coordination. The main barriers to collaboration between departments or organizations in Halifax were:

  • a lack of interdepartmental communication and data sharing
  • a tendency for departments to focus on their own mandates, with no common vision for the city
  • departments having differences of opinion that made it difficult to reach a consensus
  • lack of physical proximity between departments
  • no history of trust or sharing information
  • a toxic work environment at HRM (e.g. a trend of discouraging collaboration, lack of respectful relationships)

“Halifax represents a stark contrast with the culture of respectful relationships and enforcement of collaboration and consensus seen in Vancouver and Edmonton.”    –Meaghan Dalton, researcher

While informal connections won’t solve all of Halifax problems, it’s a good start. After discussing the lack of social cohesion with some of our planning students, I decided to start a monthly social event in Halifax. It’s open to anyone working in planning, however that is defined: those working in public, private, or non-profit sectors, on municipal planning and program delivery, in research and in practice. It’s also open to anyone interested in planning issues, like community members or groups. The idea is that we encourage people to get to know one another informally, there will be a positive effect on the work that they do: they will find out that someone from a non-profit is working on a similar initiative, or someone from a private sector firm wants to pick their brain on a bylaw requirement. This community of practice involves some social engineering on my part: when I meet someone I don’t know, I listen to what they say about their role and organization for just a few minutes, and then my mind starts spinning with other people they’d like to meet. I make introductions and let the conversations continue. With students, I try to introduce them to as many others as possible, and also encourage them to introduce themselves to people they don’t know.

We’ve had two Planning Socials so far, and both were successful–about 25 people or so attended each, with a mix of students, recent graduates now employed in the region, and a few long-time planners. We have met downtown after work because it’s easy for students to walk to (many of them don’t have cars) and within a few minutes’ ferry and walk from the main office of the Halifax Regional Municipality in Dartmouth, so planners there can stop in on their way home.

People have told me that they are so happy someone is doing this, that informal socializing in the profession is badly needed. And each time I ask them, “Why didn’t you do it? It’s as easy as sending an email.” There is no magic formula to building a community of practice–anyone can do it. My plan is to eventually choose a fixed date/time/location so that people know about the event and can drop in whenever they have time. Until then we will sample the many downtown pubs. We’ll also eventually publicize the event on the Department of Architecture and Planning Facebook and Twitter accounts–until now we’ve been relying on the School of Planning listserv and a few dedicated folks at HRM to spread the word (thanks Sarah Bercu and Kasia Tota!) If you’re a planner in Halifax, come and join us!

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