Back to the future in figuring our future


Is it time for another “Encounter on the Urban Environment”?

In late February 1970, Nova Scotia’s Voluntary Planning Board invited a dozen disparate international experts—a black community leader, an industrialist, a labour leader, a journalist, an economist, an urban planner, etc.—to come to Halifax for a week-long “experiment utterly new to the western hemisphere.”

“Their assignment, although it was never explained to the 12 in precisely these terms,” noted a later report, “was to take a community of 250,000 and turn it upside down.”

They did. Given the freedom of the city, they spent long days and longer nights wandering from the Volvo auto assembly plant (Why are no blacks working here?) to the new container pier (Why is it in the wrong part of town?) to the school board office (Why is the education system so awful?) to the press club (Why is the media even worse?)…

Each evening, they staged a live televised town hall where they argued, debated, questioned, cajoled, harangued and listened to anyone who showed up. The powerless got to speak to the powerful and the powerful—in the glare of the spotlight—responded.

While the final Encounter report—cobbled together by 12 very different people between meetings, visits and late-night drinks over the course of one exhausting week—was understandably less than the sum of its parts, the process itself galvanized the city and engaged Haligonians in ways they’ve never been since.

Halifax at the time was at a crossroads, unhappy with its parochial present, trying to find a more interesting future for itself.

Although it would be unwise to heap too much credit on Encounter—the times were a changing everywhere back then—the reality is that Halifax became a much more interesting, engaged and dynamic city in the years that followed Encounter.

We could use a little of that involvement today.

Now that polarizing Peter Kelly’s decision not to re-offer for mayor has sucked the life out of what might have been a real debate over the future of our city, we need to find new ways to engage citizens in that discussion.

We could do worse than another Encounter.

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