The Unintended Public Realm

I was the luckiest of kids.   I had three playgrounds and none of them were intended to be playgrounds. The north shoreline of the NorthWest Arm in Halifax, the cliffs of the railway tracks, and Point Pleasant Park just down the street.  A huge largely natural park that anchors the south end of the peninsula.

When I first interviewed to gain entry to the School of Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph, I was asked the question, “what is your favourite park?”.   I answered that “I had three”.   All listed above.   Not being from Halifax of course, the interviewer was at a loss…. maybe preferring ‘Central Park’,  or ‘The Emerald Necklace of Boston’,  or one of the many national, or well known Provincial parks in Canada.   All parks that Landscape Architects had something to do with.

But these three places  were my playground.  They were my parks. They were what I knew.

We built forts along the shores of the Arm. Covert hidden places , made out of driftwood and knotweed,  where my friends and I could imagine being lost on a desert island or smoke the cigarette we had stolen from his mothers cache.    We converted my friend Scott’s small boathouse into a clubhouse, complete with black light posters and a stereo.   It was a quarter mile from my house but entirely accessible on foot along the granite breakwater of the Arm.

My brother and I fished for Mackerel in his wooden dingy and we would get totally grossed out by the inevitable horned Sculpin that would attach itself to our lines.  Best of all, I could grab the leaden canoe and drag it down to the water for an early morning paddle in still calm waters .  Revelling in the fact that I was the only moving boat on the water, and I was just a kid.

In the early morning on other days I would take my bike and run down the lanes and pathways in Point Pleasant Park.  One hill in particular gave a particular thrill at high speed.  The remnant WW2 battlements in the park served, in the early years, as a place to imagine all manner of adventure. I could be a soldier watching in wait for the enemy, or an archeologist, imagining the discovery of hidden underground passageways or bunkers full of ammunition.  In later years, these bunkers became a late weekend meeting place for friends.  A bonfire and the consumption of ‘moose-piss’.  Bottles of mixed alcohol stolen from at least one persons fathers liquor cabinet.

The tracks were a wonderland unique unto themselves.   Fifty foot high granite cliffs that stood as sentry against your will to cut a path to Robie Street.  A shortcut to school.   On weekends, my friend and I would bag a lunch and water canteens and spend the day trying to scale the cliffs with no ropes.  How either one of us lived remains a mystery.

The tracks were also a dependable shortcut to just about anywhere you wanted to go in the city, and a lot of people must have known it because the foot paths were well worn on both sides from one end of the city to the other.

Now.  After all these years of designing and creating parks as a Landscape Architect, it is increasingly clear to me that while places like Point Pleasant Park will remain protected probably in perpetuity, we need to do more to protect and enhance the ‘unintended’ public realm.  The shoreline of the northwest arm has been almost entirely privatized making it impassible on foot, and given our risk averse society, I can see the day when the tracks will be fenced to mitigate any potential liability.

These places are,  not because we intended them to be ‘places’, but simply because they are.

Woodlots, ravines, shorelines, rail corridors and hydro easements are all vital to youthful imagination.

These spaces can animate life  and anchor in stone, memories that will lead to all manner of achievement  Plus. Protecting them is good city building.

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Author: paul nodwell

Paul Nodwell draws on almost 33 years of experience in Urban Design and Landscape Architecture. He is a passionate student of the public realm and believes that great 'place-making' cannot happen without listening to stakeholders, shaping the project around a big (not necessarily complex) idea, and wherever possible, introducing metaphorical and even poetic elements that engage the public in their own experience of the built environment. Early in his career Paul's work took him to Southern California with Peridian Group Landscape Architecture and to Paris, France with Walt Disney Imagineering, but he has enjoyed most, his participation in helping to shape the Greater Toronto Area. As part of the senior management team for the Town of Markham, Paul played a key role in bringing The New Urbanism to southern Ontario. In private practice, Paul has designed a myriad of public parks, streetscapes and condominiums. He has played a key role in the design of a number of new mixed use communities including Angus Glen, Cornell, The Galleria, Concord Floral, Vaughan Metro Centre and Markham Centre. Paul is the recipient of more than a dozen awards for urban design and landscape architecture. He has served on the City of Vaughan Design Review Panel for three years and continues to enjoy serving as adjudicator at the University of Guelph. Even more, he enjoys the dip of his canoe paddle in a northern Ontario wilderness and the challenge of paints and a blank canvas.

3 thoughts on “The Unintended Public Realm”

  1. Hello Paul:

    I read your “The Unintended Public Realm” in today’s (Feb 25) Chronicle Herald. It stuck a chord that went straight back to my youth. I enjoyed the Arm and Point Pleasant Park during the years 1956 to 1963 – when I left Halifax for Mount Allison. Like you, I found the park a joy to do by bicycle. On the Arm, I used the family row boat; often in the dark hours of the morning. With so much playground in common, I wonder that we did not meet.

    Thank you for the memories,
    Douglas.

    1. Thanks for that Douglas. It truly was a magical place to grow up. We moved there in 1967. I was six. We left in 1977, only 10 years later, but they remain my most formative 10 years.

  2. Paul, wonderful! This reminded me of growing up in the Midwest, IA, IL, where, during the 80s the landscape was still our oyster. Oh the days! How to give that to our kids…

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