For Jacob Ritchie, good city building means using design to make a community stronger. “It’s more than just drawing pretty pictures,” he laughs. “It’s providing a vision and making sure the people in the community go on to champion it, so the plans live on beyond the final report.”
Ritchie is the director of planning at Ekistics Planning & Design, the Dartmouth firm behind the plan approved by Council in April for dismantling the Cogswell Interchange, the jangle of concrete overpasses consuming six hectares of land in the middle of Halifax’s historic downtown. “We provided the planning and technical leads on how to phase the tear down so the city can still run,” says Ritchie. “The plan allows HRM to sell parcels of land progressively, so significant chunks of the redevelopment can start while the project progresses.”
Ekistics is bidding on the next phase to create a detailed design for the redevelopment. The firm has created redesigns for communities across Nova Scotia—Sydney Harbour, the Bedford waterfront and most recently the Bridgewater waterfront (putting a park and marina where there is now an old parkade). “It’s about designing spaces that take advantage of their natural setting, rather than ignoring it,” adds Ritchie.
Being in tune with the environment gives local planning firms an edge, Ritchie says. “We know every site we’re working on because we live here, we experience this city every day.”
He would like more collaboration among local engineers, architects and planners to harness that advantage and to help define an Atlantic Canadian design vernacular. “Something that would set us apart as Atlantic Canadian city builders and then we could market Atlantic Canadian design to other places across Canada,” he says. “Maybe people in small- and mid-sized towns have had bad experiences working with big-city design firms that struggle to understand their challenges; that’s an opportunity for the Atlantic design community.”
Meanwhile, Ritchie sees room for collaborating with cities facing similar problems. “The amount of conversation between cities is shockingly minimal,” he says, listing London (Ontario), Regina and Winnipeg as good counterpoints to Halifax. “Maybe there’s a network to be built among the design communities in medium-sized cities? There are other cities experiencing what we’re experiencing. It’s something we need to be working on together.”