Hosting with heart

Three state-of-the-art, multimillion-dollar public spaces are changing Halifax’s cityscape: Nova Centre, Halifax Central Library, and the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. But these are more than just structures. They are fusions of ideas, dreams, and desires captured in a series of unique public-engagement activities. Their designs, from construction materials to landscape features, were shaped by comprehensive consultation processes that not only welcomed but also actively sought community input.

The consultation processes merged both traditional and unconventional methods of public engagement to identify what Haligonians wanted in these buildings. From community gatherings to pop-up public-space dialogues—a strategy that aims to connect with people on the streets or in public spaces—these meetings and conferences offered residents multiple opportunities to participate both face-to-face and online. All of the meetings were live streamed. Participants exchanged views through social media, and websites acted as platforms to make public opinion visible and inform dialogue. 

“The new library is truly a public space, so we plan to keep creating ways for all citizens to feel their ownership,” says Halifax Public Libraries fund-development manager Terri Fraser. One of the creative ways the organization approached the public was by installing a “talking fence,” a display of chalkboards that allowed citizens to post their thoughts on the Halifax Central Library construction site.

The public-engagement process for the library was led by Tim Merry, a founding partner of Myrgan Inc., a leadership-guidance company based in Mahone Bay, N.S. “One of the things that made the library project so vibrant in the city has been the public involvement in its design,” says Merry. “There’s something so exciting about the work when you hear your voice back and see it influencing the heart of the project. That feeds the creativity of it; that feeds the energy of it.”

Merry is one of the founders and global stewards of Art of Hosting, a community of practice that has reinvented the way meetings are developed and delivered, from town-hall forums to large conferences. He describes Art of Hosting as the architecture for participatory methodologies that allow people to self-organize and harness collective wisdom, ranging from World Cafés to Open Space Technology. In just a few years, Art of Hosting has evolved from a handful of meeting facilitators to thousands of practitioners who are helping corporate and civic leaders worldwide set the stage for honest and meaningful dialogue.


Mind-blowing revolution

Among them is Amanda Hachey, a part-time independent consultant and part-time co-op developer with the Co-operative Enterprise Council of New Brunswick. She contributed to Greater Moncton’s Regional Sustainable Transportation Master Plan (RSTMP) Destination 2040 as the leader of its on-street engagement. Destination 2040 aims to build a sustainable, integrated transportation network to meet the community’s needs until 2040. 

Last September, Hachey and her team hit the streets, sidewalks, buses, bike trails, and parking lots to ask what matters to residents about transportation in their community, gathering insights to inform Destination 2040. They used dialogue bubbles with suggestions such as “increase bus service at peak times” and “better connection between the three communities” to encourage people to think about how transportation affects them and to raise awareness about upcoming public-engagement meetings. They strapped the bubbles on like backpacks, attached them to car windows, and team members carried them. 

Recently named one of Atlantic Canada’s Top 50 Emerging Leaders, Hachey was introduced to Art of Hosting when she was in Sweden pursuing a master’s degree in sustainability. She admits that she went from thinking the process was “flaky” to believing it was visionary. While working with 70 classmates from 30 different countries, she discovered how Art of Hosting invites people to step in and participate. “It blew my mind,” she says of the collaborative approach she and her fellow students took to draft a five-page document in three days that decided what they would create together for the coming year, including a commitment to create a community garden and host a film festival. “It’s really, really energizing when it works.” 

Hachey has since applied Art of Hosting’s conversational processes to a wide range of functions that she has facilitated, from visioning a marketing plan for organic farmers to action planning at the Nova Scotia Co-operative Council’s AGM. Indeed, the co-op she helped co-found, La Bikery, was created in typical Art of Hosting fashion, evolving from a dinner-table discussion among friends to an organization that represents more than 350 members. “We [tend to] hear the loudest voices,” she says. Traditional meetings are often geared toward extroverts. “It’s in our DNA. But we’re missing the potential of 50% of the people in the room.”

Merry agrees: “It has become so unsatisfying to go to an event where someone stands up in front and tells you what to think, then we all leave. That is an unsuccessful way of dealing with the economic, environmental, and social challenges we are facing.” That’s not to suggest that meetings no longer require speakers. In fact, Hachey says that good speakers can “ignite” the discussions that follow. 

Online communication tools such as webinars can be great for saving time and money, but there is no replacement for those times when people need to get together in a room. Merry was a team lead for the Nova Centre’s six-month province-wide consultation process. Nova Centre’s objective to provide a world-class mixed-use development that revitalizes the heart of Halifax is ambitious, and therefore, contentious. “My work is about not buying into right and wrong,” says Merry. “My work is about creating the conditions for many, and often conflicting, opinions and perspectives to come together. This way we can see a bigger picture, discern common patterns, and make smart strategic choices about how to move forward.” 

Months after the Build Your Centre public-consultation process, Nova Centre developer Joe Ramia unveiled a completely new design for the $500-million project. The redesign reflected significant changes requested by members of the public.

As Merry reminded residents in his closing remarks at the Halifax Central Library’s final meeting, public engagement is an ongoing process, even after the shovels have gone into the ground. “There’s a real invitation to stay in this,” says Merry. “The success and potential of this project is as dependent upon the engagement and involvement of the citizens of Halifax as the architects, the libraries, and the library staff.”

Merry adds that he is pleased to see more and more meetings becoming highly participatory and responsive. “We’re at the point where the culture of participatory has become increasingly mainstream.” 


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