Asking the Right Questions

Ken Wallace, 2012-09-19

I skipped the Halifax mayoralty all candidates debate at the Lord Nelson Hotel this evening. For some months now I've held the conviction that we really need to confront some larger questions — larger than pot holes and convention centres... Those near and far know my sermon. I even delivered it quickly to Mike Savage on the Seahorse Tavern steps last spring. This week it's clear that rather than speaking — I might better be writing my piece.

Sunday night I attended what might have been Halifax's first ever salon on SPIRAL DYNAMICS. Last night I was in the packed to the brim cinema for the AFF screening of Rob Stewart's REVOLUTION. This Friday is ZERO EMISSIONS DAY a chance to pause and reflect for 24 hours while not contributing to the big unrelenting fossil fuel burn

The big question is really on everyone's mind, and yet it almost never comes up. What are we doing? What do we really want to do? — not so much as individuals but as a city — what do we really want to align to?

Let me explain. If one looks back at Halifax through time, this city has been aligned to defence. For over 200 years Halifax has done a remarkable job at that. One can count about 50 built fortifications through time including the current naval base and Shearwater. Our city's bones are all about defence.


Halifax Fortifications


Post WWII, this focus has waned somewhat (although we're told Nova Scotia’s aerospace and defence industries contribute by far the lion's share of provincial GDP even today). Building forts was fashionable and happening the world over — one could even say necessary — in centuries past. During the cold war and ever since brick and mortar forts and the cannons of earlier years provide much less protection than skilful diplomacy.

“Over the last seven years, Nova Scotia’s aerospace and defence industry has grown by an astounding 183 per cent. ¶ In 2008, aerospace and aerospace parts manufacturing accounted for more GDP then fishing, forestry, agriculture and tourism combined, in our province. ¶ Here in Nova Scotia, the industry generates in excess of $600 million in revenues each year. ¶ When combined with defence spending, the industry contributes $1.5 billion to the provincial economy each year.” – Premier Darrell Dexter, September 2009

Since the last great war, perhaps the single biggest influence on city design all over North America has been the car. We've aligned and designed our city and civilization to car convenience to such a great extent, that we'd be lost with out them.


Heavy canon on Citadel Hill

Girl in car window holding keys


Halifax Roads


Having a well protected city and a sound transportation infrastructure would seem to have merit, and yet by simply following what's been happening in other jurisdictions, Halifax may have come to a dead end. Forts that aren't crumbling have tourist — but not defensive — value. Personally owned automobiles are the least efficient and most energy-intensive means of transportation. Turning the city into a Hots Wheels set rather than offering multi-modal, people-friendly mobility options comes at a high cost to the cityscape and to city-dwellers.

Girl in car window holding keys

The big question is:
What do we really want to align to?


Can our city — our culture — actually mature if it doesn't fully engage in a conversation about what we really deeply value? Let's look at the facts:


Saint Mary's Cathedral Basilica

Witness steeples for instance.


St Matthews Church

St. Matthew's shelters the homeless in winter.

Nova Centre

Proposed Halifax Convention Centre
expresses what values?


What were Stonehenge builders
aligning to?


Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe (12,000 BP) predates the world's first cities in Anatolia and is the oldest known man-made religious structure.

Crystal Island, Moscow

Crystal Island, a proposed building project in Moscow, would be the largest structure on earth.


Generally, folks are more concerned about pot holes and the like. Getting into larger questions is uncomfortable. Who wants to discuss values? And yet if we don't engage in conversations at a deeper level, we are always merely responding to problems and our city and culture manifest as reactive rather than creative. At a glance everything seems perfect in the moment and yet society in reality is more like a large ball of band aids placed one atop the other.

We know that: the city will play an ever-increasingly important role in our lives; decisions about it's future will be made; buildings will result; infrastructures created and upgraded. Should we not really reflect on what we care about rather than leaving major decisions up to seeming happenstance, bureaucratic inertia, political maneuverering, or the whims of a select few?

Marilyn Hamilton, author of Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, refers to such an exploration as Appreciative Inquiry and describes it this way:

"Appreciative inquiry is a way of coming together where we can bring together the whole collective that is the city and engage it in way that we can answer the questions: What's working around here? What's not working around here? And what is that we aspire to? What are our dreams for the future?

"Out of this kind of inquiry we can actually start to get a picture of what it is that we have as a vision for our city and what are the values. And by bringing vision and values together we are going to be able to overtime shape a much clearer picture of what is the equivalent of our forty pounds of honey for the human hive. How much energy is that we would need to generate, and how much that we need to renew. What is it that we can return to the system. What is it that we draw from the environmental system so that there is a resilient cycle that we are part of contributing to in a positive way.

"Meshworking utilizes those four perspectives from citizens, from civil society, from the workplaces, from all of the ways that we think about managing the city and also developing the city, and bringing together those capacities and values and the developmental levels of complexity and being able to align them so we can actually achieve our vision and live the values that really mean the most to us, that are life-giving and important to us."
— from An introduction to "What is an Integral City" by Marilyn Hamilton on YouTube.

See also:

World's largest Buddha

World's largest Buddha
Ling Shan near Shanghai
88 m, 700 tons


Burj Khalifa, Downtown Dubia
Tallest manmade structure in the world
829.84 m

Tian Tan Buddha

Tian Tan Buddha
Lantau Island, Hong Kong
34 m, 250 tons


From a design matters point of view, all this is quite crucial. Are we doing the right thing? In 2012 when we're selling tickets to orbit the moon, apparently cooking our planet with green house gases, and speeding through an anthropengenic sixth great extinction toward technological singularity, what would be an appropriate course of action for a city today? What ought we align to fundamentally?

Here are a few ideas:

While all sorts of notions swirl around in the background for everyone, it's rather rare that they're actually made explicit.

Now is the best time to start conversations about what we really care about for our city, make some lists, prioritize and over time try to commit to and embody the unity of values and vision we all share.

Ken — update 2012-10-24





My eldest and youngest sons on the chesterfield staring at MacBooks

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Graphic from the cover of the World Economic Forum Global Risks 2014 Report

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