One of the things I miss most about Montreal is its parks.

Montrealers, with their unmistakable joy-of-life, live their lives publicly, in the city’s streets and laneways, and in its parks.

When I lived in Montreal, my local park was Jeanne-Mance: a beautiful green field stretching three long blocks, bordered by tall maples and elms, and framed by the mountain on its western edge. Parc Jeanne Mance offers a lot — wide parades, playgrounds, sports fields of every sort, perimeter paths for jogging and walking — but my favourite element of the park, hands down, is at its south-east end.

Here, at the corner of Duluth and Esplanade, is the loveliest of shady tree-groves. A desire line meanders in between woody perennials that provide equal parts back-rests and shady canopies. Here, under the immense and leafy growth, you can recline, quietly watch-people and be people-watched, and run into friends who are using the park as a shortcut from the Plateau to downtown. Stop and chats are as abundant as the old urban growth; picnics, instruments, naps and solo reading sessions common.

This is where I spent most of my time in summer-Montreal, where I began to sink my teeth into the magical intimacy a city can provide to someone open to it. Parc Jeanne Mance and its other-neighbourhood counterparts are the true gathering spaces of Montreal.

Halifax, my current city-of-residence on the other hand, has no such park — and as a result, no such park culture.

As a resident of the city’s North End, my park options are limited, and baby I can feel that park deficiency

That’s why I was delighted to attend this past weekend’s CKDU picnic, an outdoor bbq at the Commons hosted by Halifax’s campus radio station. It was an opportunity to enjoy the park in a way I hadn’t before — in a way that was distinctly more Montreal.

See, the Commons sort of sucks, in my opinion.

There is undeniable value in the refreshment it provides for the city. A great greenspace, no matter how it’s designed, provides invaluable pleasures and alleviences to the experience of urban living: we are all richer for breathing deeply and having access to spaces such as these.

But the landscape architecture of the Common hardly fosters the sort of gathering and straight-chills that Montreal equivalents harbour.

Halifax’s Common is barren. Save for the perimeter, which is indeed lined with beautiful old trees, there really is no nice place to sit. There actually is one, right in the middle of the North Common, however, nine times out of ten, it’s occupied by the punk-dog kids, and other parties — which is great, they’re great — but the space is so small, that trying to share it would those who are already there is sometimes uncomfortable.

Most of the Commons’ space is instead occupied by sports fields. It’s true, that on a sunny day the park’s baseball diamonds, soccer fields, and cricket pitches are completely full, a testament to the real demand for sport-space in the city. But it doesn’t make for good gathering, and in my opinion, is a real loss for the city, and a damn shame.

The fact that a giant pile of soil supporting a fresh layer of grass and vegetation recently freed from behind a chain link fence is now consistently used as a place for people to gather and sit is evidence of the need for Chills-space in the Common.

At the CKDU picnic, a temporary landscape architecture of tents, tables, vintage clothing stores, and music equipment transformed typically ephemeral “passing through” space at the edge of a soccer field, and marked it instead as a gathering space where people could comfortably hang in the presence of others and the lovely shade provided by a loose collections of tented canopies. The simple intervention in space introduced by the picnic transformed the park dramatically for the better.

I spent a whole bunch of hours at the CKDU picnic, soaking up the temporary Montreal-style park hang. I relished this Commons-hang, and ever-so-thoroughly enjoyed the chance encounters with passing friends who were using the Commons as a short cut between downtown and the North End. It made me sad to think how fleeting this use of the Common was going to be — gave me a glimpse of the sort of park the Commons could be with better design.

How easy it would be to plant a grove of trees in this small disused sliver of the Commons — what a lovely legacy that would be to the park-hangs of Halifax’s future.

Leading image by Chris Foster

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