“In nature, everything is connected,” states environmental consultant and photographer Peggy Cameron. “Likewise, this city is an ecosystem. If we harm part of a species, it harms us all.”
Cameron, a longtime member of the Friends of Halifax Common, has shot pictures of every house on the west side of Robie Street between North and South streets — trees, traffic, pedestrians and all — to show that these are real places. Documented like living creatures under dire threat of extinction, more than 100 images of character homes will be hanging all month in a downstairs corridor of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History as part of Photopolis, Halifax’s biennial photography festival.
Landscape format. Four by six inches in dimension. Printed on linen paper. Tacked to wall, not pinned.
This politically motivated exhibition — called Corridor Wasting Disease: Robie Street, A Case Study — is Cameron’s response to HRM’s plans to create corridors out of several main arteries commuters use to get on and off the HRM peninsula. “Human-scale architecture is being destroyed to create tunnel-inducing building proliferation.”
Her printed material states: “Canada’s Endangered Places Committee (EPC) is adding hundreds of Halifax homes at risk of extinction its List of Engendered Places. Corridor Wasting Disease (CWD), an infectious disease spread by the Halifax Centre Plan, is responsible. Using theoretical population projections the Plan will grow a dozen+ streets into “corridors” by increasing building heights to 4-6 storeys or more. Unless the disease is arrested, CWD will lay waste to hundreds of unique wooden buildings.”
Is Cameron attempting to generate human emotion by presenting her exhibition in scientific terms at a public institution that embodies scientific research? “Yes. My show is a call to action. This is as significant as the Cogswell Interchange, as Africville.” Cameron views this planning shift as a death sentence to a population at risk, “an order of execution.”
Some claim Cameron is too passionate. To that she responds, “I am well-informed. Why aren’t you?”
Peggy Cameron is clearly well-informed. She also has a particular point of view. Enjoying daily contact with nature growing up on a sixth-generation Pictou County farm instilled the seeds for later graduate-level environmental studies. Cameron planted trees in the summers while doing a biology degree, appalled by the clear-cutting practices she witnessed. She worked as a Department of Fisheries Observer, “witnessing the rape and pillage of our oceans.” She adds, “I think about how Atlantic Canadian resources are being exploited, high-graded, decimated. As a scientist, we’re also aware of living creatures at risk. In western countries, we sense that loss and attempt to respond by identifying the risk, protecting the habitat of the creature and hoping for a rebound.”
While Cameron was taking photographs and talking to homeowners, she found that not one person was aware of the Centre Plan’s intention to change the height restriction bylaws on Robie Street. Cameron is convinced that the city is effectively incentivizing developers to tear down their homes and build new construction six storeys or higher in targeted growth areas. “Already,” she claims, “they are enabling developers to break rules meant to protect our city through a loophole in their development applications.” To her this is not just a planning concern. It also has far-reaching environmental implications for Halifax’s future: wildlife, energy use, transport needs, climate change and more.
Art and activism have always been strange bedfellows. Peter Schjeldahl writes in The New Yorker: “All artists want to change the world, usually just by making it take special notice of them, but now and then they do so out of a devotion to larger hopes.” Art Halewood writes in Art, Artists and Activism: “. . . art does not exist in a vacuum. It is a part of culture. And political art that stands up to the repressive forces of society is a part of the culture of change. Political art does have effects in the real world, it is clearly part of the force, not the only force, but part of the force that keeps the human spirit alive. It keeps the flame of justice burning. It keeps memory alive. It moves with the struggles and moves those struggles forward.”
What do you think? If you want to learn more about this issue, why not take a walk along Robie Street, check out Peggy Cameron’s photographs before Hallowe’en, maybe participate in a future public planning meeting. Or if you prefer to remain in your century home listening to singing birds, you can read about the doyenne of urban activism Jane Jacobs, a fearless woman who held her own against anyone in her pursuit of understanding what makes a city great.