Halifax – how to build a great city

Today, Haligonians seem less worried about the city of the future than they are about the crisis of the moment – homelessness fueled by a housing shortage and a population which is growing by four per cent per year.  This narrow focus is troublesome, because we now risk creating a city we might not want in response to a crisis we cannot seem to manage.

A little background is in order here. Earlier this year, HRM council stepped on the gas to secure about $80 million worth of funding under Ottawa’s Housing Accelerator Funds. Councilors then decided it would be best to encourage new housing starts by throwing out the old zoning rules and letting homeowners build extra residential units on their properties.

This regulatory overreach risks turning many homeowners into property speculators, while transforming the city’s mosaic of attractive neighbourhoods into a giant game of Monopoly. HRM’s distinct neighbourhoods give the city character and diversity, from its newest subdivisions; to its oldest coastal villages; to the so-called flower streets in Dartmouth (Tulip, Dahlia and all the rest); to the now-hip Hydrostone neighbourhood in the north end of the peninsula (built quickly to replace housing destroyed in the Halifax explosion in 1917); to the Westmount subdivision on the peninsula, developed atop an old commercial airfield to house military personnel after the Second World War; to classic planned communities like Colby Village and Clayton Park.  Heck, even those leafy streets in the affluent southend of the peninsula, near the city’s two oldest universities, have their charms

These HRM ‘hoods’ – historic or not – help define the city, just as the classic Brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, and the mansions of Mayfair, help define New York City and London. They also open arms to the diverse and growing population of people who are now transforming the city in dramatic ways we don’t quite understand.

Our CrowsNest crew argued long and hard about the city of the future, before finally reaching a consensus of sorts. First, strategic growth is preferable to the willy-nilly addition of residential units almost everywhere. Secondly, a solid argument can be made for encouraging high-rise buildings along existing development corridors like Robie Street.

Thirdly, the future of the city is not only about housing. It’s about public transit, green spaces, where we live and where we want to live, where we work and how we get there, ferries, hospitals, schools, universities, and how we live with each other – hopefully in a dynamic harmony.  Public infrastructure like streets, water & sewer, transit and parks should be in place before the growth occurs, not after.  As a basic principle, it seems odd to the Crowsnest that HRM policy seems intent on adding many new taxes and charges to new housing units in the midst of a housing crisis. Taxing what you want more of seems like counter-productive public policy.

As Halifax stands on the precipice of dramatic change (headed for a sort of modest small city greatness or a muddled mediocrity), we’ll only build the city we want if we first understand what we want it to be.  And we will still be living in the city – planned or unplanned, attractive or ugly, congested or parklike – long after the housing crisis is (hopefully) behind us.