Centre Plan needs to be at the neighbourhood level

August 22, 2016   Last updated: 24/08/2016

Following years of regional planning and preparatory studies, HRM is in the process of drafting the Centre Plan. The Centre Plan will enable and guide development in the Regional Centre for the next 15 years. It has been clear for some time now that existing development regulations in the urban core are out of date. The policy response has been lagging behind development. As more and more cranes continue to dot the sky, and residents continue to be frustrated by surprising developments in their communities, a refreshed and clear regulatory environment in the urban core is a welcome exercise. Generally, its stated goals are to increase density in the regional centre, merge four planning areas leftover from amalgamation, create a predictable planning process and follow the eight guiding principles for the Regional Centre from the 2014 Regional Plan. We suggest that the eight principles are incorporated into one, powerful guiding vision statement. Our proposed vision statement is:

“The Regional Centre will be a mid rise, mid density, mixed-use, distinct, inclusive, healthy and affordable network of economically-viable neighbourhoods served by sustainable service systems and linked by active transportation, high quality transit and beautiful open spaces.”

We suggest that the Centre Plan must focus on neighbourhoods, not growth centres or corridors, to bring the bold changes that the Regional Centre needs.

Neighbourhood Level Planning

Many cities in Canada and around the world conduct planning at the neighbourhood level. It makes sense for four main reasons. First, an ideal neighbourhood would provide all of the services and spaces required for the average person to live their day-today life. This can make a neighbourhood more memorable, and create relationships between people when their neighbourhood has common centres and destinations. Second, defining neighbourhoods using building typologies and architecture as defining factors allows us to protect heritage buildings and other important landmarks as well as maintain the character of certain neighbourhoods. Third, if done correctly the neighborhood planning unit can strengthen democracy by drawing on local citizen knowledge and direction to realize planning objectives. Finally, defining neighbourhoods with a clear boundary allows us to define social issues more easily, and supply the needed services and amenities based on who is living in each neighbourhood. This does not mean neighbourhoods will necessarily drift towards more homogeneity. The opposite can be true  if we promote a good balance of housing types and business.

Currently, there is no neighbourhood level planning in HRM. Last year, HRM commissioned a study to create the awkwardly named “Sub-Regional Geographies”, which loosely mimic neighbourhoods, but there is no indication that they will be used in the Centre Plan. Without neighbourhood planning there is no formal definition of what a neighbourhood is within HRM. Without deep and meaningful community involvement in the planning process there is no way of actually defining what the character of a neighbourhood is. Without a definition of ‘neighbourhood’ it is difficult to then measure and preserve ‘neighbourhood character’.  As the “Homes not Hondas” conflict has recently shown, there is no way for residents to meaningfully influence the kind of development that will appear in their neighbourhoods.

The Centre Plan process has also been missing community input on the public environment, which should directly reflect the values and wishes of the public. The Regional Centre needs a strong, community driven vision for our streets, public spaces and transit network. The public environment needs to be in place before private development can progress. We need services and amenities in place to serve a growing population now- not after the growth has already begun.  

In the mid 1990s Seattle initiated a neighbourhood planning process which is considered to be among the most successful examples of citizen-led planning in the world. It brought the general public, the business community, developers and the government together into the planning process, instead of against each other. It was able to meet growth targets for the city’s plan and in each of the 38 neighbourhoods which plans were created for there was a “dramatic reduction” in the amount of conflicts and lawsuits related to new development. Contrast the Seattle experience with our complaint-based and adversarial planning system, which is the predominant environment in HRM.  It is intended that the Centre Plan will clarify the rules and the height of buildings; there is no acknowledgement that the planning approval system itself is in need of reform.

Affordable Housing

Closely linked to neighbourhood change is the need for more affordable housing in the regional centre. As part of the lead up to the Centre Plan HRM commissioned a Housing Needs Assessment. The assessment indicated that about 13% of HRM’s households are in “core housing need”- meaning that 13% of homes in HRM are unaffordable, too small, in disrepair or a combination of those three. It also showed that households living in the Regional Centre earning up to $30,000 annually cannot afford average market rent, and households earning up to $65,500 cannot afford a new or old home. The most recent engagement material for the Centre Plan indicates that Agricola Street, Gottingen Street and Wyse Road are designated as “primary growth areas”- where new development will be directed in the Regional Centre for the next 25 years. Gottingen, Victoria Road (Dartmouth) and Highfield Park Drive are designated as “Secondary Corridors”. Many of these areas are low income communities desperate for more affordable housing, where already the average increase in rent is 4% annually, compared to about 1.5% for the rest of HRM. Without significant development controls for these areas, particularly on the provision of affordable housing, gentrification will intensify as density increases. So far, the emphasis in the engagement sessions has been on the height and form of buildings, not on what kind of services and housing each community needs.

Despite this, the second most common topic that received comments at the “growth scenarios” consultation session was “protecting and creating affordable neighbourhoods”  and the third “create affordable housing options”. Without holistic planning and targeted controls such as landlord licensing in these areas, a rapid loss of affordable housing will occur. The plan says that “modern land use and design policies will protect and enhance the Regional Centre’s many unique communities”. How can this be true if we haven’t described and documented each community?

Growth Goals+Hidden Density

Perhaps the most important reason for the Centre Plan’s existence is the need to plan for future population growth. The plan projects an increase in population of 33,000 residents over 15 years in the Regional Centre- an increase from 97,000 today to 130,000 by 2031. Others have calculated the rationale for this target. However, the options presented to the public so far, which focus attention on the placement of 6 to 10 storey buildings, do not fully illustrate the capacity of other options to absorb population growth.

There has been little emphasis on the large capacity for secondary suites within existing buildings and in the rear yards of existing lots to absorb population growth. Currently, 16% of growth in the Regional Centre, or 2,412 units, is planned for infilling and secondary suites. In contrast, other estimates suggest that 45% of population growth for the Regional Centre could be met if only half of the properties in Halifax and Dartmouth which are zoned for a second unit (R2 properties) were able to build one. Unfortunately, the current land use by-law regime only allows a third of Halifax R2 properties and two thirds of Dartmouth R2 properties to actually add a second unit. If HRM were to simplify outdated development controls on secondary suites which constrain building volume and instead implement policies that promote high quality urban design and architecture we could create more opportunities for affordable housing in the Regional Centre. By unlocking the “hidden density” in the residential fabric we can have less high rise development, achieve growth targets and maintain the character of our historic neighbourhoods.

More Questions Remain

This article has discussed some important topics on the current status of Halifax’s Centre Plan, but more questions remain unanswered:

  • Does HRM have a plan for seniors and supportive housing in the Regional Centre? The 2014 Regional Plan acknowledges the great challenge that an aging population will place on our region, but so far nothing has been done in the Centre Plan process to address this.

  • How will the Centre Plan involve active and public transit plans such as the Integrated Mobility Plan?

  • How is the Centre Plan driven by providing a distinctive open space network featuring memorable streets and new public spaces?

*Contributions to the article were made by David Harrison and Frank Palermo. These are noted in italics.