Urban sprawl. These two little words have caused quite the heated discussion recently amongst many Haligonians, resulting in a sweeping debate on the future of HRM. With the Regional Plan’s five year review under way, it has become even more of a pressing issue. This article will refer to ‘urban sprawl’ as urban growth in attempt to diminish the rather unfavorable contention the word ‘sprawl’ musters up. Throughout the past few decades, there has been few plans or guidelines as to which lands should be developed in HRM and how. This has undoubtedly resulted in development moving further and further away from the downtown core, to where land is cheaper. This has serious repercussions for everybody in HRM. Most importantly, it becomes more expensive for municipalities to function since they have to bring services further and further away from the downtown core. Increased costs for municipalities never end favourably for the taxpayer. This article will briefly discuss the Urban Growth strategies which have been implemented by Toronto and Vancouver. It will conclude with what Halifax can learn from these two major cities.
The city of Toronto, as well as Ontario as a whole, has taken considerable action towards urban growth planning and thus is a good example of what could be implemented in Halifax. In 2005, Ontario implemented the ‘Places to Grow Act’. The Act involved the identification and designation of ‘growth plan areas’, and the development of strategic growth plans for specific communities. These growth plans included decisions on how the land would be developed, how resources are to be managed and where public dollars are invested. This has mainly been a provincial initiative, but there was significant cooperation with the various municipalities in which it affects. To go along with this, the province also has “The Planning Act”, which sets out the rules for land use planning in Ontario, and also clearly designates what role each level of government takes. Ontario has also developed a greenbelt to constrict growth. On the municipal level, Toronto has implemented “The Official Act”. The Act includes policies in which the city is to abide to in regards to different areas of planning, such as the usage of green space and land use designations.
Another big city which has been active towards urban ‘growth’ is Vancouver, BC. Vancouver implemented a Regional Growth Strategy in 2011, through ‘Metro Vancouver’. Metro Vancouver “is a political and corporate entity operating under provincial legislation as a regional district and greater boards that deliver regional services, policy and political leadership on behalf of the 24 local authorities”. It consists of twenty two municipalities, one electoral area and one treaty First Nations. Furthermore, four entities operate under Metro Vancouver: Regional District, Sewerage and Drainage District, Water District and Housing Corporation. The Local Government Act establishes the authority for the growth strategy, which provides land use framework for planning related to utilities, transportation and housing. What is interesting about Vancouver’s growth strategy is that it clearly indicates which level of government will help with each aspect of the strategy – for example, federal is responsible to provide funding for airports and ports, and the province aids in transportation planning, education and health facilities.
There has been much debate on urban ‘growth’ in Halifax since the Regional Plan has gone under review. The main argument against urban growth planning is that if we constrict growth to a certain area, people will choose to live outside of that area but continue to work in the downtown core. This is undesirable since people will choose to live where property charges are lower and yet still benefit from services inside the core. A good start in fixing this would be to work on revamping our transportation systems and how we fund infrastructure. This is problematic since the downtown core tends to subsidize the infrastructure which is used to connect these communities. Therefore, the solution is to simply fully price these services instead of subsidizing them. It is important that people have the choice to live where they like of course, but if we want to contain urban ‘growth’ then pricing and how people are taxed according to the area in which they live needs to be reexamined. Another solution would be to increase transportation, either through improved bus routes, implementation of a light rail train, or a speedier ferry service, to encourage those outside the core to use alternative modes of commuting other than automobile.
Much of the discussion on urban growth has been spearheaded by the Stantec report, written by Stantec Consulting. The amount of money in which HRM could save by centralizing growth is staggering – $670 million over the next twenty years, if 25% of new housing begins in the Regional Centre. This is not something that we can afford to overlook. There is no doubt that Halifax would greatly benefit from focusing our growth to the urban core. The only debate is to how to go about doing so – needless to say it will not be an easy task. The Regional Plan was implemented in 2007, and this five year review is crucial. There has been great progress but evidently much more needs to be done. The Vancouver and Toronto cases show that in order for the Plan to be successful, it will require strong communication and partnerships between many different areas of Government. Firstly, the Provincial and Municipal government need to work together in creating a plan which clearly designates growth areas, which has been key in both Toronto and Vancouver’s regional plans. It is evident that coordination between many different entities is key to the success of urban growth strategies. Vancouver’s growth strategy and the grand amount of partners make it a very admirable framework for how to create a growth plan. What seems to clearly lack in HRM, and in Nova Scotia, is strong communication between the two levels of government. We cannot expect any changes until this communication is strengthened. In conclusion, although this article is much too brief to go into too much detail as to what Halifax can learn from Toronto and Vancouver, it is important to note the key players for these cities strategies and the clear guidelines that have been created for land use, transportation, etc. as well as the collaborative governance system that is practiced in these cities. That being said, the Stantec report and the Regional Plan is a tremendous start to achieving this, and Halifax’s downtown core has seen many promising developments in the past few years. The future of HRM is exciting, and once we begin to realize the potential we have there will be no stopping us.