HALIFAX – “What kind of community do you want to live in? What do you want Halifax to look like?”
Jen Powley asked these questions to a packed auditorium in the Ralph M. Medjuck Building located at the Dalhousie University School of Planning campus on March 11th, 2011. Despite the diversity of her audience—students and seniors, the able-bodied and the handicapped, Nova Scotia natives and recently transplanted residents—Powley guessed their answers may be more similar than different. She’s also confident an HRM Greenbelt would solidify a common ground.
On the second day of the Dalhousie School of Planning’s Imagine conference, Powley proposed the implementation of an HRM Greenbelt to strengthen the components of the Regional Municipal Planning Strategy. The conferences intent was to assess long-term planning in general and to review specifically, the Regional Municipal Plan: the 25-year strategy plan is under review this year and is seeking consultation from the public. The HRM Regional Municipal Plan was ratified in 2006 and lays out a strategy for sustainable growth in the HRM that simultaneously preserves the environment and fosters a strong economy. It touches upon what Powley refers to as the three key pillars of future planning: society, economics and the environment. It also addresses them in urban, rural and suburban contexts.
While Powley agrees with this approach, she describes the Plan as “130 pages of dense, dense document. I use the image of oatmeal,” she says. “Really, it’s kind of bland.” Powley’s joke isn’t far off-base. According to a recent survey, 53 per cent of polled HRM residents rated the success of the Plan as five or lower, on a one to ten scale. “It’s a good plan,” says Powley. “There’s lots of good stuff in it, but it hasn’t attracted the imagination of the population.”
Not in the way that a Greenbelt could. A Greenbelt is an area of undeveloped or agricultural land surrounding an urban centre. Vancouver, Quebec, Ottawa and Toronto already tout their own. According to Powley, 86 per cent of HRM residents support the creation of a Greenbelt.
Powley argues this type of land-use looks ahead 100—not 25—years and supports the three pillars of the Plan. Most importantly, it engages the public in a collective vision. The strength and sustainability of the Greenbelt vision is grounded in its acknowledgment of the diversity of the Nova Scotian population, especially in the HRM. “Demographics are going to be our biggest challenge in future years,” says Powley, highlighting the HRM’s need to attract and retain young people and immigrants, as well as service an aging population.
“We need to look at social needs. We need to look at our community not only as we are, but as children and as seniors,” argues Powley.
Seeing as the HRM constitutes 40 per cent of the province’s population, the social, economic and environmental well-being of this urban centre is essential to that of the entire province.
But in incorporating a Greenbelt into the Plan, the HRM cannot be analyzed merely as a single urban centre. Instead, Powley suggests a polycentric view of the HRM comprising of Greenbelts surrounding Halifax in addition to several smaller, established communities outside the core. This perspective would help marry rural and urban views, adds Powley.
Jen Powley joined the Ecology Action Centre in 2008 as the Sustainable Transportation Coordinator, and is currently completing her Masters in Land-Use Planning at Dalhousie University. She has since encouraged the Centre to be more actively engaged in municipal affairs. According to Powley, many social and environmental groups, like Ecology Action Centre, feel the Plan has not made enough significant progress in the five years it has been in place. Recently, the Centre has reached out to individuals and businesses to gain their input on the Plan’s shortcomings.
“What we really need is for the public to demand more,” says Powley.
The Centre has also drafted its own 15-page suggestion for changes to the Plan. Among the suggestions are “walkable communities” supported by extensive transportation systems; a focus on green spaces, “green building” and eco-friendly water practices – and incentives for development to pay for itself.
“We need to bring the idea of community back to our community,” adds Powley of the proposition to improve existing—and create new—community centres in urban, suburban and rural areas.
The Centre’s document is largely inspired by the Greenbelt movement, and seeks to establish practices that would lead to the creation of an HRM Greenbelt in the near future. But it also demands immediate change: in reviewing the HRM Regional Municipal Plan, the Ecology Action Centre proposes that Council adopts the same multi-layered vision that fuels their interpretation of an HRM Greenbelt.
“We need something to sustain us for 100 years: something that will grasp the attention of the public.”
Photo from HRM Regional Municipal Planning Strategy, 2006.