Urban Development: Does Halifax need to grow up?

HALIFAX – It has become painfully obvious to many if not most observers that Halifax has a sprawl problem.  The Halifax Regional Municipality covers an area almost the size of Prince Edward Island, and the city seem to be spreading out rapidly to fill those borders. The Halifax Regional Municipality has been experiencing significant population growth in its suburbs, while population in the downtown cores of Halifax and Dartmouth continues to stagnate.

The sheer size of the HRM makes our population density unusually low, at 71 persons per square kilometer.  However, even when we look at urban areas of HRM alone, the density is 1106.4 people per square kilometre, which is still significantly lower than comparable cities like London (Ontario) and Regina, slightly less than Victoria, and far below densities of comparable great cities. If Halifax aspires to be a great city, then we need to start thinking like a great city, and growing in a more focused, sustainable way.

HRM’s Regional Plan, which is supposed to set the framework for sustainable growth in the HRM for the next 25 years, adopted a target that 25% of population growth should take place in the urban core (essentially Halifax, Dartmouth and Bedford) while 50% should take place in the suburbs, and 25% in rural areas. While some would argue that set the bar too low for urban growth, in the first five years of the plan we fell short of even that modest goal, with only 16% of population growth taking place in the urban core, while 56% took place in the suburbs and 28% in rural areas.  In other words, the city is expanding into the surrounding countryside at a rate that is not meeting even a modest target for sustainable growth.  This makes Halifax a textbook example of sprawl.

What is sprawl and why is it undesirable?

Sprawl has been described as a ” land use pattern of single-use zones, typically made up of subdivisions, office parks, shopping centres’ strung together by arterials and highways.”  While it is sometimes referred to as “suburban sprawl”, the problem is not suburbs themselves, but rather the separation of residential, commercial and retail areas into large, isolated, single-use zones which can only be reached by driving, rather than compact mixed-use walkable neighbourhoods. It is typically characterized be lower population density.

Sprawl is problematic from a number of different standpoints, notably its financial and economic costs, its health and environmental impacts and its social dimensions.

In terms of financial costs, sprawl requires a municipality to provide services to the same number of taxpayers over a larger area.  This requires not only more infrastructure (more pipes, more roads, etc.) but increases soft costs as well: police officers, garbage haulers, and buses, all have to cover a larger area, resulting in increased costs to the taxpayer.

This has a very real impact on the municipal budget.  A recent study commissioned by the HRM shows that changing the urban growth target from 25% to 50% of the population increase would save the municipality  $1.7 billion over the next 20 years.

In other words, to continue to service sprawl, the HRM will either have to charge higher taxes, or decrease service levels just to break even.  Sprawl imposes such high costs, that observers have been linked it with municipal bankruptcies in the US and elsewhere.

Sprawl also imposes economic costs.  For example, because of it’s dependence on single-occupant vehicles, sprawl is also associated with gridlock, which costs the Canadian economy $10 billion a year.

Sprawl is also associated with a number of environmental and health problems.  An ever expanding city can result in loss of wildlife habitat and greenspace, which is essential for both environmental and human health.  It contributes to depletion and degradation of water sources.  The focus on single occupant vehicles increases reliance on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions.  And it increases air pollution and sedentary lifestyles, leading to rising health problems and costs.

Finally, sprawl is associated with certain social problems, including loss of community, income inequality, and diminished social services.  Sprawl has been accused of lacking “quality of place” and creating social disconnection.

What is density and why is it desirable?

Our HRM Alliance defines density as “the number of people per area”.  Statistics Canada defines an “urban density” as 400 people per square kilometer. Spacing Magazine identifies some of the benefits of density as follows: “Residential density[…] is one of the most important characteristics of urban areas. High densities create vibrant streets, support main street commercial areas, and encourage walking, biking and transit use.”

Denser cities avoid many of the problems created by sprawl, as detailed above. Municipalities are able to keep costs (and taxes) down by providing services over a smaller area.  More walkable cities avoid many of the costs of gridlock, and reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases.  Wild spaces and water can be preserved, providing habitat for wildlife, as well as recreational opportunities for people.  Finally, denser cities often provide tighter, more closely knit communities and neighbourhoods.

Why is sprawl becoming a hot-button issue in Halifax?

Addressing the issue of sprawl has created strange political bedfellows.  42 groups as diverse as the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, the Ecology Action Centre, Fusion Halifax, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Halifax Trails Association, and the YWCA have banded together as the Our HRM Alliance, dedicated to making the HRM a more liveable and sustainable place.  In particular, the group has been working through the Regional Plan five year review process to try and strengthen the regional plan to more comprehensively address sprawl through seven solutions, including green belting.  They believe that implementation of these solutions will address the problem of sprawl, and help Halifax grow more densely and sustainably.  Groups like the Alliance have been doing a great deal to raise the profile of sprawl as a topic for public discussion.

The issue of sprawl came to a head recently when regional council rejected the application for the 48 story Skye Halifax development.  If built, the two towers would both have stood 150 metres (492 feet) high, making them the by far the tallest buildings in Atlantic Canada.  Council rejected the development on the advice of staff and the design review committee, who found that it did not meet the development rules set out in the HRM by Design rules for downtown development.

Many opponents of council’s decision to nix the proposed building suggested that allowing Skye to proceed would have been one way of addressing sprawl.  Many questioned the HRM by Design rules, and suggested Halifax needs to “grow up” and build taller buildings.  Despite this, many vocal opponents of sprawl, and proponents of downtown development, such as the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, supported council’s decision. So while many agree on the need to densify and combat sprawl, there is a lack of agreement on whether skyscrapers are part of the solution.

Won’t taller buildings help?

While it would seem obvious that building taller buildings is one way to increase density and address sprawl, real-world experience suggests that is not necessarily the case.

On the one hand, New York City, which has 5,818 high-rise buildings, of which 92 are over 600 feet, is quite a dense city by North American standards, with 10,518.60 persons/square kilometer  By contrast Paris, which has only 14 buildings over 492 feet (of which only 8 are over 600 feet).  Paris has used height restrictions to confined high-rise development to specific areas of the city: in most of Central Paris, there are few buildings over six stories high, with the notable except of the Eiffel Tower.  Yet, Paris, with 21,196 persons per square kilometer is around twice as dense as New York.

Houston, which has far fewer development restrictions than most large cities, has 360 high-rises, and 31 skyscrapers over 492 feet.  Yet despite having more tall buildings than Paris, Houston has a major problem with sprawl, with only 1,505 persons per square kilometer.  Similarly, Calgary has few development restrictions and has 14 buildings over 492 feet.  Yet Calgary as a City has a lower density than Houston, at 1,329 person/square kilometer.  It’s urban density is not much higher, at 1,554.8 persons per square kilometer.  Calgary is having serious problems meeting the costs of servicing an ever expanding area.  The problem is so serious, that Mayor Nenshi and the fire department have said the City is having difficulty maintaining municipal fire services to meet national standards.

Closer to home, Halifax’s North End is one of the densest neighbourhoods in Atlantic Canada, with a density of 5,888 people/square kilometer, despite having very few tall buildings at all.  Another one of Halifax’s densest neighbourhoods is Schmidtville, one of its oldest, and most historic.  Schmidtville is a compact, mixed use neighbourhood

So density is not merely a function of height, and there are ways to achieve density without building skyscrapers.  Some experts have suggested that mid-rise development, and not towers, are the key to densification.   Toronto has achieved significant population growth in its urban core in the last several years, due in part to significant mid-rise development, although this has not been without controversy in some neighbourhoods. However, the question becomes how high we go, and what other considerations we want to balance height against.  Is the sky the limit, or is there an optimal height for achieving density?

There is no question that if Halifax is to increase density and combat sprawl, taller buildings will be part of the mix.  However, the experience of other cities suggests that skycrapers are not necessarily a panacea: the solution will have to be more comprehensive.  Many cities have been able to develop densely without many tall buildings, and in some cases with significant restrictions on height.  Many cities that have allowed tall buildings still have a major problem with sprawl.  Many mid-rise buildings may make a greater contribution than a few high-rises.

Generally speaking, it is the cities that place the least rules around development (like Calgary and Houston) that have the biggest problems with sprawl, while cities with clear, considered development guidelines (like Paris) tend to develop more densely.  Great cities aren’t just grown; they are planned.  Whether Halifax becomes the great city it has the potential to be will depend how well our regional plan, downtown plan, and development rules address issues like height and density.

Images by Stephen Cushing, Craig James White and Craig Mosher

14 comments

  1. This is a good article on a very important subject, but some of the examples of urban density cited are not apples to apples comparisons. Paris vs. New York for example: the city proper of Paris is a very small area accounting for about 1/6 of the metropolitan population, whereas the City of New York is a vast city of around 8 million, accounting for perhaps 4 out of 10 of residents in the New York metro area. A better comparison might be Paris versus Manhattan.

    Sorry to be pedantic, but these subtle distinctions are important. Comparing Halifax’s urban area to Victoria, London and Regina sounds straight forward, but urban area is undefined. Do the numbers for those other cities include adjacent suburbs, or just the central city? We can’t easily get data on the old City of Halifax, but I would bet the old city to be twice as dense than the urban area as a whole. How would Halifax compare if we took that into account?

    Regardless, it’s clear that Halifax is sprawling outward, creating a lot of issues. If we’re going to fix this problem we’ve got to have an honest discussion about the causes and potential solutions. Articles like this are a great start. I completely agree that high-rises are only a small part of the solution – there’s no magic bullet. Downtown revitalization and urban infill are also only part of the solution – some people want to live in the suburbs and some people want to build new. Unfortunately a better regional plan – as important as that will be – is also only a partial solution. A plan is only as good as the political commitment to uphold it. It’s not uncommon for a strong plan to over time be watered down dramatically with amendments. Politicians all over the world have a hard time turning down development.

    • Thanks Sean. That is a good point, and it is always difficult to make inter-city comparisons. Manhattan does have higher density (26,939/square kilometer) than Paris. However, I’d argue that’s also a bit apples to oranges as Manhattan only includes around 10% of the total metro population of New York.

      I got those Canadian city density figures from a GHP report which you can find here:
      http://www.greaterhalifax.com/site-ghp2/media/greaterhalifax/Index%20-%20Final%20%28Web%29.pdf

      My understanding from talking to GHP is they used the StatsCan definition of urban area/population centre:
      http://www.statcan.gc.ca/subjects-sujets/standard-norme/sgc-cgt/urban-urbain-eng.htm

      If you go to page 69 onward in the GHP report, it will give you the density figures for the urban areas/population centres in each city, plus the percentage of population in the urban area, etc. It’s always tough to make these comparisons, but I think London and Victoria both have value as comparators.

  2. Thanks for the clarification Derek. It looks like the urban area/ population centre numbers are decent apple to apple comparisons. I’m really shocked that Halifax is less dense than a Prairie city like Regina.

    The idea of “population-weighted density” is interesting. I haven’t had a chance to look too closely but I bet it would help out in our discussion.

    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/housing/2012/10/americas-truly-densest-metros/3450/

    One last thought: Halifax has great bones for encouraging mid to high density urban neighbourhoods. You pointed out the North End and Schmidtville. Most of the peninsula’s neighbourhoods are great, as are many in Dartmouth. Where we seem to fall down in the city is the old industrial lands and the strip commercial areas: Yonge St., Kempt Rd., Almon St., Wyse Rd., Joe Howe Dr., etc. These areas not only pull down the density of the regional centre, they often break up great neighbourhoods. There are some huge opportunities here, and it will be interesting to see how the Centre Plan addresses them.

  3. The urban areas are called “population centres” in the 2011 census. Here’s the map of the Halifax urban area/population centre:

    http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/images/maps/UA_RU/E_A/jpg/760_570/0348.jpg

    As you can see it includes lots of undeveloped land. Regina’s definition on the other hand seems to match the actual developed areas more closely, and Regina has larger contiguous blocks of development because of its simpler geography.

    Even at the census tract level you see the same sort of effects; the densest neighbourhood in Halifax is probably Spring Garden Road, but it’s lumped in with the Citadel and Commons so its census tract density total is meaningless.

    The comparisons between cities are interesting but the census data is really suited to comparing changes in one city over time. Thankfully this is what’s really important since that’s what’s needed to see if the urban growth targets are being met or not.

  4. Effectively, Halifax is denser than cities like Regina or Calgary—that “population centre” map really highlights how much of the StatsCan-defined “city” is undeveloped. Not even low-density suburbs, but like, the woods. Maps for every other city conform much more closely to areas where there’s actually built stuff. (Also, the industrial and military lands on the peninsula drag down our density.)

    And as Sean points out above, the peninsula’s strong street network gives it fantastic bones for future densification. The city is in way better shape than, say, Calgary or Winnipeg, where post-war street networks make make densification a logistical challenge.

  5. Sprawl is a result of height and minimum setback restrictions, minimum automobile parking requirements, segregation of residential and commercial use of land, development charges being too low for low density and too high for infill and basing property taxes on the value of land and building rather than land alone.

  6. What a great article. This was extremely informative and well written. Thanks for taking the time to do this. Halifax will develop as a smart city because there are people like you. I wonder if geography has anything to do with this huge focus on municipal affairs. It’s as though the shape of the peninsula reflects our collective focus inwards. 

    I love it. It makes for a very vibrant, caring and thriving city.

  7. Halifax isn’t, nor will it ever be, a “great city”, too many stagnant, happy with the status quo thinking people here and then when you throw the heritage idiots into mix..well you can see the dead end road Halifax is on. The rejected towers said it all.
    Clocks are intended to mark the passage of time, the Citadel clock keeps time standing still.

  8. Danny makes a lot of good points. There are a whole host of regulatory, tax and infrastructure issues that encourage or reward low density development on the fringe of the city. What’s most frustrating is how unbelievably slow HRM has been to update the myriad plans and by-laws that govern development. Development downtown has been helped a lot by HRM by Design, and the Centre Plan will hopefully do the same for the peninsula, the question being when. So when do we get to the suburbs? 10 years? 15 years? And even if HRM cleans up its by-laws, we still have the province looking at highways like the 113. Sprawl loves roads.

    My prediction for Halifax is not a donut city. Lots of neighbourhoods are strong already, and downtown is receiving renewed attention: people want to live there and the tide seems to be turning towards revitalization and decent population growth on the peninsula. That alone won’t change much about how the suburbs grow, especially if there is a lot of growth to accommodate. I think Halifax will be something like Montreal in the future: a strong, urban centre, surrounded by a huge amount of car oriented sprawl that is connected more closely to business parks than the downtown. I don’t think it’s an either/ or question of either downtown or suburban growth.

    • I’m actually planning a series of posts to drill down on some of those issues: downtown development, suburban development, the business parks, municipal tax policy, etc. I actually think there is a series of policy changes we could make relatively quickly that would make a big difference. They will be posted on my blog (http://devilsadvocatederek.blogspot.ca) and hopefully cross posted on Spacing. Next one should be up after the holidays.

      Personally, I’d prefer to see Halifax develop around a dense urban core, surrounded by suburbs centred on their own dense growth centre (e.g. downtown Sackville, downtown Bedford, etc.), with the growth centres being connected to each other and to the urban core by rail or other mass transit, as opposed to Montreal-style car-based sprawl. And I think that is within our grasp with the right policy changes.

  9. Friends and family who travel extensively comment, repeatedly, that Halifax is one of the great small cities of the world now. I agree without any reservation – I love returning to Halifax from a business trip or vacation.

    I don’t think that height is the answer to increasing the number of people living on the peninsula. Walk around the residential communities of New York City like Chelsea, Gramercy or the upper east and west sides and you’ll find that most buildings are under 35 metres.

    An issue in Halifax appears to be that the cost of real estate downtown makes low rise (under 30 meters) development uneconomical – at least according to the developers who are building here. Perhaps we’ll see interesting low rise residential developments in some of the less costly communities on the peninsula like Needham, Gorsebrook, SoMo and Chebucto.

    New developments like W, The Grainery and The VIC appear to resonate with people who want to live in the city. These properties are in scale with the geographic and urban landscapes. I am thinking that the new low rise developments about to start in Schmidtville will be equally handsome and popular apartment buildings.

    Could we not achieve the density we are looking for by building low rise buildings in the communities surrounding the downtown core?

    I’ll declare my bias. I live in Gorsebrook and work at Barrington and Spring Garden. My wife works at the VG Hospital. We love living, working and playing in the city.

  10. Don I think the bulk of densification should and will take place with low and mid-rise buildings. The Vic and W Suites I find particularly attractive and both developments are well above 100 units and acre, which is a good urban density to aim for in the inner city. Mid-rise and low rise buildings generally produce a more coherent urban form, although I think there are opportunities and a need for thoughtful high-rise development as well.

    Derek – I’m not advocating for car based sprawl, that’s just a prediction. And I used Montreal because that’s the city I know best, but you could pick Toronto, Boston, Montreal, Washington DC, New York, Halifax and a host of other cities that have strong cores and huge amounts of car based sprawl. I think the regional plan is pushing for what you’re advocating: more mixed use suburban areas anchored by local centres. Like you mention we’re missing some key policies to make that happen. Looking forward to your series.

  11. Well… I note the author of this article provided a link to the crippling gridlock that now engulfs almost every major center in our country and in that article, they quote the Mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson. I came from Halifax and moved west for work and having been in Vancouver for the last few years, I can tell you all that you should NOT listen to anything this idiot has to say. His idea for reducing gridlock is to ban cars from the downtown core by 2040. He hates the automobile! He forgets that in those cars are people – people who want to work and shop and spend money on local downtown businesses. I refuse to go downtown (Vancouver) anymore because it takes over an hour (and that is ridiculous for a 17 to 22 minute trip). In the third largest metropolitin area in Canada, you still have to use narrow streets to access the core instead of a proper freeway. And we’re supposed to be in the 21st Century! I’d rather go elsewhere, thank you very much. I’ll spend my money in areas that are easily accessible by road. And NO… I’m not interested in taking the bus or craming myself onto the Skytrain. As Homer Simpson said: “Public transit is for losers!” I will agree that it is an essential part of the mix but on it’s own, it’s not the solution. Nor are bicycles! I hope none of you look to Vancouver for solutions – because you’ll be kicking your backside for years to come. Cars are here to stay and the sooner our political leaders realize this and build for their efficient movement, the better everything will be – from reducing gridlock to improving mobility to improving our economy and bettering the environment (because cars that move freely produce much less polution than those that idle for hours needlessly on city streets instead of being on free-flowing expressways where they belong). We would also get more of our life back to do other things – like spend time with our family and friends. Look elsewhere for solutions to gridlock – like those cities which are building a balanced transportation system – one that included new expressways.

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