Editor’s Note: Below is an open letter from Frank Palermo sent to HRM Mayor Mike Savage and the Greater Halifax Community on the importance of the Regional Plan and the short-term opportunities to improve it considerably.
HALIFAX – HRM needs to change. The Regional Plan (RP+5) provides the occasion for moving in a new direction of our choosing. Over the last two years while the Regional Plan has been under review, many development proposals have been brought forward and several large projects have been built. Along the way there has been turbulence. There have been too many community meetings and yet not nearly enough meaningful engagement; too many plans and studies, started and stopped, sometimes at odds with policies and sometimes in conflict with each other. All of these are symptoms of a turbulent time and the need for change.
There is now a window before Council formally considers the Regional Plan (RP+5) to engage the community with some intensity, so collectively and collaboratively and openly we can make adjustments, be more ambitious and produce a Plan that is more effective. Rather than thinking about the next two or three months as a backroom activity dedicated to preparing a more polished draft to be considered at the Public Hearing, it is possible to use it as a moment for serious and creative reflection. Rather than accept the Plan and planning as polarizing we can build on shared values and use it as an opportunity to bring us together.
For the last 60 years we have been building a city and a region and a province that is car-dependent. There are now signs, here and in regions and cities around the globe that separating home and work and play, which may have been reasonable in the last century, is no longer necessary, desirable or wise. Separation increases travel time, doesn’t make the best use of existing public infrastructure, requires more road construction, consumes valuable land and natural resources, affects climate change, makes transit and active transportation less effective, increases property taxes and contributes to obesity. That means it affects all of us, every day. It also means that standing still is not a choice.
In 2006, HRM took a stand. At least conceptually, the Regional Plan set out to concentrate growth in the Centre Area and in Transit Oriented Nodes within the suburban ring. It didn’t deliver on Functional Plans or on rethinking public infrastructure. It also didn’t fundamentally affect attitudes within government. Municipal departments continued and still continue to operate, study, think and act within the narrowly defined scope of their historic mandates, rulebooks and expertise. On the positive side, the RP gave rise to HRM by Design. The Downtown and Centre Area Plans embraced intensification and advanced 10 broad principles for making more vibrant, livable, walk- able, street oriented and transit focused precincts and neighbourhoods. Two observations pertaining to this work are particularly relevant to our current discussion (or lack of discussion) about the RP+5:
- The capacity to accommodate new growth at reasonable density within the Downtown and Centre Area far exceeds the target figure of 25%. In fact there are many gaps (empty undeveloped land, surface parking lots and outdated auto oriented and land intensive uses) that need to be filled much like scars that need to be healed.
- Better design and more intense development are necessary but not sufficient to produce the kind of city we want. Private sector development is dependent on and needs to be supported by leading investment in public infrastructure particularly as it relates to active transportation, transit and streetscape improvements.
Now the RP 5-year review is nearing completion. The outcome of a fairly turbulent and largely closed process is in essence a Regional Plan for 2031. In this spirit, it is urgent to ensure that what is proposed clearly reflects what we value as a community, what we learned from HRM by Design, and perhaps more importantly, that the Plan moves us forward and inspires us to work collectively, across boundaries to deal with both the demands and the enormous potential of the moment.
In this light, the proposed RP 2031 needs some adjustment. It is not just a missed opportunity. It could easily become a costly, disruptive and dispiriting misstep. The attitude, connections and momentum all need to be reconsidered.
The way the RP 2031 was prepared and the way in which it is currently being considered underestimate both the value and power of community participation. Public engagement in the review is not only limited, it has been viewed as counterproductive. The process has little room, leaves little time and has no patience for open, community-based discussion. Council’s intent is to proceed directly to a public hearing for a document that has been considered and altered behind closed doors for many months. Open, on-going, creative community engagement is not just nice or interesting. It is not just democratic. It is fundamental to the content, the tone and the implementation of the Plan. It makes little sense to produce a Plan, however quickly, if it will have little or no effect and does not capture the community’s aspirations or inspire all of us to work individually and collectively to make it happen. Nor does the process outlined in RP+5 for the preparation of Secondary Community Plans and Functional Plans indicate a spirit of openness and collaboration. The sense is that Community Plans will be done for and to the community. This approach is both inappropriate and impractical.
The Plan sets out to limit expectations of what can and should be done. In doing so it underestimates our potential and fails to capture the spirit of the moment. Although it makes a lukewarm case for change, it promises a future that is not measurably different from the present. The growth targets are very low. Furthermore, it is not clear what they mean nor is it recognized that growth cannot be predicted or controlled directly by planners, developers, or even the Council. Meanwhile, the RP+5 is ambivalent about public infrastructure that we (the community) can affect directly. It is public infrastructure that determines the form of the city, affects the location and intensity of development and influences the pace of growth.
The Greenbelt is rendered meaningless as a strategy for both protecting natural resources and consolidating/intensifying urban form. Development will continue to spread out with minimal regard for climate change, cost of infrastructure, or protection of natural resources. Through exceptions, hedging on growth boundaries and a willingness at the policy level to accommodate business parks, industrial parks and certain housing developments in rural areas beyond current service boundaries, the greenbelt idea, if not the entire growth strategy, is compromised.
While the stated intentions of the RP argue for connecting land use, built form, density, vehicular movement, transit, active transportation and the environment, in practice the Plan doesn’t make the connections explicit. If they do exist, they are certainly sufficiently vague and muffled as to be misunderstood or simply disregarded. It can be argued that connecting spatially across boundaries, linking long-term ambitions to immediate action and connecting across expert and sector boundaries is an essential quality of any Plan and a particularly important aspect of a Regional Plan. Yet departments, agencies, boards, authorities and groups within HRM continue to do their own thing and work in isolation.
The truth is that we cannot keep doing things as we have been. If we want to concentrate development downtown and in the centre area we cannot also allow it to happen everywhere just as intensely and with fewer restrictions. If we want more emphasis on transit we cannot leave it vague and dependent on future demand. If we want more intense development along transit corridors we have to identify the corridors and commit to the transit. If we want intense, walkable, active and healthy communities downtown and in the Centre Area we cannot continue to build parking in those areas. If we are looking for Transit-Oriented Development opportunities in the suburban ring we have to think beyond buses and strategically locate terminals. We should not build roundabouts to facilitate continuous flow of traffic because it is at the expense of people, bikes, and transit.
During the last several months while the draft Plan was being considered, HRM has embarked on a number of studies, projects and community consultation sessions that are counterproductive and costly. They are based on a misunderstanding of what both the existing and the proposed RP are meant to do or perhaps indicate that many Departments in HRM don’t see the Plan as at all relevant to their mission. If our future is modeled around healthy, walkable, complete neighbourhoods we need to rethink the transportation system and our commitment to healthy, walkable communities now, not later.
There are many current examples of plans, studies, projects and initiatives undertaken by/for HRM that work at cross purposes:
While the proposed RP+5 draft hints at a new level of commitment to transit, and while there is every indication that public transit is key to nurturing the kind of downtown HRM by Design envisages, and while it is also clear that pedestrian-oriented streets and public transit are critical in achieving any growth strategy predicated on increasing density along main streets and connecting the downtown to new suburban centres, the proposed Plan is silent on what such transit means. It does not indicate even conceptually how it would work. In fact it strongly implies that transit “improvements” will be based on “demand.”
Concurrent with Council’s deliberation around the Draft Plan, Metro Transit commenced a 5-year transit service study. This was described as an exercise to figure out what we should do to get better service and what tradeoffs we are willing to make. There are two problems with this: it focused only on transit and making adjustments to the existing (bus) system, and there was no reference to the RP as a basis for developing a longer term idea for transit or seeing public transportation in conjunction with the growth strategy. It took several months, considerable staff and community time, at some cost, to determine that the study should focus on the larger transit system. To my knowledge, this new mandate is also being explored in relative isolation, without a clear connection to the RP and with limited community involvement.
This matters. It is a problem with real and immediate consequences.
Parking is key to how we think of and use public space. It is also a critical ingredient in shaping and supporting the transportation system and affects our thinking about streets.
It is counterproductive to consider downtown/Centre Area parking as separate from the growth strategy, or separate from an idea about public transportation or a shared understanding of the community’s goals relative to streetscapes, corridors and walkable neighbourhoods. Yet, possibly because this idea of connectivity is not clearly enough expressed in the RP, we find ourselves at the doorstep of commencing yet another study which may also serve as a distraction.
Roundabouts in the Centre area
It is at least inconsistent to proceed at this time with detailed plans to build roundabouts in the Centre Area to improve the flow of vehicular traffic into the downtown. Facilitating the flow of traffic is not consistent with the stated intentions in any of HRM’s Plans, all of which are clear that we do not want more cars downtown.
The heart of the city is a place for people, not parking. Streets have a social function as open space and meeting places, not just traffic or car storage. To proceed with developing roundabouts, which both conceptually and practically give priority to cars over people, bikes and transit, is ill advised at best. It also implies that the RP needs to be stronger and sharper about what priorities mean and how we need to think across traditional boundaries.
We have to move beyond a city form that meets aspirations and demands arising from the Industrial Revolution or current (short term) private sector expectations. In that context there will never be enough parking, roads or green-field development. Crisis management rather than planning becomes the mode of operation.
In the last several months, a new voice and a new agenda has emerged. Mayor Savage has recognized health as a new vision and a direction that can both move us forward and bring us together. It is both conceivable and inspiring that HRM would set out to be the healthiest community in Canada, much like Vancouver is dedicated to being the greenest.
It now seems appropriate to consider replacing the rather general and generic vision for HRM that is in the RP+5 draft with one whose focus is on health. This single move would change the tone of the plan as well as the content. More significantly, it would provide a specific direction to align, organize and gauge the appropriateness of any project or public initiative, including transit, parking and roundabout studies.
“Branding” is also a rogue or disconnected project. It is a significant initiative that should be aligned with the Regional Plan. A brand cannot just be imposed. It should grow out of the vision, values and principles that define who we are and where we are going. In that spirit I would argue that we should stop obsessing about living in a Region or being a City. Perhaps in the spirit of the Ivany Commission it might be appropriate to think of Nova Scotia as a 21st Century City-Region.
In any event, it seems best to define ourselves relative to what we want to be, whether the “healthiest community” or the “walkable region” or…That is the connection to the RP2031. It is counterproductive, confusing and costly to think of branding as a separate study.
A firm basis for proceeding with Community Plans and Functional Plans (now called “priority plans) is missing. Yet the purpose of a Regional Plan is to provide a comprehensive, long-term view and to serve as the common shared basis for more specific, local and sector plans. In this regard it is reasonable to expect that the RP would provide a clear idea, organizational structure and development strategy for the public transit and active transportation systems. It is also reasonable to expect the delineation of a community-based approach for development of such plans. It does not seem reasonable to argue that basic structural ingredients will come later. They cannot come later because the community plans cannot be done without a specific conceptual/physical idea of the transportation, transit, active transportation, open space and service networks.
It is clear that everyone in government and outside is doing the best they can within the prescribed limits of their positions, resources, mandates, codes of operation and outdated rulebooks. Unless we can redefine the ambition, rewrite the codes and replace the thinking we will not be able to make any change happen.
The point here is that the RP as it is currently written (almost by necessity) disregards the considerable body of community-based work that has been done both to redefine public infrastructure and to raise awareness and expectations regarding community engagement. Considerable momentum and agreement exists at the community level about streetscapes, complete communities, food self-reliance, public transit, active transportation and the greenbelt, all of which are much more clear, specific and useful than the vague references included in the Plan.
Over the last couple of years, through many meetings, several large community design sessions and experiments on the ground, the Planning and Design Centre, in conjunction with Fusion Halifax and others, has produced a clear and specific idea and a physical concept for public transit.
Similarly, specific ideas have been developed for active transportation and strategies for advancing Community Plans. All of these initiatives, including the Mayor’s commitment to health have been sidelined by the plan. As a consequence the momentum, which has been building at the community level, is in danger of dissipating.
So, what should we do?
I would ask Council to designate a 60-day period (say from the beginning of March to early May) as the: RP2031 COMMUNITY COLLABORATION OPEN PLAN EVENT. This will provide an opportunity for community members, councilors, staff from across HRM, community organizations, professionals, public agencies and other levels of government to work together in an open and creative setting (perhaps in a storefront operation) to:
- Fine-tune the attitude and tone of the Plan, including the Vision and Principles. The branding project should be included.
- Set higher expectations particularly as related to health
- Describe a new community-based, open and collaborative process for developing community plans and functional plans
- Develop, in conjunction with work done to date, a conceptual framework for the Regional transportation system which provides specific direction and commitment for public transit and active transportation
- Establish a clear set of intentions for the greenbelt including how the belt serves to contain all new development within the serviced suburban area and the current serviced boundaries of rural communities.
- Ask transportation planners/consultants and others involved in current transportation “improvement” projects including transit, roundabouts and parking to work as part of this collaboration, and within the attitude and vision of the RP to develop and align all these projects.
I believe this is a significant moment in the history of this city. We have to get the attitude right. We need to find a way to smartly connect all of the pieces and to build on the considerable momentum that exists in this creative community. I am happy to help in whatever way I can.
I would welcome the opportunity to elaborate on any of these ideas and to discuss how we might move forward.
Professor, Faculty of Architecture and Planning, Dalhousie University
Director, Cities and Environment Unit
Chair, Planning and Design Centre
Photos or illustrations by Craig Mosher, Wilson Hum, WSP, Planning & Design Centre, and Define Halifax.