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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

[Re]Presenting Halifax #4: Making the Case for Urban Renewal

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The [Re]Presenting Halifax series revisits historical and contemporary maps, diagrams and other interpretive readings of the Halifax region. See my first post for the full aims of this project and more information about contributing to the series.

HALIFAX – In 1957, University of Toronto planning professor Gordon Stephenson released a report titled A Redevelopment Study of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Jointly funded by the City and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), this study was commissioned after a series of unsuccessful slum clearance and redevelopment proposals for the peninsula in the early 1950s.

The Structure of the City

Stephenson’s study, widely-known as The Stephenson Report, was a manual for urban renewal and regeneration achieved through slum clearance. Armed with “evidence” from the Report’s statistical surveys of social conditions, the city razed 16 acres of dense housing (more than the 8.8 acres recommended), displacing 1600 people and relocated them to the newly constructed Mulgrave Park housing project. The cleared land sat empty until the construction of Scotia Square in 1967.

Welfare and Housing

Children and their Troubles

Police Problems

Shown here are a series of analysis maps from the Report. The titles of the maps – Welfare and Housing, Children and their Troubles, and Police Problems – clearly emphasize the city’s social ills, while the spatially-projected data leaves little doubt in the eyes of the reader of where the problems lie. These clear representations leave little room for debate and act as powerful political ammunition for those wanting radical action and reform. But while the analysis claims to be objective, Stephenson made numerous conscious and subconscious choices, selections and omissions when producing each diagram. While I’m not suggesting his findings were deliberately skewed, the perceived authority of maps, as produced by cartographers, researchers, planners and real estate developers etc., must be questioned.

In his 1989 essay Deconstructing the Map [ PDF ], J.B. Harley responds to what he sees as a misleading attempt by cartographers to cement the scientific authority and objectiveness of the maps they produce (exacerbated today by the surge in GIS-based mapping) by questioning and dissolving the assumed link between “reality and representation which has dominated cartographic thinking.” Harley was fixated on the “honesty of the image” and criticized the growing authority of the map and the “belief in progress (by cartographers specifically): that, by the application of science, ever more precise representations of reality can be produced.” For this to be true, one must ignore the fact that the main processes in map-making — “selection, omission, simplification, classification, the creation of hierarchies, and “symbolization” — are all inherently subjective actions, each open to individual and collective levels of interpretation.

The social history of maps, unlike that of literature, art, or music, appears to have few genuinely popular, alternative, or subversive modes of expression. Maps are preeminently a language of power, not of protest.

Maps as an impersonal type of knowledge tend to ‘desocialise’ the territory they represent. They foster the notion of a socially empty space. The abstract quality of the map lessens the burden of conscience about people in the landscape. Decisions about the exercise of power are removed from the realm of immediate face-to-face contacts. (J.B. Harley, Maps, Knowledge and Power [ PDF ])

Overcrowded Families

Unwholesome Sanitary Conditions

The redevelopment proposal for the waterfront area - a new ferry terminal, new waterfront freeway, underground parking - relied heavily on the renewal of the citys high-density, low-income working-class neighbourhoods
The redevelopment proposal for the waterfront area - a new ferry terminal, new waterfront freeway, underground parking - relied heavily on the "renewal" of the city's high-density, low-income working-class neighbourhoods
The Report also recommends the conversion of 150 acres of land at the northern tip of the peninsula – from its “vacant and Africville” designation to industrial and harbour program. Stephenson briefly notes the complexity in dealing with the relocation of Africville residents. And although his report proposes sites for housing those displaced by the plan, he states that the final redevelopment plan of the area is the sole responsibility of the City Planning Office. The 1963 Rose Report PDF ] prepared by another University of Toronto professor, Dr. Albert Rose (Social Work), justified the proposed actions and made direct, yet ultimately shallow recommendations for a final relocation plan. The city adopted Dr. Rose’s recommendations in 1964.

Stephenson’s report was produced more than 50 years ago. The interventions partially justified by its findings were carried out more than 30 years ago – some still existing as scars in the urban tissue (the most obvious being Scotia Square, the most invisible being Africville). While the very notion of urban renewal that this represents is a thing of the past – replaced by notions of renovation, regeneration, revitalization, etc. – there needs to be more awareness about the limitations of traditional methods of analysis in urban planning. Rather than looking at what is contained or represented in the map or plan, it is also necessary to see what or who has been left out.

What socio-spatial relationships and connections are being represented, invented, ignored, or exaggerated in today’s redevelopment plans? Is one map – one representation of place or community – ever enough? Are current tools and techniques capable of conveying the cultural or lifestyle complexities and contradictions inherent in the cities of the 21st century?

maps and diagrams from G. Stephenson’s A Redevelopment Study of Halifax, Nova Scotia (1957)



  1. This is a wonderful resource. Thanks for uploading images and the PDF reports.

  2. Very interesting and informative article.

  3. In the debate and comment about the fate of Africville and the apology recently granted by City Hall, little or no attention has been given to the wider planning paradigms justifying clearance and relocation of inner city residents during ‘urban renewal’ programs of the 60s and 70s.

    Most massively in the US where vast areas of inner city land was made available for commercial purposes by the categorisation and removal of the poor. The phrase “urban renewal is negro removal” came to express this process.

    In Toronto large areas of Cabbagetown were so designated and cleared (mainly though of poor whites – the descendants of the mid 19 C Irish migrations). Fierce neighbourhood battles ensued though when owner occupied properties were expropriated. Young radical lawyers (Sewell) took the side of the residents and policies were forced to change.

    In Halifax the Africville resident appear not to have had the benefit of an appropriate analysis and strategy from radicals outside their largely self-contained population removed by lack of education, political contacts and wider sympathy from the majority citizenry.

    Iain Taylor