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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A Greenbelt for Halifax?

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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.



  1. People should be diligent when it comes to the suggestion of greenbelts. A greenbelt alone is only useful if it is accompanied by strong political leadership. I cannot speak for those in Quebec City and Vancouver, and Toronto’s is much too young to pass judgment I suppose, but – if we take the objective of a greenbelt to be the containment and verticalization of urban growth – Ottawa’s is a disaster which has only prompted the expansion of enormous bedroom communities on the other side. The advantage of Ottawa’s greenbelt is there are nice bike and hiking trails; the disadvantage is that it didn’t deter development on the far border of the greenbelt in the slightest, nor did it encourage vertical urban growth on either side of the greenbelt. It’s certainly unclear to me how, especially maintaining this model of polycentric development, the EAC’s model for a greenbelt can ever be effective in that sense. To me, it just looks like more infrastructure dollars dumped into extending the roads and waterlines to the outlying bungalow colonies.

  2. Speaking from the experience of Toronto, there’s strong evidence that excessively stringent greenbelt use and development regulations have been pushing agriculture and livestock farming out of the greenbelt–the opposite of its intent.

    But that doesn’t mean a greenbelt is a bad idea. It’s a great idea, it just needs to be managed properly.

  3. The problem with the Ottawa greenbelt is that only a thin strip of green space is protected by the greenbelt so development has leapfrogged to the other side. For a greenbelt to be successful it needs to be sufficiently wide to prohibit development within anywhere that is within reasonable commuting distance of the city. Toronto’s greenbelt seems to be more effective but it has two problems: outlying areas such as Bradford, Barrie, Guelph, Kitchener and Brantford are not covered by the greenbelt. Also there is no requirement for higher densities in new subdivisions in the “whitebelt” (e.g. the huge areas of new subdivisions in Brampton, Milton etc.) On the other hand there is a requirement for 40% of new housing to be infill which helps a lot.

  4. The Ottawa Brownbelt (it ain’t “green”) contributed enormously to Ottawa sprawl, lack of density, mass-segregated land uses, and massive inefficiences in public transportation, private transportation and the public infrastructure it runs on, and other municipal services.

    The “Greenbelt” is classic 1930s Radiant Garden City Beautiful thinking, and deserves to be left in the History of Failed Ideas.

    Sadly, the stupid Brownbelt has been fetishized in Ottawa to the point where you commit heresy to even question its existence.