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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Oppose the building, not the people

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HALIFAX – Know what happens when too many rats live together? According to one influential study, they become violent and cannibalistic. So we should fear density.

I’ve often heard this argument used to oppose developments in Halifax.

I live on Duncan street in one of the densest areas of Halifax and so I can attest that it’s true. My neighbours’ cannibalism is a real hassle. You never know when they will see one too many humans and pounce.

This logic is as phony as it is insulting and yet I’ve witnessed people respond with nods. From the evidence I’ve gathered, density mostly leads humans to go for coffee and play frisbee together, and yet fear of it remains a major political force.

There are legitimate reasons why people oppose many developments in Halifax, such as bad design or wind and shadow impacts, and I am sometimes involved in that opposition. To oppose the people who may live in those buildings, however, is a tendency which I reject. We must unmask the words, “I am against density,” for what they mean: “I am against more people living here.”

For practical and moral reasons, I believe opposition to new neighbours is wrong.

I will focus on the practical. Perversely, many problems ascribed to density are precisely the problems it solves. Let’s look at a few I have heard from people at various public consultations:

  • Danger: New people on a street or in a park could lead to robberies or violence. Quite the opposite. The safest streets and parks are those with other people there to make robbers and rapists feel nervous. As Jane Jacbos puts it, the best safety comes from “eyes on the street.” The Commons in Halifax is dangerous at night for the lack of passers-by. We should take a lesson from Mont Royal station in Montreal, where they made a public space safe by creating a 24 hour, year-round market—not by driving people away.
  • Bad for the environment: Making concrete produces a lot of CO2. True, but living in a community where a car is needed for every daily task produces far more CO2. The biggest impact a building has on the environment isn’t its insulation or materials, but where it is. If we don’t allow reasonably tall buildings, we risk forcing potential residents to move to places where they cannot walk, bike or take transit.
  • Affordability: Tall buildings will push up housing costs because they increase land value and, therefore, property taxes. A far greater problem for affordability, however, is when just a few people control the housing supply and can force high prices on buyers. The best way to wrest this power from landowners is to increase the supply of housing to match the demand.
  • Traffic: There’s not enough parking or road capacity to accommodate so many new people. Actually, there is not enough parking or road capacity for these people to live elsewhere. Traffic does not result from every human needing to drive a set number of kilometres everyday, but from how far people live from their destinations. The centre of Halifax and Dartmouth have the greatest variety of destinations within walking distance of anywhere in Nova Scotia. Consider that 25,000 more people lived on the peninsula in the 1970’s yet we now have so much more traffic we need to expand roads. Many people, myself included, barely contribute to traffic at all because we walk or bike everywhere.

And of course, the other benefits of density are well-known: successful local business; better transit for less money; healthier active transportation options; lower tax-payer costs for servicing homes; better access to  food; vibrant mainstreets to attract youth and tourists, etc. Recently, researchers are also recognizing that chance encounters that happen when a diversity of people working in proximity fosters the kind of innovation we need for economic growth.

It is not by coincidence that density has multiple benefits: when people live closer to each other and their goals, they can do more with less.

So we should allow all development?

In February, Council approved a development on Wellington Street that was opposed by local residents, regional residents, the area’s Councillor, the Planning Advisory Committee, and city staff. A majority of Councillors dismissed this universal derision because they said Halifax needs the density.

In the same way we should not oppose buildings just because they bring density, we should not allow buildings just because they bring density. While it is important to have population, it is equally important to have an attractive, welcoming city that enhances why people choose to live here. In an economy where cities compete to attract talent based on quality of life, allowing every mediocre proposal is no formula for success.

What matters about buildings is their impact on public space—their design. We can worry about population when we make plans and set height limits for the whole city. For specific developments, the number of people inside is at best a good thing and at worst irrelevant. Buildings must be judged in terms of their quality, not the people.

Here comes growth

What is complicating, and perhaps poisoning, the debate about growth in Halifax right now is that it is happening without a plan. We are promised the Centre Plan next year, but we are seeing more development proposals now than we have seen in decades.

Without the plan, people are forced to debate issues that can’t be decided on a specific site. What height strikes the right balance between population and impacts?  Where do tall buildings end and other communities begin? How much of our yearly growth should individual developments be able to capture? What kind of design character does a whole community want to achieve?

All these site-specific proposals are, in fact, slowing down staff progress on starting the Centre Plan. With multiple buildings proposed between 20 and 30 stories, we may not have much development left to plan by the end of it.

Let’s call an end to amending plans and landuse by-laws until we have our Centre Plan, so we can focus staff energy on getting the design rules we need to ensure growth benefits us all.

Until then, let’s oppose buildings if they don’t match our vision of the city, but while welcoming all the new neighbours we can get.

Cover image by Veinotte


One comment

  1. Tristan is right. We shouldn’t allow inappropriate development just because it increases density, nor should we oppose a development simply because it increases density. There should be many factors considered. However, Halifax city council seems to worship density at any cost. Wellington St is a good example of a decision based solely on the goal of increasing density. We toady to the developers generally profit-based vision, not livability. Where it is placed and what it looks like seems to be forgotten. To create livability, not just density and profit, we want buildings that are bigger than houses but smaller than towers. Buildings that have a good scale and relationship to the street and neighbourhood. Buildings that are tall enough to provide more density and lots of usable space, but low enough to let the sun in and open the view to the sky from the street. Buildings that support a comfortable pedestrian environment, through street animation in some areas, by lining the sidewalk with active uses including stores, restaurants, services, grade related apartments, and community uses. The building designs hopefully innovative, height determined by factors like street width. Shorter buildings on narrow streets, taller buildings on broad avenues. These seem like simple concepts, we get increased density and livable neighbourhoods. Why then do we allow ugly high rise developments, intent only on profit, to be approved ……just because of increased density. As Tristan notes, there are many benefits to increased density but unless planned with care, this comes with a huge cost to the livability of our city. The Toronto Avenues and Mid Rise Buildings Study provides much food for thought.