22 Years of Squandering Growth in Halifax

“I have travelled to many places, but rarely did I find such a rich and well preserved landscape as around Halifax.”

This is how Douglas Olsen, President and CEO O2 Planning+Design, described Halifax at the first stake holder session for the Halifax Green Network Plan, which his company has been hired to write. His company has operated across Canada and around the world, so he knows of what he speaks.

Sadly, Halifax is unique in Canada both for its access to green spaces and for its zeal for building over them. To understand how Halifax’s tendency to garble up land compares to other cities, we analyzed high-resolution before-and-after satellite pictures. The results shocked us.

In 22 years we grew in population by only one fifth, yet almost doubled in size.

Imagine if a family of five paid to double the size of their home to accommodate one new baby. That’s essentially what Halifax has done.

And we’re paying the cost in our taxes. We have two times as much land to provide roads, road maintenance, ploughing, garbage pickup, policing, and fire and ambulance service. While growth should be bringing in new revenue for new sports facilities or lower taxes, we have instead increased our costs even faster. In fact, we have been moving our population from our low-cost communities—where we already have infrastructure—to new greenfield developments. The core of Halifax shrank from 24 residents per hectare to 14 in roughly the same period.

Of course, Halifax is not the only city to grow outwards, so how do we compare to others? Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary have also increased their surface area, but they grew faster in population than size. While each new resident makes those cities richer, we are throwing our gains away.

It is strange and ironic that Halifax, a city with such impressive access to natural beauty, should be in such a hurry to destroy it. If there were a UNESCO designation for the most ecologically diverse cities, we’d probably get it, yet over 22 years we consumed 12,500 hectares of those natural assets.

Perhaps most wasteful is our practice of cutting green spaces off from the broader wilderness by failing to plan for connections. We now have 63 of these isolated patches—17 new ones since the 90’s—which contribute little ecological value while spreading our city out even further, increasing costs and making transit difficult to provide. Personally, we’d rather live near a real, living forest, than the stranded remains of one.

And yet, despite these two decades, what Doug Olson said is true: we still have access to lakes, forests and coasts other cities would die for. Remarkably, the time it takes to drive out of the city is still counted in minutes.

It’s time to stop the madness. As of 2014, our stronger Regional Plan has started to get our growth under control. We must beef up its rules with a plan that will bring rationality to the impact of our growth on nature.

The Green Network Plan is our opportunity to do so—maybe the best we’ve ever had. We are hiking the greenbelt this summer to build rock solid support for a strong plan that will mandate protections for our most valuable natural assets and help us to get a handle on how we grow. In short, we want a greenbelt.

If we manage our natural assets wisely, we can reduce the costs of growth and therefore reduce our taxes. Equally, we can turn these great places into reasons for tourists, students, companies, and new residents to come here. The Green Network Plan may be one of the most important economic tools the city has: a way to get more out of growth, and to make growth happen faster.

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