Today I’ll be live blogging from this year’s Housing Symposium, organized by the Housing and Homelessness Partnership. Sponsors for the event include Halifax Regional Municipality and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

We started with a panel discussion on the state of housing and what’s expected from the National Housing Strategy with Brian Giacomo (Tawaak Housing), Karen Brodeur (Cooperative Housing Federation of Canada), and Claudia Jahn (Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia). Giacomo noted that their two main challenges were the potential expiration of operating agreements between CMHC and non-profit housing associations, and that 25% of their units were in poor quality–the organization does not have the funds to repair and rent them. Tawaak Housing’s main long-term issue is sustainability as they will be forced to sell some of their units in the future–since 1993 they no longer have access to an annual fund from CMHC to improve units. Brodeur noted that we have 74 housing co-ops in the province, which offer permanent affordability and are mixed-income communities. However, they are small (on average 27 units in size in Halifax and 41 units nationally) and therefore have limited reach, are subject to more financial risk, and have fewer members for leadership roles. Jahn noted that Halifax is tenth on the list of percentage of people who need affordable housing. They’re expecting the new National Housing Strategy to include an indigenous stream (with inherent treaty rights to housing, maintaining the number of units, providing funds for rehabilitation/renovation), funding to protect the current co-op housing stock and help create new units, and long-term consultation on the strategy to ensure it’s working over time.

The second panel on new affordable housing developments/lessons learned included Rich Gant (Habitat for Humanity Nova Scotia), Shaun MacLean (Pathways Cape Breton), and Colleen Cameron (Antigonish Affordable Housing Society). MacLean talked about the relationship between Pathways to Employment program, social enterprises (including wood shop, laundry, property maintenance, private cleaning services) that provide opportunities for employment for people with mental illnesses and other barriers, and their housing component SHIMI which provides high-quality, secure supportive housing for people with mental illnesses. There are 39 SHIMI units are scattered throughout the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. Cameron spoke about the four units her volunteer organization built in Antigonish using land provided by the town, and the challenges they encountered in understanding the regulations, process funding, and programs that were available to create the units and obtain charitable status. Volunteers built the four units through fundraising, despite people telling them it wasn’t possible for a new organization or that there was no need for affordable housing in Antigonish (they had 50 applications for the four completed units, and intend to build another ten as soon as they can). Gant is overseeing construction of a 92-unit development in Spryfield through Habitat for Humanity. He noted that families often need to get over the stigma of getting a “handout”, and that once they know they will be putting in 500 hours towards building their home and then have a mortgage, they view it as more acceptable. Habitat NS had built just 46 units in the province before the Spryfield project.

In the afternoon, two of my students, Juniper Littlefield and Adriane Salah, and Grant Wanzel (Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia) discussed homelessness and poverty. Wanzel has been involved with AHANS since its establishment, and both Littlefield and Salah worked with the organization this summer. They researched Halifax to identify communities or housing resources that were at risk of falling into housing poverty or out of affordability. Littlefield examined four Census Tracts in Dartmouth North, an area that has long been of interest with a high percentage of residents living in poverty; Salah’s work was in Spryfield. Between the two of them, they covered about 250 sq. km (the CMA) while Wanzel examined the rest of HRM which includes quite a few towns and rural areas (about 25% of the population of the regional municipality). Their reports are available on the AHANS website. Littlefield’s work on Dartmouth North (Burnside/Pinecrest, Tuft’s Cover, Ocean Breeze Census Tracts) found that the vulnerable populations were female lone parents, single women and young heads of households, there are issues with mental health and addictions, and the neighbourhood has some of the lowest housing costs in the region influenced by residents’ very low incomes. The shelter-to-income ratio is between 25-43 percent. Salah’s study of private rental units in five neighbourhoods (Spryfield, Clayton Park, North Peninsula, Dartmouth South and Dartmouth East) found that the first two had an increasing number of households in core housing need, while the others had increasing housing costs (Dartmouth South, Clayton Park) but are accessible to more services nearby. In the HRM, Wanzel said the ratio of owner/renter is 60/40 in the CMA, but in the remainder area it’s just 8.2/91.8; 28% of renters and 5.5% of owners in the area were in core housing need, but there is quite a lot of diversity: in areas like Halifax County East, 56% of renters were in core housing need.

A second workshop on access and alternative models of service delivery features a panel with Ali Shaver (Mobile Food Market), Becky Marval (MOSH), and Dawn LeBlanc (Community Homes Action Group). Shaver discussed the Halifax Mobile Food Market, which addresses  food security in low-income neighbourhoods. The Market initially provided pop-up markets in six communities (e.g. East Preston) using a Halifax Transit bus. Partners include local producers, Atlantic Superstore, community associations, United Way and non-profit organizations. After two evaluations of their project, 90% of their customers say that the price and location make it easier for them to buy fruits and vegetables, 89% say it’s easier to buy those that meet their family and cultural needs, and 76% say they’re eating more fruits and vegetables. Marval introduced us to Mobile Outreach Street Health (MOSH), a primary health care team working with homeless or at-risk people in the city who either don’t have a physician or are unwilling to visit one due to drug use or other perceived stigma. They also have a Housing First program to find housing for their clients. The Community Homes Action Group work towards finding housing for people with intellectual disabilities (e.g. require support with daily activities).

We’re all looking forward to the announcement about CMHC’s new National Housing Strategy shortly!

Montréal is decidedly a different place after electing its first ever female mayor, Valérie Plante, on November 5th. Plante will take office during the city’s historic 375th year. Portraying herself as “l’homme de la situation”/the man for the job, Plante managed to unseat Denis Coderre (mayor since 2013 and elected six times as a federal MP) by focusing on everyday issues rather than ego-affirming projects like the $40 million Coderre spent to light up Jacques Cartier Bridge. Plante’s pedigree as a community organizer and activist is sure to change things up in the planning world, and someone described as “having no ego” is sure to excel in collaborating, forging partnerships, and facilitating action in areas like transportation planning and affordable housing.

Plante’s campaign promise for a new Metro line might take two terms to fulfil, but she’s already proposing that the Pink Line have stations named after women who have played roles in the city’s history. Whether the Pink Line will materialize will largely depend on available funding, considering the other mass transit priorities in the region. She’s also advocated for fare reductions for low-income residents and free transit for seniors and kids under 12. Improving safety for cyclists and increasing the number of dedicated bike lanes are also on the table.

Plante’s suggestion that businesses affected by construction be assisted with tax breaks from the city might resonate with Haligonians affected by the neverending Nova Centre construction and Argyle Street redesign. Inclusionary zoning, which would require builders to reserve 40% of their units for affordable and social housing, is also a priority for Plante as the traditionally affordable Montréal faces rising real estate prices.

Her win signals a desire for a change in leadership style. Projet Montréal, the municipal party Plante belongs to, also saw 11 borough mayors elected and have the majority with 65 seats on city council. With priorities on culture, sustainability, accessibility, democracy, and community, Projet Montréal was born out of community activism in 2004 and won 14 seats in the 2009 election and 28 seats in 2013.

Figure 5 from The Opportunity Equation in the GTA (Update report). Notice how the middle class has switched places with the low- and very low-income group. Some of the other regions in the GTA show an even more extreme transition

I’m part of a research grant on neighbourhood changes in Canadian cities, the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, which examines the ways in which our cities are changing in areas such as affordable housing, income inequality, and poverty. Our Principal Investigator is Dr. David Hulchanski at the University of Toronto, and there are research teams in Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver. As a member of the Halifax team, I presented our research on rooming houses in a previous post.

Last week Dr. Hulchanski’s team and United Way Toronto and York Region released a report, The Opportunity Equation in the Greater Toronto Area: An Update on Neighbourhood Income Inequality and Polarization. Their first report, The Opportunity Equation, proposed a relationship:

Effort + Opportunity = Success

The research found that over half of people living in the Toronto area felt that factors like race and gender were a barrier to success, and that the next generation would be worse off. The researchers believed that increasing income inequality was threatening the Opportunity Equation.

The update to this report, released on November 1, 2017, updates the analysis with data from the 2016 Census and also looks at the trends in Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver. The main findings were that income inequality continues to grow in all of these cities, and is geographically dispersed across the Toronto region. A majority of Toronto neighbourhoods are now either high- or low-income, with middle-income neighbourhoods disappearing. In 1970, almost two thirds (64%) of neighbourhoods were middle-income, though only 42% were in 2015. In contrast, low- and very low-income neighbourhoods together made up about one-fifth (21%) of the Toronto CMA’s neighbourhoods in 1980. By 2015, they made up 39% of all neighbourhoods. High- and very high-income neighbourhoods grew from 15 % to 19%. The highest increase in income inequality in the Toronto region were in the City of Toronto and the lowest in Durham Region.

Based on the findings from the first report, the authors called on all partners and sectors to address three issues: providing young people with opportunities, helping develop a more stable, secure labour market, and helping ensure that background and circumstances are not barriers to opportunity. The United Way launched an Anchor Agency investment strategy, ensuring people have a broad range of services available close to their homes, a Youth Success Strategy to connect youth with multiple barriers to meaningful career opportunities, and continues to build on its Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy to tackle the lack of economic opportunities in many areas across the city.

The update report builds on this message and encourage more partners across various sectors to address the challenges.

 

I’ll be live blogging from the Over the Line symposium today, a one-day symposium on race, place, and the environment that brings together experts from the US, Canada, and Nova Scotia. This exciting event is meant to generate a conversation about the spiritual, environmental, and physical damage caused to black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities. I’m a co-investigator on the SSHRC Partnership Grant supporting the symposium along with several others, organized by our principal investigator Dr. Ingrid Waldron, who has become a local expert on environmental justice. Waldron heads the ENRICH (Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health) Project. If you want to check out Twitter, participants are using the handle #overthelinehfx.

Keynote Speakers

We started out last night with an energizing public lecture by Dr. Robert Bullard, distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. Bullard is the founder of the environmental justice movement in the United States, starting with his involvement in the Whispering Pines Sanitary Landfill case in Houston in the late 1960s. He got involved in the case, which involved siting the landfill in a middle-class African American community, through his wife, the lawyer who represented the community, and has now published 18 books on environmental justice. A packed audience at Ondaatje Hall on the Dalhousie campus listened to his history of the fight for environmental justice and the effects on African American, low-income, and Hispanic communities. He finished with photos showing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey on the city, with wealthy as well as low-income neighbourhoods affected. The low-income areas on the east flood every year, with the majority of the flood mitigation support going to the high-income area on the west. Bullard showed many slides of the health trends, poverty and income trends in the US, with the south showing up as the most environmentally degraded, low-income, and least healthy. He stated that it was no coincidence that the civil rights movement and the environmental justice movement both started in the south.

Today’s keynote speaker at our free event at the Halifax Public Library is Dr. George Lipsitz, professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He opened by stating that this is no ordinary time: the protest at Standing Rock, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, challenges to Canada 150 and so many others are in his words “the manifestation of a greater upheaval that is on the way.” He compared the protests to waves, which have long fetches: they started days, weeks, and months ago, they have built up force and represent a collective, cumulative process in history. We’re at a moment when a new generation is mobilizing for change: “a crisis that distills a complex history”, not people with their backs to the wall but people whose backs have been pushed through the wall. From this, Lipsitz anticipates a break which will lead to new policies, people, personalities, and perspectives. Social movements produce new knowledges, teaching us how people without resources become resourceful. Equity-oriented collaborative community-based research works with groups in motion and can help support social movements.

We’re also pleased to have the fantastic Charla Williams as our host for today’s event. Charla has an extensive background in employment equity and is the chair of the Halifax African Nova Scotian Employment Network. She is also, as one participant stated, “a magical person who can somehow keep everyone on track and make sure things run on time.”

Community Organizing Panel

Panelists on the Community Organizing panel included Raymond Shepard, Stephen Thomas, and Dr. Deborah McGregor. Shepard spoke about his experience growing up in Lincolnville, a predominantly black community in Nova Scotia, and the history of community activism that exists there. Thomas’ work as Energy Campaign Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre is helping communities transition to clean energy, and he gave a few examples of local Indigenous communities who are building solar energy farms on their territories using their own local skills and expertise. Dr. McGregor spoke of an Anishnaabe understanding of environmental justice, and how difficult it was to translate stories, topics, practices, and ideas into English and vice versa.

Cultural Transitions

After moderating the Community Organizing panel, I’m back listening to the incredible Umoja Cultural Diversity Drummers, a group of African Nova Scotians who performed using beats from Indigenous, Middle Eastern, and African musical traditions. It provides an integrative conclusion to our first panel, which was also introduced by Indigenous drummer and spoken word artist Richard Simon Taylor.

Research Panel

For the Research Panel, our speakers are Dr. Michael Mascarenhas, Louise Delisle, Dr. Cheryl Teelucksingh, and Dorene Bernard. Mascarenhas, a professor at UC Berkeley, has published a book called Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege, and Environmental Racism in Canada. He spoke of a presumed new emphasis on humanitarian efforts (e.g. tsunami relief, hurricane relief) which still involve discrimination: NGOs decide who gets relief and who does not, and there’s a major increase in the number of NGOs worldwide with less government aid going to communities. Even once access to water is enabled, taps and wells are kept locked so that communities have limited hours in which to gather it. In the US, half of black communities in Michigan have lived under emergency management, which means that their schools, parks, and other institutions come under private management. Even though Mascarenas feels that we’re increasingly blaming the victims affected by environmental hazards, residents and communities are often doing their own research and presenting their own data to governments.

Dorene Bernard is involved in the Truth and Reconciliation process as a member of the Mi’kmaq community. Just seven of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada have now been completed. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and around the world has been similarly slow. Bernard spoke of the Alton Gas Project, and the lack of consultation and false resource mapping process of the Mi’kmaq community during the Environmental Assessment process. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court has returned this flawed process to the Minister of Environment.

Louise DeLisle of the South End Environmental Injustice Society spoke about environmental racism in Shelburne. SEED is a community-based non-profit group located in a mostly low income, African Nova Scotian community. They were recently successful in having a 90-year-old landfill removed from Shelburne. Through the ENRICH Project, they participated in research on the health effects of the landfill, where waste was often burned, and water pollution in their community. They are now advocating for more research on the potential links to the town’s high rate of cancers, asthma, chronic fatigue, and depression.

Dr. Teelucksingh, professor at Ryerson University’s Department of Sociology, spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement and its link to racialized communities in Canada. Blacks represent just 2.9% of the Canadian population, but 10% of the federal prison inmate population. Activists have called for the end of the carding process in Ontario, after they showed that 27% of those carded were black youth. The Black Lives Matter movement protested the death of a Somali man in Ottawa in August 2017 by disrupting public space in Toronto. She is using critical race theory to link the Black Lives Matter and environmental justice movements: the need to reject colour blindness and race neutrality, critique claims of meritocracy, and recognize a convergence of interests (e.g. making all of our institutions more inclusive so that Indigenous, black, and other community members are all involved in decision-making).

Policy Panel

The final group of panelists are Dr. Carolyn Finney, a professor in geography at the University of Kentucky, Vanessa Gray, a community organizer from Sarnia, Halifax journalist Tristan Cleveland, and Dr. Meinhard Doelle, an environmental law professor at Dalhousie.

Dr. Finney talked about home and being visible/invisible in our home communities, and how easy histories can be erased. Policies have embedded bias and privilege, as do the institutions in which they are developed. The Homestead Act (1862) allowed European settlers to obtain 160 acres of land for a pittance set the precedent of stealing land, power, and privilege. In developing policy and working with communities, we have to unearth unwritten stories and histories and commit to relationships where mutual learning is the goal. Looking for innovative projects and connecting them through communities of practice, building relationships and reciprocity, embracing conflict (one person’s conflict is another’s revolution), committing to the process. She mentioned The Next 100 Coalition, a coalition of faith and civil rights organizations, environmental justice activists who developed and led a national conversation on public lands, which led to a presidential memorandum right before President Obama left office.

Dr. Doelle discussed four legal reforms in Canada right now: the Environmental Protection Act, Environmental Assessment Act, Fisheries Act, and the National Energy Board Act. The report on the review of the Environmental Protection Act talks about substantial environmental rights, which could protect vulnerable communities and effect the siting and regulation of polluting industries. It recommends a new stipulation on state of the environment reporting, which can identify areas/communities that are affected. The review report also explicitly acknowledges environmental racism and that standard forms of consultation are not appropriate or sufficient in culturally distinct communities. Environmental Assessment Act review was much weaker, and we’re now waiting for a draft bill. In the Fisheries Act, the policy review has addressed fair access to resources, especially for Indigenous peoples. The National Energy Board Act review has less relevance for Nova Scotia, but on a national level there is a lot of conflict between local communities and large energy companies. In Nova Scotia, the provincial government is dragging its feet on reviewing the EA process (first enacted in the 1980s).

Tristan Cleveland discussed historic communities in Nova Scotia: Africville and Membertou, an Indigenous communities in Sydney that is now self-sufficient through its international business certification. While Africville was systematically dismantled, Membertou was able to stay together and thrive. He also discussed jobs accessible to transit, which are scarce in the African Nova Scotian communities of Linconville and Preston, and the growth rate in Halifax that is pushing out traditional communities.

Vanessa Gray is from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Canada’s chemical valley, where the US-Canada border bisects the traditional territory of her people. She characterized governments as unnecessarily violent when Indigenous peoples are defending land, air, and water with their lives. This is part of systemic violence that includes residential schools and missing and murdered indigenous women. Aamjiwnaang is affected by the international petrochemical companies located along the river, where there is a 39% miscarriage rate (compared to the national rate of 15%) and toxic substances above the levels specified by the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Energy. Gray and her colleagues were arrested and charged with mischief in their protest against Enbridge’s Line 9, but luckily the charges were dropped.

Cultural Transitions

Sadie Beaton from the Ecology Action Centre and spoken word artist Abena Amoako-Tuffour ended our day with five-minute summary and powerful piece about the themes we’ve discussed today.

What an inspiring, challenging, and emotionally resonant day of discussions and learning from each other! I’m hoping that Ingrid is successful in her goal to bring together people from different backgrounds and disciplines to act together for more environmentally just communities.

It’s fall, which means that my fourth year undergraduate planning studio at Dalhousie University’s School of Planning is working on another complex project. As some of you know, last year my students worked on improving the social and open spaces in Mulgrave Park. This year, students are developing a proposal for affordable rental housing on Quinpool Road.

Students work on an in-class exercise

For students in the fourth year honours program in planning, it’s the first time they have worked in a studio setting. I’ve designed the course so that they can develop skills in drawing and design to help bring them up to similar levels (some of them have taken drawing classes and some have not). For example, in-class exercises teach them how to draw floor plans, axonometric drawings, and site analysis diagrams.

But because it’s a planning studio, and combines students from urban design and environmental planning, the course also incorporates financial aspects of development, demographics and policy aspects, and sustainability. Our partner on the project, Jeffry Haggett, is a planner at WSP. He helped determine the site for the project, a now-vacant lot on Quinpool Road where St. Patrick’s High School once stood, accompanied the students on a site visit, and has provided them with technical information such as GIS data. Neil Lovitt, a planner specializing in financial considerations at Turner Drake, taught them how to do a pro forma to determine whether their proposal is feasible. Both Jeffry and Neil are alumni of our planning program, the Bachelor of Community Design.

Councillor Lindell Smith (center) brought his own experiences of living in social and affordable housing to the class

Yesterday, Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) Councillor Lindell Smith came in to discuss his experiences living in social and affordable housing in North Halifax. Smith grew up in the Uniacke Square public housing and the Gottingen Street neighbourhood, where he still lives. Just 26 years old when he was elected last fall, he is the first African Nova Scotian elected to city council in 20 years. He encouraged the students to think about the needs of the demographic groups near their site, and everyday considerations of people living in mid-rise and high-rise developments (e.g. access to open space, services for the community). For the mid-term review next week, Bob Bjerke is our guest critic. In addition to working as the chief planner in both HRM and the City of Regina, Bjerke was Director of Housing for the City of Edmonton, which is doing innovative policy work on integrating affordable housing and community supports.

Students are working in groups on their proposals, which must include:

  • a site plan and landscape plan
  • floor plans for the proposed buildings
  • information on their target demographic groups and relevant policies (e.g. land use, funding programs)
  • financial feasibility (pro forma)
  • a sustainability framework (e.g. financial, social, and environmental characteristics)

Groups will continue to refine and redesign their proposals until the end of this term. They developed group contracts the beginning of the term and will have a chance to evaluate each other at the mid-term and end of term. This helps keep group members accountable to each other and identifies uneven participation. Their individual grades on the in-class exercises also help evaluate their skill development and performance. In this way, the course also blends structured (time-limited assignments) and unstructured learning (group dialogue, consensus building and decision-making).

 

Are neighbourhoods, cities, and regions taking a turn for the worse? Or are they relatively stable?

I’m a co-investigator on a project called Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership (NCRP), a Canada-wide project examining how urban neighbourhoods are changing in places like Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto. The Halifax team includes Howard Ramos and Martha Radice, professors in Sociology and Anthropology, and Jill Grant and myself from the School of Planning. Each of us have hired students as research assistants, collecting and analyzing data for the study as well as using the data for their own projects/theses. Jill’s student Uytae Lee conducted research on rooming houses for his undergraduate thesis, and another student, Janelle Derksen, delved further into the issue for her Masters independent study project. You can read their work on Jill’s website (everything from Bachelors theses to academic articles).

Written work is the typical type of product we use to disseminate academic research, but we’re constantly looking for new ways to do this.Lots of researchers use Twitter to release links to their research results, and it’s common to set up research websites like Generationed City, established by University of Waterloo professor Markus Moos. Colleagues at the University of Amsterdam Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development Studies created videos to summarize and disseminate their research on the HOUWEL project on international housing trends among young people.

As I’ve written about in previous posts, Uytae and his classmate Byung-Jun Kang founded the non-profit PLANifax. The duo, alumni of the Dalhousie School of Planning, hires students to work on production, produces videos for clients such as municipal governments and non-profit organizations, and uses their work to educate the broader public about planning issues. They’ve done everything from encouraging involvement in the city’s downtown planning process to exposing the details of rejected development applications. In the latest PLANifax video to summarize Uytae’s thesis findings on rooming houses. It had 7,000 views within 24 hours of posting and Uytae will be interviewed on News 94.7 this afternoon.

Halifax’s Kindof Illegal Student Houses

Student apartments in Halifax are very affordable, despite often being messy, sketchy, and crowded. But in some cases, they may be illegal, kindof.

Not only do videos like this give researchers a potentially unlimited avenue for research dissemination (when’s the last time your academic paper had more than 100 views on the journal website?), but PLANifax is a fantastic example of young entrepreneurship: Byung-Jun won Dalhousie University’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year award earlier this year. I plan to partner with them on research grants so that I can have an interesting product to show to community groups, clients, and students, not to mention at research conferences. Much more interesting than the usual PowerPoint.

I’ll be posting more about the NCRP in future posts, specifically on my own sub-project: development and retention of non-profit housing in Halifax.

 

It’s a bad week for chief planners. Following last Tuesday’s news that Halifax chief planner Bob Bjerke lost his job, Toronto’s chief planner announced yesterday that she’ll be stepping down. Jennifer Keesmaat has been chief planner and executive director of the city’s planning division since 2012 and will be vacating her position at the end of September.

In an interview with CBC, Keesmaat admitted that she always planned to review her career options after five years in the public service. Before working for the City in its highest-ranking planning job, she was a planning consultant. She is also very involved in the Canadian Institute of Planners, in recent years spearheading an effort to maintain the national organization rather than have just provincial/territorial licensing bodies. She is known for speaking her mind, even when that puts her at odds with Mayor John Tory. In particular, she championed a seven-stop LRT line to replace the aging Scarborough RT and advocated for the removal of the Gardiner East expressway. Many cite her as responsible for maintaining the agenda of sustainable planning in Toronto through the Ford and Tory regimes. Critics have said she’s too outspoken, too interested in stating her own opinion rather than giving more neutral advice, and takes to Twitter to engage in debates (we’ve seen a lot of this recently, but Keesmaat has been doing it since 2012).

Keesmaat certainly possesses many of the characteristics necessary for such a high-ranking position in Canada’s largest city: she’s media-savvy, determined, smart, engages the public in more transparent decision-making, and tackles issues that appeal to younger generations, such as sustainable transportation. She is the city’s first female chief planner and was just 42 years old when she got the job (it was a young administration–Mayor Rob Ford was only 43 at the time). Christopher Hume portrayed her as a novice in the Toronto Star, writing that she “quickly found out that the chief planner’s role is to advise not decide”, but I’d argue that she already knew exactly how planning worked at a municipality the day she was hired. The fact that she obtained the position of chief planner despite her inexperience as a civil servant, and kept it despite disagreements with those in power, demonstrates her political savviness. As we know from Halifax and Vancouver, it’s not unusual for chief planners to be ousted when their vision for the city conflicts with those of other powerful figures.

Many have expressed their support for Keesmaat should she run for public office, but she seems to excel at planning. Let’s hope she brings more of her expertise to Toronto’s critical infrastructure projects.

It’s the beginning of the academic year for post-secondary students, and also the beginning of the application season for students who haven’t yet decided on their undergraduate or graduate degree programs. I thought it might be a good time to talk about planning as a course of study and career option; as a faculty member, I get a lot of inquiries about the programs at the Dalhousie School of Planning. I also feel that the understanding of planning in Atlantic Canada is somewhat limited, and that lots of people want to know what planners do and why we need planning in our communities.

An infographic created by the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. Transportation planners often work on projects to shift our travel patterns towards more sustainable modes.

Planning is a discipline that is broadly defined to include the organization and development of cities and regions in a sustainable way (economically, socially, and environmentally). For some people, the fact that every planner would define it differently is the root of the problem; for others, it’s what makes planning an amazing, inclusive, all-encompassing profession. Many people are uncomfortable with interdisciplinarity, intersectionality, and overlap. We live in a postmodern world where people often specialize in areas such as molecular biology, real estate development, and mechanical engineering, developing critical and very focused skill sets. Planning as a discipline has always run counter to that ideology. The roots of the planning field lie in urban and social reform, particularly in the areas of housing, workers’ rights and social justice, and public health. It has always been a discipline of disciplines; since the earliest days of the Town Planning Institute in Canada (founded in 1918), members of architecture, engineering or other professions could become planners. This is one reason why planners are uniquely poised to address many urban problems.

We forgot all of this once. In the 1940s and 1950s, planning became quite narrowly focused. As the ideals of modernism, through architecture, began to affect the planning field, sweeping changes occurred in our cities. We forgot the social, the community, the health, and turned to narrow, technical skills in physical planning and urban design as solutions to complex urban problems. We ended up with urban renewal, a disastrous direction that destroyed urban neighbourhoods and struck a blow to ethnic and low-income communities in urban centres. Communities launched a revolution, standing up to planners and opposing their schemes for new highways and modernist towers. They demanded that we consider the needs and desires of regular citizens, that we respect the fine-grained, well-designed neighbourhoods that had existed for decades. Many planners “switched sides”, working for communities in advocacy planning. We listened and responded to these demands for change. And the minute we forget that planning is rooted in community, in people, in health, and in human rights, we return to this era of darkness.

A planner is a professional who works with communities, governments, and individuals to improve urban and rural conditions. Planners work on a variety of different types of projects, such as developing urban design guidelines, reviewing development proposals, and developing community grants programs. They use skills such as policy analysis, facilitation of community meetings, GIS, data analysis, and collaboration with other organizations to produce documents such as project reports, briefing notes, official plans, and research papers. As planning educators, we foster these skills in our students so that they understand the planning framework and the spaces/times/opportunities for innovation and change. To become a registered planner in Canada, you have to complete an accredited degree in planning, gain appropriate work experience, and take a registration exam. It’s possible to become a planner without an accredited degree as well, with a longer work experience requirement and an additional exam. Planners work in a variety of settings in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, e.g. municipal government, planning and consulting firms, engineering firms, charitable organizations and non-profit housing authorities.

A screenshot from the City of Vancouver’s Talk Green to Us public forum. Their planning department used the online forum to consult with residents on how to make the city the greenest in the world by 2020, then used this feedback to develop their Greenest City plan.

I tell my students that the great thing about planning is that there is a place for everyone. Students who choose to study planning are often interested in communities, organizations, and the environment. Generally, students who opt for a planning degree want to make their communities more sustainable, equitable, and efficient. Our students want to learn how to design streets that are safer for cyclists, develop outdoor education programs for youth in their community, or determine the types of land use policies that would make their city more sustainable. If you are a well-rounded student with skills and interests in ecology, civic or public administration, politics, cultural geography and history, and community engagement, you would enjoy planning. If you have done volunteer work in these areas, been politically active in your community, or attended meetings about urban development in your neighbourhood, planning is definitely for you!

Bob Bjerke will no longer be in the position of chief planner at the Halifax Regional Municipality, according to the Coast. Bjerke had worked as the Director of Planning and Development since 2014, winning a nation-wide search for the newly-created position. Before that, he was the Director of Planning and Sustainability for the City of Regina. At this point there’s some mystery about his departure, with the usual speculation that the planning department has ruffled the feathers of the region’s developers. I only met Bob once, at this summer’s Canadian Institute of Planners conference. He certainly seemed to be a driving force behind Halifax’s new Centre Plan and other major undertakings such as the Integrated Mobility Plan.

Update: Some say that it’s not Bjerke who should have been fired, but the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Jacques Dubé. Urban thinker Tristan Cleveland wrote in the Metro that Bjeke hadn’t “made any major screw up” and was “widely respected as competent and forward-thinking by the planning community in Halifax, including those who work for him.” Planner Jenny Lugar wrote in the Coast that Bjerke “was asked to build a fair and predictable standard for planning in the HRM” and says that he largely accomplished this with his work on the Halifax Centre Plan. Bjerke himself said last week that he believed he had achieved “good results” as chief planner.

I moved to Halifax a year ago, and one thing I noticed was that planners in the city did not work together or collaborate much. There is a silo effect which allows people to work quite separately from each other, even if they’re working on similar projects, like integrated mobility planning and transit scheduling. As a mid-sized city, I also felt that it was a tough nut to crack–it’s too big for everyone to know everyone else, but too small to have a lot of informal social events like Meetups. This lack of social cohesion is palpable even among our students: at Dalhousie there is little connection or collaboration on events between the undergrad and grad students.

Our School has actually done research on this: Dr. Jill Grant, Dr. Patricia Manuel, Dr. Eric Rapaport, and Dr. Ahsan Habib recently finished a project on plan coordination in municipalities with Dr. Pierre Filion at the Waterloo School of Planning. The research is featured here. Masters student Meaghan Dalton’s working paper, “Building a culture of collaboration: Internal collaboration as a tool for coordinating plans” (2016) analyzes interviews from 92 planners across Canada from the Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Halifax, and St. John’s city-regions. The interviews were conducted in 2014 by the research team. In her content analysis of the interviews, Dalton found that a culture of collaboration in planning was most present in Vancouver, which has a long history of consensus-building, while Edmonton had a more recent positive trend towards formal and informal practices and structures. Planners in Toronto, Halifax, and St. John’s were much less likely to work in collaborative environments. And we know from both theory and practice that this impacts plan coordination. The main barriers to collaboration between departments or organizations in Halifax were:

  • a lack of interdepartmental communication and data sharing
  • a tendency for departments to focus on their own mandates, with no common vision for the city
  • departments having differences of opinion that made it difficult to reach a consensus
  • lack of physical proximity between departments
  • no history of trust or sharing information
  • a toxic work environment at HRM (e.g. a trend of discouraging collaboration, lack of respectful relationships)

“Halifax represents a stark contrast with the culture of respectful relationships and enforcement of collaboration and consensus seen in Vancouver and Edmonton.”    –Meaghan Dalton, researcher

While informal connections won’t solve all of Halifax problems, it’s a good start. After discussing the lack of social cohesion with some of our planning students, I decided to start a monthly social event in Halifax. It’s open to anyone working in planning, however that is defined: those working in public, private, or non-profit sectors, on municipal planning and program delivery, in research and in practice. It’s also open to anyone interested in planning issues, like community members or groups. The idea is that we encourage people to get to know one another informally, there will be a positive effect on the work that they do: they will find out that someone from a non-profit is working on a similar initiative, or someone from a private sector firm wants to pick their brain on a bylaw requirement. This community of practice involves some social engineering on my part: when I meet someone I don’t know, I listen to what they say about their role and organization for just a few minutes, and then my mind starts spinning with other people they’d like to meet. I make introductions and let the conversations continue. With students, I try to introduce them to as many others as possible, and also encourage them to introduce themselves to people they don’t know.

We’ve had two Planning Socials so far, and both were successful–about 25 people or so attended each, with a mix of students, recent graduates now employed in the region, and a few long-time planners. We have met downtown after work because it’s easy for students to walk to (many of them don’t have cars) and within a few minutes’ ferry and walk from the main office of the Halifax Regional Municipality in Dartmouth, so planners there can stop in on their way home.

People have told me that they are so happy someone is doing this, that informal socializing in the profession is badly needed. And each time I ask them, “Why didn’t you do it? It’s as easy as sending an email.” There is no magic formula to building a community of practice–anyone can do it. My plan is to eventually choose a fixed date/time/location so that people know about the event and can drop in whenever they have time. Until then we will sample the many downtown pubs. We’ll also eventually publicize the event on the Department of Architecture and Planning Facebook and Twitter accounts–until now we’ve been relying on the School of Planning listserv and a few dedicated folks at HRM to spread the word (thanks Sarah Bercu and Kasia Tota!) If you’re a planner in Halifax, come and join us!