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!

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.

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.

Tim Shah, me, Penny Gurstein, and Silvia Vilches

The Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) gives annual Awards for Excellence in 13 categories, including urban design, Aboriginal community planning and development, neighbourhood planning, social planning, rural/small town planning, sustainable mobility transportation and infrastructure, international development, new and emerging initiatives, city and regional planning, planning publications, and natural systems planning.

I’m pleased to announced that my edited book, Planning Canada: A Case Study Approach (2016, Oxford University Press) has been awarded an Award of Merit for Planning Publications, as “an exemplary resource to the planning profession.” Congratulations to all of the 41 authors who made this volume a success! It is truly the product of years of effort, presenting Canadian planning practice and research as worthy of recognition, study, and exploration in our own country and elsewhere.

I accepted the award yesterday at the annual CIP conference in Calgary. I was so pleased that three of the authors (Penny Gurstein, Silvia Vilches, and Tim Shah) were at the awards ceremony with me. Silvia and I attended the Canadian Association of Geographers conference in Calgary in 2011, where we met Oxford University Press developmental editor Caroline Starr. It was Caroline who suggested an introductory book in Canadian planning and encouraged me to submit a book proposal. It was amazing to come full circle, back to Calgary to celebrate the award with Silvia and Penny, our mutual Ph.D. supervisor and Director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC. We also met up with our SCARP alumni at a great reception hosted by the Association of Canadian University Planning Programs (ACUPP), and reconnected with friends from Dalhousie, University of Waterloo, University of Manitoba, Ryerson, York, University of Alberta, and University of Saskatchewan.

 

 

On March 22, the federal budget was announced, including $2.2 billion over the next 11 years to cities for transit projects, part of $11.9 million that would be allocated to infrastructure. The Liberal government commited to 50% of the funding for municipal projects. This week, municipalities across the country announced how they would use the much-needed funding for public transit infrastructure.

In British Columbia, the federal announcement was matched by the Province’s commitment to contribute another $2.2 billion, allowing regional authority TransLink to move ahead with Phase 2 of a ten-year plan in Vancouver. Projects will include the Broadway subway, which TransLink has wanted to build for over 20 years, Surrey light rail transit, replacement of the Pattullo Bridge, expanding bus and HandyDART services, more railcars and upgrades to the roads, cycling and walking networks.

The big news in Hamilton and Niagara Falls was that they will get all-day GO Transit service, with a contribution of $1.7 billion. Both municipalities also received funding for their bus services. Niagara Falls Transit will use their $3.4 million in federal funding (which will be matched by the city) to develop a real-time “next bus” app, buy new buses, update a transit hub, update its fleet management software, buy and install new fare boxes and allow online booking and management for its specialized curb-to-curb transit system. Hamilton will use its $32 million in federal funding for 13 projects including a bus storage and maintenance facility, new buses, rehabilitation of transit shelters and bus stops, automatic passenger counters, transit priority measures, and improvements at the Mountain Transit Centre.

In Guelph, $9.6 million federal funding will allow the municipality to buy new buses, replace fare boxes, upgrade bus stops, and upgrade the traffic control system. London’s proposed bus rapid transit system will get a boost, in addition to the transformation of Dundas Street in the core into a pedestrian-first “flex street”, replacement of all of London Transit’s bus shelters, and construction of protected bicycle lanes downtown.

Winnipeg announced 33 projects that will be jointly funded by the three levels of government including replacement buses, new bus shelters and handi-vans. The federal government’s 50% of the projects amounts to about $3.1 million, while the province will pay $1.5 million and municipalities will cover about $2 million.

Of the total $11.9 billion allocated for infrastructure, the federal budget sets out $2.2 billion for water and waste management in First Nations communities, $2 billion for the Clean Water and Wastewater fund, $1.5 billion for affordable housing, and $1.2 billion in social infrastructure for First Nations, Inuit, and northern communities. All this spending will come at a cost: the federal budget will not be balanced during the fourth year of the Liberal mandate as promised.

In experiential learning, students work on a real-world project, building the skills they will need after graduation and contributing their knowledge to a community organization, municipal department or other client. Experiential learning is a natural fit for the urban planning discipline, but has been used in fields as diverse as social work, biology, and computer engineering. At some universities, like the University of Oregon, the university partners with a different municipality each year, the municipality provides a list of projects they need help with, and different departments commit to developing workable solutions. It’s a win-win situation: students get the experience they need and often small municipalities or organizations without sufficient human resources are able to get projects completed.

As some of you know, last fall I taught my first urban design studio here in the Dalhousie University School of Planning. We focused on Mulgrave Park, a public housing community built in the north end of Halifax using federal-provincial funds in 1960. The students each  developed a small-scale proposal to improve the open and social spaces in Mulgrave Park. They included information for the client, the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre, on how such a proposal could be implemented and funded. One student, Justin Gosse, conducted an analysis of the retaining walls and their conditions on the steep site, suggesting ways in which they could be modified in the future. His project, in addition to other student work surveying the retaining walls, is informing Housing Nova Scotia as they proceed with detailed design and repair of the walls and infrastructure badly in need of repairs. As part of an effort to preserve social housing in Canada, the federal and provincial governments announced today that they will fund repairs to Mulgrave Park. The funding will pay for badly needed exterior building repairs, the restoration of crumbling retaining walls, and burying services. Construction will run from July 2017 until spring 2019.

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MP Andy Fillmore announces the $5 million in improvements in front of the students’ posters

MP Andy Fillmore (second from left) and Elaine Williams (second from left), a lifelong Mulgrave Park resident, at the announcement

MP Andy Fillmore (second from left) and Elaine Williams (second from right), a lifelong Mulgrave Park resident and President of the Mulgrave Park Tenants’ Association, at the announcement

The work of other students, including Amy Greenberg (window boxes with flowering plants for residents), Mona Al-Sharari (second community garden and greenhouse), Leen Romaneh (perception of safety), and Yuedi (Martin) Zhan (lighting) is also being integrated into future improvements at Mulgrave Park.

Congratulations to these fourth-year Bachelor of Community Design students, and to the often-overlooked residents of Mulgrave Park, who will benefit from these improvements for years to come. Our client Crystal John, Director of the Caring and Learning Centre, is very excited to think about the improvements coming soon! Crystal grew up in the neighbourhood and like many others living there, is truly invested in improving the community; her sister Elaine Williams, pictured with Andy Fillmore at the announcement, has also done a lot of work to improve conditions in the neighbourhood. Metro News reported that Elaine was in tears at the announcement, having campaigned for improvements for many years.

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-17 at 12.41.40 PMI’m pleased to announce this year’s planning conference organized by the Dalhousie School of Planning students. Their theme this year is public transit, and the guest speakers include transit experts from the US and Europe. Below is the students’ summary of the conference.
Dalhousie School of Planning SHIFT: In Transit Conference

Dalhousie School of Planning students invite you to share your thoughts on how to better shape our community at a two-day conference on the topic of community public transit, March 2-4. The event, which will take place in the Halifax Central Library and the Dalhousie Medjuck Building, will feature keynote speakers, workshops, and breakout sessions.

Topics include the current state of transit in the HRM and Nova Scotia, possibilities for the federal Green Infrastructure Fund, the Integrated Mobility Plan, transit equity, and the future of transit. Attendees can take part in visioning and design exercises and a short film festival. There will also be panels with local politicians from all levels of government. The event is free. Light food and refreshments will be provided.

Keynote speakers are Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority Board Member with over a decade of experience working in transit in the Greater Boston Area; Andreas Rohl, with seven years as the Director of the Bicycle Programme in the City of Copenhagen and an associate for Gehl People; Kurt Luhrsen, the Vice President of Planning at Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County in Houston, Texas with twenty years experience working in transit and known for leading the overhaul of Houston’s transit system; and David Bragdon, a politician and civic leader who served under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration as the Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability and is now the Executive Director of TransitCenter, Inc., which does research and advocacy work for urban transportation.

“Imagine a Nova Scotia where public transit is the best option for everyone. Let’s start connecting communities today.”

More information can be found at:

Website: www.dalhousieplanningconference.com

Facebook: Facebook.com/dalshiftconference

Many cities offer free or discounted transit passes for the low-income population, which can include seniors and students. Vancouver’s TransLink offers seniors lower-priced travel in the evenings and on weekends. The very successful U-Pass (universal pass) program for university students: thirty Canadian universities offer students subsidized passes through partnerships with local transit providers. The University of Washington adopted the U-Pass in 1991, and currently offers students unlimited transit for just $84 per quarter (just $28 per month). Such programs show recognition that moving around the city is a right, not a privilege–and one that is often denied to those most in need of reliable transportation to access education or work opportunities.

Halifax Transit piloted a program in 2016 to offer discounted transit passes to 500 low-income riders. For half the price of a regular pass ($39/month), people who need the service the most were able to access it. Halifax Regional Municipality’s standing transportation committee agreed in late January to make the service permanent, and now the program needs the approval of the regional council. It is estimated that the program will cost the HRM about $160,000 per year. The program will provide discounted passes to 1,000 riders this year, targeting HRM residents with a gross household income of $33,000. The number of passes provided could increase in the future.

This is a far cry from TTC’s proposed Fair Pass program, which will cost $4.6 million in its first year and require a subsidy from the City. In December 2016, the TTC obtained Council approval to offer discounted Metro Passes to low-income residents; the program is expected to offer discounted fares to Toronto residents making up to 15% more than the low-income measure, beginning in 2018. Although the program will cost the TTC a lot in lost revenue, the report to council outlined that the cost of a Metropass had risen 30% since 2009, while minimum wage has only increased by 20%. Reports of residents walking miles so that they could make doctor’s appointments, job interviews, or pick up children from school are commonplace in Toronto, as the cost of tickets and passes has outstripped wages. Calgary, Waterloo, and Burlington are among other Canadian cities to offer discounted passes for low-income residents.

 

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In this proposal, the existing buses are reallocated to expand the frequent transit network

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Jarrett Walker’s blog shows the existing frequent transit network in Auckland (www.humantransit.org)

Halifax Regional Municipality launched public consultation for its new Integrated Mobility Plan this year, with the last public meetings in September. The municipality is hoping to provide better sustainable and healthy alternatives to driving. The online survey for the IMP focused on broad open-ended questions about residents’ desired options, rather than asking detailed questions about origins, destinations, and mode choice.

Halifax had already made some improvements to its bus transit system, partly at the urging of local grassroots group It’s More Than Buses. Dalhousie School of Planning alumnus Sean Gillis has been a key voice for the group. Gillis and his colleagues have been advocating for a simpler frequent transit network that would deliver 10 or 15-minute service along key well-used routes in the city, with the ability to connect to other short routes easily at well-defined nodes. It’s an approach advocated by people like Jarret Walker (www.humantransit.org), a transit advocate who has made his career out of attempting to through the bureaucracy of transit planning. Real-world examples of this simplified type of transit network include Auckland, NZ (transit planner Darren Davis just visited Halifax to talk about the simplification of his city’s bus network) and Vancouver, BC where TransLink is now in the process of implementing their frequent transit network.

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Vancouver’s frequent transit network

HRM has also taken steps to improve information for transit users. They installed GPS on their vehicles in summer 2016, which means bus riders will soon have access real-time information on bus arrivals. Halifax Transit is planning to make the data available to third-party app developers like Mindsea, a local developer of an Android app for transit users, as well as bigger players such as Google Transit. It’s this kind of collaboration and data sharing among public and private organizations that is making many municipal and regional transit systems much easier to use.