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.

 

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!

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.

Public housing developments across Canada have been targeted for redevelopment for a complex set of reasons: designed in the 1950s and 1960s through federal-provincial urban renewal funding, their management has been a sore spot for the municipalities in which they are located. Many actually tore apart existing street networks and concentrated the poor in small areas, resulting in more isolated communities that were inward-looking. Most were designed without critical social infrastructure like community centres, schools, shops, and playgrounds so that young people had nothing to do. And most critically, most were sited in inner city neighbourhoods that, in the 1960s, were considered undesirable by the middle and upper class households that were fleeing the city for the suburbs.

Now of course, things have changed: most of these communities, like Regent Park in Toronto and Uniacke Square in Halifax, are in central neighbourhoods now considered to be highly desirable. Regent Park is in the middle of a twenty-year multimillion dollar redevelopment that, like many others of its kind, aims to replace only some of its public housing for very low income families. The main thrust of this type of redevelopment is better design (e.g. reinstalling the pre-existing street network, introducing mixed uses such as shops and services) fuelled by income mix: integrating market rate housing with some lower priced units.

A couple of months back, I introduced my readers to Mulgrave Park, a public housing community in Halifax which was the basis for my fourth year urban design studio this term. Beginning in September, students have been working with the Caring and Learning Centre and the Phoenix Youth Centre to redesign and reprogram some of the social and open spaces in the neighbourhood. I’d like to summarize the work they did as well as my own success in imparting some key policy and planning lessons.screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-12-47-pm

Students began individually, working on a historic analysis of the site, then proceeding to an individual design or programming element where they were encouraged to coordinate with each other towards a cohesive set of solutions. For the last four weeks of the term they put their ideas together into a comprehensive set of design/programming recommendations for the community. For their final presentation, they used posters to present their ideas to Crystal John from the Caring and Learning Centre and Maurice James from the Phoenix Youth Centre, and two of their staff members. They answered questions about feasibility, budget, and funding opportunities for their projects, which for the most part the clients really liked. The posters were also left in the Centre so that residents could see them and make comments on them with Post-it notes, with the intent to incorporate comments into their work. At the end of the term, the students submitted a final report to our clients which introduces the site characteristics, the rationale and criteria they used to develop their ideas, and a summary of all the concepts with maps and drawings.

One of the most interesting challenges the students had while working on this site was the way its original design, typical of urban renewal projects of the 1960s, eliminated interior streets so that the community ended up becoming quite insular. This, combined with the reputation of public housing residents among the rest of the city, has contributed to both social isolation from the city and a tight-knit community where everyone knows each other. Attempts to reduce this isolation can be detrimental to the community (as has happened in the redesign of many urban renewal projects including Regent Park in Toronto), however planners may feel about correcting the wrongs of the past. Another challenge was the physical characteristic of the site as having a steep slope, rendering much of its plentiful open space unusable. These two aspects in particular were constraints that impacted many of the students’ projects.

For the design elements, the students decided to pursue the following options:

  • Redesigning a gravelly, uneven field in the center of the community as a level playing field for kidsscreen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-08-54-pm
  • Removing some unnecessary retaining walls and using plants to improve the appearance of others
  • Adding a second community garden and greenhouse
  • Building a skate/scooter park with lighting for evening use by removing five parking spots
  • Redesigning the existing basketball court so that it has a level playing surface and can accommodate younger kids as well as older
  • Redesigning two of the main staircases into the neighbourhood by making them wider and shallower to accommodate the socializing that happens in these locations
  • Better universal access into and around the site through introducing ramps and level pavement where possible
  • Introducing a boulevard with planting and seating, which can be used for activities like a farmer’s market

The programming elements included:

  • A Paint the Planters program to allow residents to paint window boxes and seed them with annualsscreen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-09-25-pm
  • A program to install seating, garbage bins, bike racks, and an outdoor community events board
  • Elements to increase the perception of safety on the site (glow in the dark paint for the existing murals, a Brighter Nights program, and CCTV cameras)
  • A farmer’s market on the new boulevard, which could also be used for education about nutrition and winter events such as a holiday market
  • Better wayfinding and signage, since many buildings have street numbers that don’t correspond with the residents’ knowledge of the layout, and the internal streets are incomplete
  • Better and different types of lighting, including some solar-powered and LED fixtures, implemented over time
  • Building on the strong social networks and expanding these to allow residents to take advantage of cultural, sports, and entertainment activities around the city
  • Developing a community van that can be used to improve access to grocery stores, medical centres and other amenities

 

You can read the full report here.

Students seemed very keen to learn about aspects of housing policy, see the types of redevelopment that are happening in other public housing neighbourhoods like Regent Park, and figure out how their projects could actually be implemented through different types of funding. screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-08-34-pmThey struggled with the larger concepts such as social justice and how this is manifested through things like redesign, redevelopment and even simple maintenance of the site. In part this is part of the Millennial trend towards skimming the surface of a topic, without diving in deeply. But another part of this is the conflict between redevelopment and preservation of social networks and social capital. While the design of many public housing neighbourhoods was problematic, in many cases it contributed to tight-knit communities with members who look out for each other, improve their neighbourhoods together, and help generate a strong sense of community pride. City living is in again, and that means rising land costs in inner cities are threatening to displace renters, low-income households, and longtime neighbours who cannot afford the high-end luxury condominiums that are usually the markers of redevelopment projects.

When students were asked how they think the course could have been altered, they suggested using a more iterative process to develop their design/programming elements, and beginning to work together on the final report at the same time as their individual designs. These changes would have helped them to create a cohesive whole rather than a package of separate ideas. They felt that their first assignment, the historical analysis, could also have been shortened to allow more time for the design/programming component.

We are hoping that the Caring and Learning Centre will be able to slowly implement the small-scale projects, particularly those dealing with children and youth, through grants. Students were able to find many grants, both local and national, for projects supporting health communities and active lifestyles for children and youth. For larger-scale and longer-term projects, we will continue to consult with Housing Nova Scotia, largely due to the fact that one of the students will be doing his internship with the urban design team there. Crystal will also continue to advocate for the longer-term projects to Metro Housing, who report to Housing Nova Scotia. Hopefully this collaboration results in some real change for Mulgrave Park.

 

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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.

 

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Some of the units in Mulgrave Park have private yards

At the Dalhousie School of Planning, students in our Bachelor of Community Design have two chances to work on a project with a client in their final year. In fall, they choose either urban design or environmental planning studio, and in winter they work as a group on another planning project. This fall, I’m teaching the studio in urban design. As my expertise is in housing and transportation planning, I sought a client that would be interested in a project in one of these areas.

Like many cities, Halifax is facing some serious housing affordability issues. Three years ago the Halifax Regional Municipality partnered with CMHC, United Way, and several public health authorities on a Housing and Homelessness Partnership which has already released a Housing Needs Assessment outlining some key areas the region needs to focus on: more rental housing, housing for smaller households, and a focus on those with incomes in the bottom five deciles.

Our client, the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre, illustrates some of these challenges. As a non-profit organization developed by community members, they are filling in the gaps of service provision in a neighbourhood developed in a complicated era. Mulgrave Park is one of Canada’s first public housing communities. Built through the now-controversial urban renewal process in the 1950s and 1960s which involved demolishing existing “slum” housing and rehousing tenants elsewhere, Mulgrave Park was designed by CMHC architects in 1959 to take in those displaced in other downtown neighbourhoods through the Central Area Redevelopment Plan.

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Crystal (in white) shows the students around the site

The community is tight-knit, with the average household living there between 5-10 years and several returning residents. Two of those who grew up in the community and returned to help improve it are Crystal John, Director of the Caring and Learning Centre, and Maurice James, Coordinator of the Phoenix Youth and Community Centre. Another initiative in the community is Progress in the Park. Jurisdictional issues aside, municipal councillor Jennifer Watts has also been a critical advocate for the community, helping them build a community garden and hold a community-building event involving street painting.

In the quintessential Modernist style, the community has huge concrete retaining walls to deal with the steep slopes down to the waterfront, very little private space for tenants, no community services, and minimal space for social activities or playground spaces. As in other public housing communities, the maintenance of the community (open spaces and the buildings themselves) has been left to an often cash-strapped Provincial government, who oversees the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority. Like many areas of the city (e.g. parts of the waterfront owned by the federal government), jurisdictional issues have complicated the maintenance of the community, any proposed changes, and daily issues such as how tenants’ concerns are addressed.

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Most of the open spaces on the site are too steep to be used as gathering places or for children playing

Due to operating agreements between CMHC and the Province, Mulgrave Park residents are left without many of the basic services that other Halifax residents take for granted–for example, until recently there was no playground for children, or a spot for residents to garden. The Housing Authority allowed the Caring and Learning Centre and Phoenix  to take over former housing units for their operations , since there was no community centre to base activities like employment programs for youth, cooking classes for kids or tenant association meetings.

Our class spent a couple of weeks learning about the history of Mulgrave Park, including the working class Richmond community established in the late 1800s that was destroyed by the 1917 Halifax explosion. After lying vacant during the interwar era and hosting temporary Wartime Housing for military personnel during the Second World War, the decision to use the land for public housing was facilitated in the 1950s by amendments to the National Housing Act allowing the provincial and federal governments to collaborate on building public housing, and to build new commercial development in central neighbourhoods provided that new housing was built for the displaced residents. The City of Halifax had previously expressed interest in slum clearance of valuable central neighbourhood lands in the Depression and wartime years, but it was Gordon Stephenson’s 1957 report that sealed the deal.

We visited the site on September 21st, with a walking tour by Crystal and Maurice, who answered many of the students questions about issues such as: what spaces in the community are used by children, youth, and the entire community; private versus public space; landscape elements; and maintenance issues. We’ll be visiting again at night to see things like lighting, pedestrian safety and other issues in the neighbourhood. Students will be presenting a historical analysis next week, and then will decide on a design approach for the social and open spaces in the neighbourhood. By the end of October they will each have focused on a particular design or programming element that reinforces the overall design approach. Then they will develop a report that evaluates and prioritizes the different elements, which we will present to the community.

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Clotheslines used to allow the residents to socialize informally, but they have been discouraged and mostly removed by the housing authority

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Councillor Jennifer Watts was instrumental in creating a community garden with individual plots for residents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Street painting linking Phoenix Youth Centre with the Caring and Learning Centre was enabled through the HRM Community Grants program