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.

 

screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-3-18-55-pm

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

screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-3-18-28-pm

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.

screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-3-17-52-pm

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.

 

img_1731

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.

img_1728

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.

img_1746

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.

img_1735

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

img_1729

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

img_1757

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

 

 

 

 

As most of you know, I’ve just started a new position at the Dalhousie University School of Planning. I’ve often thought that one barrier to effective public consultation in planning is the lack of knowledge about urban planning issues, such as the relationship between density and public transit provision or how a municipal plan sets out land use guidelines. It’s great to find out that Dal students are on the same page.

A few years ago, two undergraduate students, Byung Jun Kang and Uytae Lee, started producing videos that aim to educate the public about a variety of planning issues. The videos are between three and six minutes in length, and they often use humour to illustrate thorny issues. In September 2015, they incorporated as a non-profit co-operative called PLANifax that includes Byung Jun and Uytae as executive directors, three board members (current students and alumni), and many volunteers. Students do all kinds of work such as GIS mapping, finding planning documents and getting permission to use them, filming, and conducting interviews with planning staff. For example, third-year student Juniper Littlefield has directed and narrated a number of videos and Uytae (now in his fourth year) has acted in many.

Some of the videos are general in nature, such as their “Planning Basics Episode 1: Planning Process” (2016) which gives a brief overview of how planning works in Canada, including the Planning Acts, regional and municipal plans, and the role of planners and councillors. This is the first in a series aims at people who know little about the planning process, so I’m really interested to see how it progresses.

Transportation is a major theme in the videos: an upcoming initiative will involve how we use transit maps for navigation and information. In “A Case for Protected Bike Lanes” (2014), students partnered with local paper The Coast and the Halifax Cycling Coalition to show the cycling environment on some of the city streets by showing how dangerous it would be for a pedestrian to use the narrow afterthought of space on the right side of the road. They peppered the video with statistics on cycling safety: in the city’s Active Transportation Plan, over 40% of Halifax residents expressed an interest in cycling if it were safer. Halifax’s transportation plan states that it wants to double the rate of cycling by 2026.

In “Cars vs Pedestrians” (2015) students discuss the proposed hike in Provincial fines for pedestrian crossing infractions to almost $700. They ask whether our crosswalks are set up to encourage or deter use, showing examples of intersections that are difficult to cross as pedestrians: long signal timing, deceptive curb cuts, very long blocks present real barriers.

“What you Need to Know about HRM’s Centre Plan” (2016) goes over the region’s newest planning initiative and interviews some of the planners at HRM, and lets people know how they can get involved in the process.

Some of the videos explore historical issues. In “Down with the Cogswell Interchange” (2014) students explore the historical and present-day plans to take down the interchange and replace the streets with a more traditional grid street pattern. The stretch of arterial overpasses is just 1 km long, and doesn’t do much to handle traffic anymore. Students do a good job of reviewing the critical planning decisions that changed history, such as Gordon Stephenson’s A Redevelopment Study of Halifax, Nova Scotia (1957). It was based on this report that city council decided to build the interchange, among other ill-fated decisions like demolishing the existing African Canadian community Africville (which the students show as the proverbial “elephant in the room” at about the four-minute mark in the video). They really packed a lot of information into a six-minute video!

In a video profiling Halifax’s Viola Desmond (2014), a black businesswoman in the city with a hair salon on Gottingen Street, students touch on the history of racism in the city. Desmond’s car broke down on a business trip through New Glasgow in 1946, and while waiting for it to be repaired she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She was asked to leave because she was sitting in the whites-only main floor seating, refused to pay the one-cent difference in ticket prices to sit in the other section. She was eventually escorted out by police and spent the night in jail on a tax evasion charge. This occurred nine years before the famous Rosa Parks incident in the US. Desmond took action against the Province of Nova Scotia, who didn’t formally apologize and pardon Desmond until 2010. Her gravesite is in the Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax.

PLANifax shows a tremendous initiative by students, many of whom are undergraduates who moved to the city to study planning. Their “outsider view” on the city and region is critical, because this distance allows their work to be instructive for anyone who is just beginning to understand planning as a practice that shapes so much of our urban environment. Here’s hoping PLANifax can live up to its hope “to be to planning what Bill Nye was to science”!