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.

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!

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.

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”!

 

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Book launch postcard-Vancouver