Your Urban Geographer has recently uprooted himself, again, and has moved back to his stomping-grounds of last-summer, Halifax, for — at least — another summer.

Coming back to Halifax doesn’t just mean I have to get re-aqcquainted with the peninsular city-proper — for, as you read my begrudging description from last summer — Halifax is part of the greater Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), an crazy-big political entity spanning 5,491 km² (compared to Toronto’s 630km²).  As I explained last year, while there is definitely a need for regional governance, it should not replace the local. The HRM has lumped together downtown Halifax, it’s surrounding suburbs, and extremely remote rural and fishing villages that have little connections to Halifax, yet are governed by the same council.

The very large HRM — dense peninsular Halifax is barely visible on the above map in a bay near it’s south-western edge.

Yes, coming back to Halifax, it’s about time I was re-acquainted with the HRM.

And this summer, I’m excited to announce that I’ll be getting to know it in a very meaningful and thorough way.

In response to the positive elements of such a large political entity, the networks of communications that have inevitably emerged between Halifax and it’s surrounding communities, and the Halifax Regional Municipal Planning Strategy (RMPS), which outlined targets for smart growth, the Ecology Action Centre’s Built Environment Team (specifically, the wonderful Jen Powley) has established the Our HRM Alliance.

Unsurprisingly, given the pattern of politics in Halifax and environs, much of the development since the establishment of the RMPS has been anything but sustainable. Sprawl and thoughtless car-centric growth — large private homes, business parks, and shopping malls built over formerly undeveloped land — continue to define the growth of the HRM and the actions of very powerful developers.

And that’s where Our HRM Alliance plays an important role — acting as a watch-dog of HRM development and giving people a platform to mobilize on issues of growth and sustainability.

The Our HRM greenbelting strategy

As Jen Powley’s assistant, I will be helping her combat the desires of non-progressive developers as the thoughtful of HRM try their hardest to hold back the loose and undisciplined tentacles of sprawl that continue to spill out of Halifax. I will be getting to know these areas, hopefully visiting them, and will be attending many-a-urban planners’ meetings, public consultations, and mayoral candidate panels.

Helping Jen the last few days has lead my imagination to picturing a Halifax that had a chance to be better designed.

HRM’s population is 390 000 people, but spread over a density of 10.4 persons/hectare (compared with London’s 49 and New York City’s 104.3). Imagine HRM’s population with a greater density. Imagine if the patterns of growth of peninsular Halifax spilt out over the arm and into Sackville, Fairview, Bedford. Imagine if the density of Dartmouth was not stunted by narrow minded developers and it continued to build a city in its immediate surrounding areas. Imagine if Halifax’s streets were as endless as Toronto’s — streets like Manning and Palmerston that extend infinitely north of Queen — and interesting, dense, messy urban blocks spread throughout the area, beckoning exploration, fostering rich communities.

Imagine that the previously independent small towns of the HRM bled more gracefully into each other, rather than the cut and dry dramatic intervals of hostile suburban sprawl that are now in between them.

This line of thought lead me to thoughts of reclaiming the Mackay bridge from the exclusive use of cars. This bridge is beautiful, but deplorable. A glorified highway in the sky, it terminates on the Dartmouth side at a highway exit, an impossible environment for a pedestrian. What if we were to extend residential and commercial out and over the bridge, serviced by pipes and wires dangling high above the narrows? It would be whimsical, reminiscent of the Parisian residential bridges of the 19th century — and so symbolic of a movement of smart, thoughtful growth.  An urban geographer can dream… can’t he ?

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