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The future of Halifax: Metro talks to Toronto's former chief planner ahead of city building conference

Jennifer Keesmaat is speaking in Halifax on Monday as part of the keynote session at Art of City Building, a new conference on planning in the city.

Jennifer Keesmaat, photographed in Toronto, on Tuesday, October 18, 2016.

Eduardo Lima / Toronto Staff

Jennifer Keesmaat, photographed in Toronto, on Tuesday, October 18, 2016.

A new conference on Monday aims to start a conversation about the future of Halifax.

Art of City Building will host city planners from around the world to tackle one major question: What is the Halifax we want to be?

Jennifer Keesmaat is a keynote panellist at the conference, and Toronto’s former chief planner. She hasn’t announced what her next gig will be, but she’s currently a distinguished visiting scholar in residence at the University of Toronto. Keesmaat was also involved in the creation of HRM By Design, the municipality’s planning strategy adopted in 2009.

Metro spoke to Keesmaat this week about development in Halifax. The interview has been edited for length.

Metro: Development has been kind of a controversial topic lately in Halifax. How do you think a city like ours balances its heritage with creating density and the kind of city that we want to grow into?

Jennifer Keesmaat: “I think the first is recognizing that heritage and density, and heritage and change are not incompatible. They are in fact entirely compatible and entirely complementary. And in fact, development and redevelopment can often be an impetus for generating the monies required in order to protect heritage, and to respect heritage, and to breath new life into heritage assets in the city. That’s a really critical starting point, and I’ll talk about some examples in the Toronto context of where I think we’ve done a really great job of recognizing that heritage can add value and distinction to new high-density developments.”

M: Another growing issue in Halifax is affordability – and not just Halifax, but cities like Toronto and Vancouver and others across the country. What can planners, and what can municipal government do to make sure people can still afford housing as we develop the city?

JK: “As you just said, this is a critical issue across Canada. And increasingly, the more liveable cities become, the more pedestrian-oriented they are, the more vibrant they are, that tends to result in the attraction of more people, which in fact drives up prices, which creates this real tension: That the more desirable the city becomes, the more exclusive it becomes as well. I think this is one of the greatest risks facing Canadian cities, and there’s a whole variety of different things that need to be done at the policy level in terms of interventions to ensure that the city continues to be affordable for all … Rent control is a critical way of protecting housing stock. But also just at the policy level, things like enabling secondary suites and forgiving of development charges on secondary suites or allowing homes to be turned into multi-tenant units for a minimal amount of cost, and then protecting those homes as multi-tenanted. These are ways that we can both diversify the existing housing stock, but also ensure we’re protecting rental and affordable rental in cities.”

M: What opportunities does Halifax have that other cities don’t when it comes to planning?

JK: “One of the biggest opportunities is that Halifax has gone through a process over the last 30 years of de-densifying. It’s lost its density on the peninsula. It’s become a much more sprawling municipality, not just because it amalgamated and became a regional municipality, but because people actually left the peninsula and went to the outlying sprawling areas. One of the opportunities that Halifax has is to ensure that municipal pricing is established in such a way that it doesn’t incentive sprawl and act as a disincentive to infill development. And the other piece is that, given that so much density has actually left the peninsula, there’s an opportunity to bring that density back, to bring more of a critical mass to the peninsula in order to create a denser urban fabric.”

M: Around the same time you announced you were leaving Toronto as its chief planner, Halifax kind of mysteriously fired its chief planner. What do you think the municipality should be looking for in its next one?

JK: “Any municipality, in hiring its chief planner, needs to ensure that there’s a really clear alignment between the vision of the city and the values of that chief planner. And in most cities, it’s really necessary to have a chief planner that is going to be very much vision-driven, and driven by values because it’s pretty tough to hold your ground. You end up negotiating with some pretty tough players. I would say, ensuring that there is a chief planner who can articulate a vision and work collaboratively across a whole variety of different sectors, can draw in a variety of partners that can build consensus around that vision and how to build that vision, will be critical moving forward.”

Jennifer Keesmaat will be speaking at the Halifax Central Library’s Paul O’Regan Hall at 9 a.m. on Monday as part of the keynote session, and again at 1 p.m. as part of a session on public waterfronts. For more information about the conference, go to artofcitybuilding.ca.

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