First of two in op-eds on the growth of Halifax
By Samuel Kirsh
As a recent addition to the Maritimes, I have come to love the nuances and differences that the East Coast offers. The tight knit communities, the lackadaisical pace of living, and the friendly nature of its citizens. It’s hard not to love, even if it is an adjustment from the bustle of Toronto and its surly populace (admittedly, an odd thing to miss). Despite the friendly veneer, there is a troubling economic reality, in the form of low productivity and poverty. As Halifax grows, will this productivity rise in commensurate fashion? This is just one defining aspect of development in Nova Scotia and the Maritimes as a whole. To unpack this, I will first address the urban planning environment for Halifax, where the goals of transforming downtown Halifax into a corporate hotspot is well underway.
To understand downtown Halifax, however, one must look to the suburbs. Outside of the city center, the suburbs of Halifax sprawl in low density tentacles. This development has facilitated the growth of happy but inefficient white-picket suburbs, straining the local transit system and the road infrastructure of Halifax. One of the first moves of redevelopment should be zoning amendments that incentivize higher density domiciles and businesses, whether through tax breaks or direct subsidies. The Cogswell district plan is an example of integrating higher-density construction with dedicated transit lanes to ease traffic and promote alternatives to driving. This can very well extend northward on Gottingen, a historically racially segregated and impoverished area; two things that some level of gentrification can adjust. Condominiums that are springing up around the city are also a positive step to encouraging more productive land use downtown, even if it draws the ire of those who appreciate Halifax’s rustic aesthetic. While this may be disappointing to long-time residents, the reality is that the construction, if properly managed, can stimulate growth and over the long term lower the cost of renting in Halifax, where currently 25% of households spend more than 30% of their income on rent. Lowering this proportion could divert disposable income to more useful purposes. As of 2018, the momentum behind modernizing and centralizing can improve land usage and productivity in the downtown core, which can yield positive social and economic benefits.
The complement to this is the state of Halifax’s public transit, which is another inhibitor to growth. Despite the influx of capital into the public transit programs, improving the network’s efficiency and reach is an important component of accelerating the development of the downtown core, where much of productivity and economic gains are centered. That being said, improving public transit holds the ancillary benefits of reducing congestion and Halifax’s carbon footprint. Both of these would align with the city’s sustainable development goals. An additional perspective is improving the access to education for the students, of whom there are over 30,000 across the HRM, in secondary and post-secondary education. With the well-established academic sector in Halifax, there should be further promotion of local growth in various industries such as the investments in startups with the Volta Labs incubator, to reduce the “brain-drain” to other provinces and boost the tax base as more Nova Scotians retire. As a complement to the business incubator strategy, Halifax could encourage “digital nomads” to develop an expat community, moreover one that is involved with the tech sector. Digital nomads are individuals who work remotely, whether full-time or through freelance opportunities, and leverage this flexibility by choosing where they want to live. Halifax’s cost of living is lower than Canadian cities of comparable size, is off the beaten track, and has cultural and natural amenities to boot. All of these factors could incentivize ranks of nomads to set up shop in the province, if only for the summer months.
Despite the challenges to growth that exist in Halifax, the city’s small size and active civic engagement are two aspects that are key to unlocking growth in the HRM and the province. The existence of several major universities in the province also serve to increase output, but to do so Halifax must improve the efficiency of professional and transportation networks and improve the functioning of business incubators to stimulate growth and limit the flow of human capital outward. Pushing a portfolio of financial, infrastructural, and educational policies would strengthen economic and social development in Nova Scotia’s capital and raise Halifax’s international profile.