The Virtues of Aiming High

The Virtues of Aiming High

< Back to Articles | Topics: Positive business environment

Better to set goals that are unattainably high than to set a low bar that is easily cleared. Hence the ambitious targets laid out for Halifax for the next two years and the decade beyond. The city’s five-year economic plan launched in 2016 aims to grow the population from 416,000 to 470,000 by 2021, and to 550,000 by 2031. The target for GDP growth is from $18 billion to $30 billion over those same 15 years.

“So far we’re hitting those targets on population and we’re slightly below on GDP growth,” says Halifax Mayor Mike Savage. “But the numbers are really positive.”

Attracting people and investment to any city is a highly competitive and complex endeavour and one that requires coordination with other levels of government and the private sector. Halifax’s road map for reaching its targets includes initiatives on a number of fronts including urban planning, transportation, red tape reduction and sustainability.

“We want growth, but we want it to be sustainable and environmentally responsible,” Savage says. “I think our plans are well connected and coordinated.”

HRM By Design, the municipal planning strategy adopted in 2009, enabled much of the new construction in the downtown core in recent years. The 1990s and early 2000s was a period of paralysis in terms of construction and development in the city’s core, with most of the growth during those years taking place in suburban areas.

“HRM By Design allowed for certainty and predictability for people who own land and want to develop it,” Savage says. “It doesn’t mean you can put whatever you want there — you still have to meet design criteria.”

Over the coming months, the Centre Plan will expand the HRM By Design concept to cover the larger urban areas of Halifax and Dartmouth. With an emphasis on affordable housing, transportation and sustainability, the Centre Plan will encompass the entire Halifax peninsula and the area of Dartmouth within the Circumferential Highway.

Meanwhile, the Cogswell District Redevelopment will reconnect the north and south ends of the peninsula, with a new pedestrian-oriented neighbourhood replacing the concrete overpass that now divides the city.

“The Cogswell interchange was built to accommodate traffic,” Savage says. “The new design will be built to accommodate people. It will be a place where people can mill about and enjoy a view of the ocean.”

The growth and sustainability of any city is inextricably linked to its green spaces. HRM is blessed with a full spectrum of green spaces, which run the gamut from local neighbourhood parks to regional parks and wilderness areas. Besides their uplifting effect on the human spirit, green spaces allow for vital ecological functions and the use of land for agriculture and forestry. A single open space can provide wildlife habitat, help shape communities by providing recreational opportunities and protect important water resources. Halifax’s Green Network Plan is designed to strike the delicate balance between conservation and development.

“We can protect open space across the municipality, not as a hindrance to growth, but in many ways to encourage growth,” Savage adds. He points to the example of the Purcell’s Cove Backlands in which the city purchased, along with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, 1,350 hectares of unique landscape that includes watersheds and urban wilderness.

“It’s one thing to protect land that you already own. It’s quite another to go out and buy land so that it can be protected.”

A growing population presents many challenges to urban planners, not the least of which is figuring out how to effectively move the increasing numbers of people around the city. This has always been a special challenge for the Halifax region, with a population spread out over a vast geographical area. Suburban growth, combined with a limited number of access points to and from the downtown peninsula, has always exacerbated the problem.

Approved by Halifax regional Council in December 2017, the Integrated Mobility Plan embraces multi-modal transportation by promoting alternatives to single-occupant vehicles.

“We want to move more people by methods of transit other than cars,” Savage says. “This means more public transit usage, but also more people on bikes and walking. We realize we need to invest in those areas. We’re not trying to take people’s cars away, but we’re going to make it easier and more effective to travel without a car.”

Regulations are a necessary part of running any municipality. Look no further than Walkerton, Ontario to see what can happen when regulation breaks down. But regulations that are unnecessarily complex, outdated or redundant can impede business growth and stifle innovation.

The city has been working with both the province and private sector to reduce red tape, and in January of this year, Mayor Savage and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil received the Golden Scissors Award from Canadian Federation of Independent Business for those efforts.

“It’s about how we serve businesses and residents most effectively,” Savage points out. “Governments at every level become slowed down by bureaucracy. There is a need for regulation, but it’s about finding the most effective way to do it, and becoming a better partner for businesses and residents.”

The city’s population has grown from 416,000 in 2016 to just under 440,000 at the end of 2018. Not only has Halifax attracted more people, but it has added more people in the critical 25-40 age group – the cohort that is launching new businesses, buying their first homes and starting new families. The reversal of fortune with this age group is sometimes referred to as “Mayor Savage’s favourite stat.”

“Young people have always come here to go to school, but they didn’t see the opportunity to stay. It’s great to have ‘quality of life’ but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a job,” Savage says. “Now young people are staying in Halifax and many of them are new Canadians.”

A number of converging trends are propelling the influx of young, tech-savvy workers. Halifax has become a location of choice in recent years for financial services administration, with banks, insurance companies, and hedge fund edge administrators moving their back-office operations here. At the same time, the region continues to produce new start-ups in ocean sciences, IT and biomedical sectors.

As a medium-sized city, and the musical and cultural hub of the region, Halifax can offer both affordability and culture that appeals to young workers, Savage points out.

“Companies want their employees to be able to afford a house and employees want to live in a community that has vibrancy. Halifax is able to offer both of those things.”

< Back to Articles | Topics: Positive business environment

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