It shouldn’t be easier to set up an unprompted one-on-one interview with the mayor of a Canadian municipality larger than Windsor, but that’s the situation I faced while sitting on the tarmac in Ottawa waiting for a transfer. I wanted to talk about downtown cores and how to improve them.
24 hours later, I was sitting down with Mayor Michael Savage of Halifax in his stately city hall corner office, and it soon became clear that independent media’s access to the mayor’s office is just the tip of the iceberg as to how differently things are done in Halifax.
“Halifax’s economy is fairly diverse and we don’t have a lot of the ups and downs that a city like Windsor would have,” said Mayor Savage.
“... or places that have heavy manufacturing, we’ve been very fortunate that way.”
Halifax contains roughly 45 per cent of the population of Nova Scotia, accounts for about 50-60 per cent of the GDP and features a diversified economy including local universities, investments in innovation, ocean science, and bio-farming, a roughly $27 billion shipbuilding contract over 30 years, not to mention an offshore oil and gas industry as well.
But it’s not just a diversified economy Halifax is seeking, but also a strong, innovative and accessible downtown core, which council has not only significantly invested in; they also set targets for development in the core, stripped away red tape, and added much needed certainty for developers seeking to build.
The reason? Without a strong downtown core, your economy will falter.
“... like Windsor, we have had investments outside of the core which have hampered the downtown. You can call it sprawl, you can call it whatever you want, but in the last number of years we’ve made a specific focus on the downtown on having a vibrant, exciting core, to bring people back, and that’s been really good for the economy.”
10 years ago Halifax had the foresight and political will to address head on that the density of downtown was decreasing.
“With us it was a deliberate strategy … when you lose people in the downtown, which is our showcase to the world, our window to the world, and the centre of so many things culturally, financially, it hurts everybody, so our regional plan calls for densification of the core with corridors out to complete communities outside the core.”
Savage sees downtown as the best place for residents to “live together, young, old, all different colours and backgrounds, new and old Canadians, people of all different incomes can live in a downtown if it’s well designed and that’s the success of a good downtown, where you don’t segregate everybody but bring them together.”
And had Halifax not focused on its downtown, the situation would look far different than it does today.
“... if you lose your downtown, you really lose the focus of the city in some ways, you also become less attractive to people who want to move here.”
It can also severely hamper not only local transit, but also regional transit overall.
“... you end up becoming a transit system based not on ridership or effectiveness, but a transit system designed by politicians which starts to look like bypass surgery with everything going in different directions.”
Today, the results speak for themselves: over the last two years, Halifax has seen development in the downtown core hit 42 per cent, while in the first five years of the plan, it was only at 16 per cent.
Imagine what Windsor could look like if downtown development was nearing 50 per cent.