Governance & Politics
June 3, 2020

Bulldozed Africville~Halifax’s Forgotten Neighbourhood

Three years ago on the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion I wrote about the 2,000 people that died when a munitions ship blew up. That explosion left 25,000 people homeless, with 20 percent of the  population killed or seriously maimed. The Vancouver Sun published an interactive map that detailed the events leading up to and after the explosion.

But there was another story too, and that was the rebuilding of the city. The explosion meant that Halifax could  rebuild the city with better constructed houses, paved roads,  and proper water pipes and discharge sewers, an effort that took many years.  The City of Boston and organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation teamed together to bring health and sanitary services to the community. This has been documented in a book edited by David Sutherland called We Harbour No Evil Design: Rehabilitation Efforts after the Halifax Explosion of 1917.

Before the blast, Halifax still had dirt roads, unreliable electricity, open sewers and a declining tax base. Despite the  funding that came to rebuild the city in a sanitary way, it  was not distributed evenly across Halifax. While the funding brought pasteurized milk, water treatment and a health centre, certain neighborhoods received sanitary sewers while one neighbourhood received none. Author Michelle Herbert Boyd observed that wealthier areas such as Richmond were  provided for while the African Canadian neighbourhood at Halifax’s North End, Africville, received scant assistance.

Africville was established in the 1840’s and included freed slaves and refugees from the War of 1812.  When new sanitation sewer was provided for all of Halifax, it was not extended to Africville. While the Richmond neighbourhood  was “being reconstructed and improved after the Explosion, the main sewer line was brought directly through Africville to empty into Bedford Basin; Africville residents were not themselves given sewer service, and to add insult to injury, they had to endure raw sewage from their Richmond neighbours running through their backyards whenever a line broke.” 

That inequity continued in the following decades.  In the 1930’s Africville residents petitioned for running water, paved roads, sewage disposal garbage removal, police coverage and electricity. That was ignored by Halifax City Council. And in the 1950’s Council placed an open-pit garbage dump 350 meters away from the western side of Africville. That cemented the city’s perception of this neighbourhood as a slum. There’s no “reference in the council minutes to any concern for the health of Africville residents, or any consultation”.

In the 1960’s when Africville was cleared for a “renewal” scheme popular at the time, few residents had land titles and the land was expropriated by the City a lot at a time over a period of five years. Promised rehousing never materialized, and residents’ belongings were moved in dump trucks instead of moving vans.

Today the segregated school which was closed in 1953 has been rebuilt as a museum and the area renamed Africville Park. The school site was made a National Historic Site in 1996 and on February 24 2010 Halifax Regional Municipality Mayor Peter Kelly offered an official apology for the community’s destruction.

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Remember the corner store in your neighbourhood?

Coming out of the pandemic is the need to access goods right in your neighbourhood. The local corner store used to fill this role, with shopkeepers knowing everyone in the neighbourhood, and providing a place where locals can buy milk, cheese, some staples and hear the local goings on and gossip.

In an article written last Fall by Jesse Johnston with the CBC there were 226 business licences for Vancouver convenience stores in 2018, 86 less than ten years ago. Many used to be run by new immigrants as a way to learn the language and to work independently in a new place. But rising property taxes and the fact that residential zoning does not allow the use of corner stores as an outright use makes it difficult for these family owned convenience stores to continue.

Corner grocery stores are existing non conforming uses in residential areas. Stop running a corner store in the premises for six months, and a new lessee cannot receive permission to reopen the store, no matter how compelling the case.

But as civic historian and former City of Vancouver staffer John Atkin observes, corner stores are “community meeting places”  where people can gather. Quebec Street’s Federal Store is an example of a convenience store that has remorphed into a cafe, as has Keefer Street’s Wilder Snail which also provides fresh baking and groceries.

Vancouver still has some of the localized neighbourhood market fabric in existence on the west side at Mackenzie Street and 33rd Avenue an on the east side at Nanaimo and Charles.  These are grandfathered in businesses from a time fifty years ago when the car was king, and driving  to shop at big malls with plentiful parking was a “thing”.

This returning trend  of neighbourhood level  convenience shopping that can be accessed by walking or by bike is described in this article by Architect Toon Dreessen who talks about the “popsicle test”. Can your kid go out by themself to a store safely to purchase a popsicle and return home before it melts? “And is there even a corner store for them to shop at?”

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As Vancouver enters the recovery phase in the pandemic and starts opening up commercial businesses, it is important for locals to get out and patronize them. Chains and franchises will have broader support, but the independent shops will be relying on locals to make the difference.

Last week Randy Shore in the Vancouver Sun wrote about the challenges for shop owners on Jim Deva plaza, Bute Street at Davie. With  store fronts having articulated facades it was a perfect place for homeless folks to camp out in while the stores were closed. One shop owner found several people camped “in her entryway smoking meth and using heroin”.

Their calls to the Business Improvement Area helped carve out an approach for the business to open and to provide a level of safety and security for customers.  While the Provincial government has assisted to find accommodation for over two hundred people who had been living in Openheimer Park, there have simply been more vacant storefronts in the west end available to provide  refuge for homeless people.

Tyee writer Stanley Woodvine has been detailing how challenging it is for homeless people on the street during the pandemic. Think of it~there are no libraries or public commmunity centres  to sit in to warm up or read the newspaper, nowhere to check a computer terminal. Most public washrooms are closed,  and there’s no places to wash hands or fill a water bottle.

There’s a similar situation causing friction between business owners and homeless people occurring in the 500 and 600 blocks of Evans Avenue which is close to the railway terminal.  Evans Avenue runs parallel to Terminal Avenue near the East 1st Avenue overpass.

There’s a mix of industrial and business offices across from a grassy hill that abuts the railroad yards. No  water access  or latrines exist on that grassy knoll which is private land.  The  homeless people camping on it have no services of any kind.  Neighbouring businesses have experienced altercations and break ins, with one large business having to keep vehicles inside the warehouse instead of the parking lot during the day to stop metal theft. Their garbage bins are commandeered  to provide privacy screens for latrine use, and the businesses’  front entrance ways shelter drug users.

 

That area falls outside the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan and is not in the subarea for the Strathcona Business Improvement Area. While the business owners did call the City of Vancouver inspectors several times because of defecation, garbage, and female staff being accosted, there was never a resolution. On the weekend a 24 foot motor home burnt up  on the street , taking the Fire Department one hour to douse.

 

It’s clear that the City’s post pandemic plan does need to include what Councillor Pete Fry calls “intertwined” issues “such as homelessness, public safety and business recovery.” 

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I have been writing  that cities need to be nimble during this slow reopening shops and services.  Facilitating reopening of commercial operations will mean having the appropriate space to line up to enter with appropriate physical distancing.  And in some cases with food services, expanded outdoor space during the summer will mean the difference between being able to open with an appropriate number of tables to make a business profitable.

Brendan and Amanda Ladner  reopened  their Pender location of the  SMAK healthy food emporium as a takeaway, with an innovative  curbside “glide through” counter option using city parking spaces. They hoped that there would be a way that other restauranteurs would be able to have a streamlined way of using city owned space on sidewalks and elsewhere to start up their businesses in a safe and reasonable way.

At the Council meeting on May 27th, Council agreed to develop a quick process to allow applications for temporary patios, and agreed to waive the fees. These permits are temporary to October 31 and are non renewable. This initiative is similar to the one approved by the City of Winnipeg four weeks ago as a way for restaurants to operate when Covid guidelines mean they can be only at fifty percent capacity.

Temporary patios for restaurants must be right in front of the restaurant or beside it, and may use either the sidewalk or the “back boulevard”, that public space that is between the sidewalk and the building.

The patio may also occupy parking spaces and must provide appropriate ramps for accessibility to the space.

Vancouver restaurant owners will be able to apply for the temporary patios on June 1st  and can expect a two day turnaround for approval. Typically fees collected by the city are in the $3,000 range for a temporary patio permit, but all fees will be waived this year.

You can take a look at this Council presentation that outlines some of the potential configurations for the temporary outdoor patios.

Of course accessibility and the ability of all users to access the sidewalk as well as use the temporary patio is going to be paramount, and there’s no negotiation on that.

Take a look  at this YouTube video of an  outdoor patio  in downtown Ottawa on Preston Street  that could not provide the required two meter width requirement on the sidewalk back in 2018. Instead of simply moving their fence back for compliance, the restaurant argues to take out the two street trees or leave things as they are, because “the street is inaccessible anyway”.

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When I first saw the news report in early March, I was astonished: the City and Park Board, in conjunction with the Coastal Health Authority, would be using two community centres to temporarily house the otherwise homeless from the Downtown east Side.  What was jaw-dropping were the locations: in the centre of two of the most affluent communities in Vancouver, one less than a block from an elementary school – the Roundhouse in Yaletown and the other in Coal Harbour.

In normal circumstances, that decision would have been explosive. In non-covid times, it just would not have happened.  There would have been an immediate pushback from Yaletown and Coal Harbour residents and businesses – a call for more process, for community meetings, for public hearings and delegations.  And those would have been the polite responses.  Sides would be taken, the media coverage relentless, the politics divisive. A risk-adverse Council would have found a way, in the name of community consultation, to deep-six the proposal.

And yet, here it is, the consequence of a crisis most clearly not wasted.

The spaces at Roundhouse and Coal Harbour will be allotted by referral-only and staffed 24 hours a day. Vancouver Coastal Health will provide health guidance and B.C. Housing has appointed non-profit operators to manage the centres.  (The Sun)

But that wasn’t all. Those housed would also be provided with ‘safe supply’ – drugs and their substitutes to stabilize the addicted, in addition to distancing them from the virus in what would otherwise be a powder-keg in the Downtown East Side.  (That a covid outbreak has so far not occurred is another surprising non-event.)

Remarkably, this was all public knowledge:

(Mayor) Stewart said the federal government has allowed for a safe supply of drugs for residents of the Downtown Eastside.

Beyond the health consequences, the stakes were huge.  If this real-time, real-life exercise failed, it would set back any prospect of locating a similar facility anywhere else in the city, as well as negating the ongoing experiment of safe-supply.  And it wouldn’t take much: a single adverse incident, open needle use, an exchange of threats much less an actual incident.  On the other hand, if successful, it would deny precedent for an endlessly repeated bad example.

It’s only the end of May; the emergency continues, the community centres are still blacked out.  As an experiment that set out to do what it has so far accomplished, it succeeded – a word rarely associated with the DTES and homelessness.  Indeed, many activists are adverse to acknowledging that the actions they espouse, when implemented, achieve their goals.  Fearful that success might lead to complacency, a loss of commitment, a reduction in budgets, they might begrudgingly admit that an initiative, a new housing project, a raise in funding was a good first step, but there’s so much left to do, so many homeless still on the streets, and the filthy streets themselves an indictment of an uncaring society.

The Roundhouse and Coal Harbour experiment remain, so far, an unacknowledged success.  Friends in the neighbourhood report that until recently there was seemingly community acceptance of the circumstances – perhaps because the locations are only temporary.

But of course, that was unlikely to last.  Further uptown, things were changing.

(More to come.)

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I have been writing about Open Streets, and how they are being used Post-Covid to make accessing services more comfortable for walkers, rollers and cyclists going to shops and services. There’s also a positive impact of Open Streets for businesses. Open Streets allow for wider sidewalk areas,  making customers  feel better about standing in line to access a business with appropriate physical distancing.  This provides enough space to wait on the street without  getting too close to someone simply walking by on a sidewalk.

The term “Open Streets’ refers to temporarily closing streets to through traffic, but filtering necessary local traffic, emergency vehicles, public transit, pedestrians, rollers and cyclists. Open Streets also provide separate road space for traditional sidewalk users who are going at a different pace than cyclists. Creating Open Streets also allows commercial businesses to use more of the sidewalk or the road way to conduct their business given the new physical distancing requirements.

There has been a concern that while the concept of open streets to facilitate movement during Covid times was admirable, what would happen if open streets became permanent? And isn’t that bad for business?

This is the truth about Open Streets. If people are accessing services through a filtered network that allows for expanded space for only transit, walkers, rollers and cyclists, each of those individuals represent one less vehicle on the road. Vehicle drivers win because there is less congestion.

And the data shows that businesses win too. This study done by Transport for London  shows that people walking, rolling and cycling and using public transport spend 40 percent more each month than car drivers. These numbers have also been replicated  in studies in Toronto and in New York City.

In London time spent on retail streets increased by 216% between shopping, patronizing local cafes and sitting on street benches. Retail space vacancies also  declined by 17%.

There is also an interest in thinking through shops and services at a local neighbourhood scale too where sidewalks are less crowded. These areas could also benefit from Open Streets. As local historian John Atkin notes on twitter “Thinking city structure, sidewalk crowding, community & ‘bubbles’. Lose exclusionary zoning, allow local retail pockets so we don’t overload the arterials. I haven’t had to trek outside Strathcona because we have 2 great shops + coffee to walk to.”

Creating “bubbles” of  services within an easy walking or biking distance in each neighbourhood adds a level of local resiliency.  It’s something we have zoned out of areas, making existing non-conforming retail pockets~like the one at 33rd and Blenheim in Dunbar~such an asset. The ability to access these commercial areas safely with cycle, walking or transit a priority would be a neighbourhood asset.

While cities around the world are developing filtered streets to accommodate the post Covid recovery, that’s no plan from  Vancouver yet.

Here’s another example of great work in the City of Newcastle Great Britain as written by Carlton Reid with Forbes.com. Newcastle which is bisected by a highway system wanted to “reassert the supremacy of the city over its traffic.” They embraced the chance to make a downtown plan that was “not anti-car, but pro-city”, ensuring that residents could easily and comfortably use their downtown and related businesses. Here’s how they did it.

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Gordon Price and I have been discussing how internationally cities are responding to the Covid-19 lock-downs by making it easier for residents to physically distance the required two meters or six feet while using city streets and spaces.  These cities have also strategized how best to support businesses in their staged and in some places staggered reopenings. Key to supporting local businesses is making citizens comfortable in walking or cycling to shops and services, and designing the areas where consumers have to wait for their physically distanced time in stores comfortable and convenient.

One example of a Mayor and Council that are adjusting to the new normal and getting it done is the City of London Great Britain. There Mayor Sadiq Khan recognizes that the post Covid-19 recovery, single vehicle use and the challenges of physical distancing is “the biggest challenge to London’s public transport network in Transport for London’s history”.

Matthew Taylor in the Guardian writes about London’s struggle to keep the numbers of people using public transport down  for physical distancing.  London also has to  insure that public transit journeys are not replaced with car usage which would create congestion and increase air pollution.

London’s answer is to repurpose roads for walking, cycling and transit only as the Covid-19 lockdown is lifted, with one of the biggest car-free initiatives in the world. Private vehicles and trucks are also being banned from several bridges. Work on the plan implementation has already begun, and will be completed in six weeks. As well, the congestion charge for any vehicle accessing central London will increase from 11.50 pounds (20 Canadian dollars) to 15 pounds(25 Canadian dollars)  per trip.

That is what a municipal  co-ordinated approach looks like addressing how cities can thrive in post pandemic times. But that verve, the ability for Council to  assist businesses and citizens in a time of crisis is lacking in Vancouver. Gordon Price wrote about Council’s lack of enthusiasm in this article. It was noted journalist Daphne Bramham who so cogently stated the following in the Vancouver Sun:

“Vancouver  was not designed with physical distancing in mind. “Even with most businesses shut down, pedestrians have been forced to dodge into traffic lanes to get around line-ups outside groceries, pharmacies and liquor stores.

There are also challenges for citizens using regular walking and cycling routes for accessing shops and services or getting exercise. “Sidewalks on even the major bridges are too narrow for pedestrians to comfortably keep their distance. The seawalls and Arbutus Greenway are also too narrow and have no barriers between cyclists and pedestrians.”

While we do have great staff at city hall that can flexibly meld a post pandemic city for physical distancing, policy to do so must come from Council. The current Council is nearly half way through their four year mandate. Each Councillor comes with closely held social values. But being on Council means teaming to represent what is needed for the city as a whole, not  individual personal value sets. That means working together to approve badly needed policy and to show unified respect, care and attention to provide the concerted recovery direction businesses and citizens  so badly need. It’s leadership.

While Council last week agreed to expand Covid related outdoor restaurant seating, there’s no urgent turnaround on that information for opening businesses that require that assistance now. In terms of expanding streets for walking and cycling, Daphne Bramham notes that this was not even voted on, “because three council members didn’t agree to continue meeting past 10 p.m. and extending the sitting hours requires a unanimous vote.”  

These are not normal times. Leadership is needed to nimbly  provide a post pandemic plan for  opening businesses to thrive, and for returning consumers to feel  safe and comfortable.

Kirk Lapointe in Business In Vancouver identifies post pandemic plans as starting right at the sidewalk. “The contemplation of cities like Vancouver about extending restaurants and some retailers into the streets to give them a fighting chance of generating a business amid social distancing is a no-brainer. Should have been approved weeks, months, years ago. They serve as staples of a neighbourhood’s identity, and in this crisis, they are a threatened breed that the species cannot afford to lose.”

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I have been pretty outspoken on the need to support  local retailers as they start opening up their businesses in the next phase the Covid Crisis. I have also been insisting that we need to look at the use of the city street in a different way to accommodate these businesses and to make potential customers more comfortable on the street.

Customers must feel safe and comfortable and be able to wait before entering retail premises with the appropriate physical distancing. Other people need to be able to walk or roll on the sidewalk with the same comfort of having that two meter spacing from others. That’s pretty impossible to accommodate on many city sidewalks that are at most 1.8 meters, or in the downtown where there are heavier flows of people on the sidewalk.

The City of Vancouver has not been nimble at working towards opening streets off the downtown peninsula for walkers, rollers and cyclists to access shops and services,even though there is the tax payer funded greenways network where walking and cyclists have priority. These streets could be easily filtered to allow for local and emergency traffic only. Similarly there has been no civic road map for businesses on how to open or use the sidewalk and/or adjacent parking lane to allow for physical distancing. That changed this week with Council’s motion to review street allocation for customer line ups, loading, and using sidewalk space with the appropriate distance.

There’s also a motion that the City reallocate  road space, such as high use greenways and streets…temporarily to ensure safe shared use…” 

Eight  Covid weeks in no one is holding their breath, but it’s a good start, as well as this week’s initiative to  create a “Council Covid-19 Recovery Committee” which provides a place to figure out what the “new normal” really is.

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The Public Sector Digest is co-presenting this webinar with the international landscape design firm Arcadis.

Climate change can pose considerable physical and economic risks to local governments. To reduce the impacts of climate change, organizations must seek ways to adapt to the changing climate as well as mitigate their contribution to climate change. PSD has partnered with Arcadis for this webinar to define the importance of integrating climate change adaptation and mitigation. Low carbon resilience (LCR) is an approach that focuses on integrating adaptation and mitigation strategies by reducing vulnerabilities to climate change impacts and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Experts from PSD and Arcadis will share how local governments can build LCR while maintaining regulatory compliance, financial efficiency, and expected levels of service.

Moderator | Tyler Sutton, General Manager of Research & Marketing, PSD

Panelists

Erin Orr, Research & Policy Analyst, PSD
Nichole Chan, Sustainability & ESG Lead, Arcadis

Live webinar – Thursday May 21,2020 | 11:00 to 11:30 Pacific Time

You can register by clicking this link.

Images: Medium & Huff Post

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