Designed to fail

Peter Kelly, present mayor of Halifax region, knows there are problems and acknowledged that in an interview with King’s students, “We have been investing in the area; is it perfect to where it has to be? Absolutely not, and we know that.”

Unlike poor areas closer to the core, this one hasn’t been around that long. In fact, in barely 45 years it has gone from being a suburb with small homes on large lots, to a sea of medium- to high-density apartment blocks. How it got that way is the story of urban planning gone wrong: the story of a neighbourhood designed to fail.

There was ample warning of what might happen.

Large apartment building in Pinecrest-Highfield Park (Brittney Teasdale photo)

In 1945 the Nova Scotia Municipal Bureau drafted a document called the “Plan for the Future Dartmouth” at the request of the town council. The report, written by D.P. Reay, a young architect who also served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, included a section that considered what makes for a healthy community. The issue was important at the time because towns had to consider where low-cost housing should be placed.

“Large neighborhoods of exclusively low-cost or low-rental dwellings tend to be undesirable from the point of view of municipal finances,” the report said. “They are not self supporting elements in the tax structure; they are very susceptible to blight (which is infectious) due to overcrowding, poor planning and poor appearance; they breed crime …  and they are not democratic.”

The wording seems almost prophetic today.

The Pinecrest area, roughly bounded by Albro Lake Road to the south, Pinecrest Drive to the north, Victoria Road to the west and Albro Lake itself on the east, had originally developed with large lots that were big enough to allow people to raise livestock and have large gardens, according to a later planning report on the area. During and after the Second World War, single-family homes predominated, but with the rezoning of large areas by the old City of Dartmouth in 1966, small apartment complexes starting going up.

City planners were given another crack at successful urban planning with the development of what was once part of Naval Radio Station Albro Lake, a communications hub that helped coordinate allied shipping during the Battle of the Atlantic. After the war the growth in Dartmouth degraded radio reception at the base and it closed in 1968, leaving the large area to the west of Pinecrest that would ultimately become Highfield Park.

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