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Scrapping skyscrapers 

Tall buildings being good for the environment may be all wrong

Here’s the theory: build up, way up, and pull the city inward towards such great heights. Thus, reduce sprawl, decrease commuting distances, bring things conveniently together, increase a sense of community, put an end to resource-eating pollution and welcome the death of the car culture.

Would that it were so simple.

This philosophy of building height is central to the HRM By Design exercise, an ongoing series of public consultations geared towards creating a “clear and compelling vision” for the regional centre of our mega-municipality.

“There is a very strong sustainability theme throughout,” says Andy Fillmore, HRM’s urban design project manager. “We’re looking at land use, density of people, proximity of home to workplace and at solid and efficient infrastructure, with fewer cars.”

And that involves tall buildings, as high as 230 feet (20 storeys), lovingly erected in concentrated clusters. Most of these are to be located around the spot that will become formerly known as the Cogswell interchange.

According to the current thinking of professional planners, tall buildings are our only hope for disinheriting our cars and reuniting with our neighbours---up on the rooftop garden. Urban density also concentrates and thus limits our impact on the land, water and air.

Density is our hope for long-term survival. At least until peak oil.

The problem with these sky-scraping symbols of long-term sustainability, according to Larry Hughes of Dalhousie’s Energy Research Group, is “figuring out how to heat the damn things. If we assume the heat source will be oil,” he says, “it’s very short-sighted, naive to the extreme.”

Two-thirds of Nova Scotian homes arecurrently heated by oil, which is already getting harder to find, Hughes says. And there are few other viable options for heating sources in this province, all of which have serious shortcomings.

Coal burns dirty, pollutes the air and contributes to global warming. Biomass burns cleaner but decreases biodiversity and contributes to deforestation. Our annual capacity for hydro-electric power is limited. Natural-gas supplies will run out long before oil, probably before 2020. Wind power is renewable but intermittent, necessitating a backup source and nobody seems to want windmills in their backyards.

Which brings us to a viable, year-round energy source that is easily tapped: the sun. There’s just one catch---you can’t heat any more than six storeys with the energy captured by solar panels atop a building. There just isn’t enough room on the roof to capture and store more energy than that with the amount of sun Halifax gets.

Hughes’ recommendation to limit building height to six storeys has been publicly supported by Heritage Trust Nova Scotia. Heritage president Phil Pacey is concerned about the dizzying heights of the latest HRM By Design plans (approved in principle by regional council in February), most notably the threat he feels they pose to heritage homes.

“These heritage buildings tell us how people lived before the oil age, before we burned fossil fuels like they’d never run out,” Pacey says. “How can you preserve that if someone wants a 20-storey building toreplace it?”

Pacey worries about the proposed towers, the shadows that they will cast and the massive contribution that their concrete will make to global warming. “Six storeys is a reasonable limit that will limit the negative impacts,”Pacey says.

But Fillmore isn’t biting. “We have to focus on getting people out of their cars,” he says, “and that involves tall buildings. But we are using the whole gamut of sustainable options: water efficiency, appropriate use of materials and resources, recycling onsite, natural ventilation and the use of solar and other renewable energy sources.”

Seems the experts may have to agreeto disagree.

As for the rest of us, HRM By Design has just entered its fifth phase of public consultation. You can check out the draft Downtown Halifax Plan online at, or attend the presentation of the latest plan at the World Trade & Convention Centre on April 16 at 6pm.

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