Brenden Sommerhalder could talk about urban planning all day.
The 30-year-old came to Halifax nine years ago for his Masters in Applied Psychology at St. Mary’s University. After graduation, he moved to the north end, the area he calls, “the most Halifax of Halifax.”
He is now looking to represent that area, District 8 – Peninsula North, on the Halifax Regional Council.
Sommerhalder is a good example of how someone “from away” can get heavily involved in the Halifax community. Since arriving in Halifax, he has become a regular writer for local media publications, founded a Halifax based blogging platform, served as Chair of the District 7 & 8 Planning Advisory Committee, and now works for the Downtown Halifax Business Commission.
His role as Chair of the Planning Advisory Committee is what got him to start researching urban planning in-depth. He says “I didn’t want to be faced with options that I didn’t understand.”
After years on the committee, he is quite comfortable discussing the policy and ideas of urban planning. He speaks at length about the strong business case for a protected bike lane network, the need to get rid of “food deserts” and the importance of designing cities for people, not cars.
One of the big concerns Sommerhalder is facing in the North End is gentrification.
The idea of “hipsters” coming to the North End to start microbreweries and yoga studios has long time residents worried about being priced out of the area.
Sommerhalder says that one solution to this issue is inclusionary zoning. “We can say to developers, ‘ok, you can build here, but if you do build here, a set percentage of the development has to be affordable’.”
His most original idea is his plan for discretionary funding. Discretionary funding is money — about $94,000/year — that each district gets for infrastructure and capital development projects. Sommerhalder says he wants to see 30% of District 8’s discretionary funding go to First Nations projects, 30% to African Nova Scotian projects, and the last 40% go to projects for the general community.
He doesn’t seem to be worried about possible backlash for reserving the majority of this money for certain groups within the district. “If I’m elected, I’m going to do it this way. I don’t care. I know people aren’t going to like it, they’re going to say all sorts of things…but it’s literally non-negotiable to me. We need to create opportunities for minorities.”
The race in this District 8 has received media attention due to the decision by the current councilor, Jennifer Watts, not to seek re-election. Watts made this decision in order to create room for diversity and new voices on Council.
With no incumbent, seven people have decided to run for the seat. Of the seven, four are white, two are African Nova Scotian, one is British African and all are male.
Sommerhalder finds himself in the position of being a white candidate in an election where much of the attention has been on the lack of diversity on council.
His solution to diversifying council is to improve the way the city engages with different communities and to create more opportunities for new people get involved at the top levels of municipal government.
“It is not excusable to see such a homogeneous council.”
Creating opportunity for new voices on council is why Sommerhalder and several other candidates have publicly supported mandatory term limits. He says that since it is next to impossible to beat an incumbent, the only way to get new voices on council is force councilors who have served two terms to retire from council.
Sommerhalder and other supporters of this idea believe that increasing opportunities to run for council seats will eventually lead to a more diverse council.
Whoever wins in District 8 will end up representing the patchwork of different communities that live there. Sommerhalder says “If you want to represent something this diverse, you need to extend your empathy, no matter who you are.”
Sommerhalder encourages students to get involved in this election. “Even if you are here for only three to four years, we can do something within a year to make your life better as long as we hear from you, so vote.”
Election day is October 15th. Voting booths will be open throughout the city.