On the Waterfront Part II

I need to begin by saying that despite my misgivings about the location of the planned new library and my dislike of the way it’s been tangled up in a private development, I am excited about it.

I would just like to ensure that it’s around to excite future generations of Cape Bretoners as well.

Is that too much to ask of a building in 2019? (Actually, it may well be.)

I would also like to note that I’ve been reading about round buildings and I’m starting to come around to them (no pun intended). Much of what I’ve read concerns round houses, not round public buildings but I am guessing advantages like the fact that round structures are cheaper to build, more energy efficient and stand up better to wind and water, would also apply to a larger-scale structure.

And when I started thinking about round libraries, I remembered this:

British Museum Reading Room (J Brew [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

British Museum Reading Room (J Brew [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

That’s the Reading Room at the British Museum, and it’s made a few generations of Brits (and some famous visitors) pretty happy.

Add to this my pleasure (expressed in this first library article) at what the 2016 feasibility study had to say about the requirements of a 21st century library and I am almost unrecognizable in my positivity.

And yet…

That waterfront location really makes me go “hmmmm…” and in this article, I’m going to try to figure out why, starting with the current — and coming — regulations for coastal development in this province.



Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government expects to introduce legislation governing coastal development within the next 18-20 months.

Environment Minister Margaret Miller told the CBC’s Susan Bradley:

“Climate change means rising sea levels, greater risk of flooding and coastal erosion. We need to protect the natural ecosystems that help defend our coasts, and this legislation will help us do that.”…

She warned the act is not designed to help out in instances where structures are already threatened by rising sea waters.

“It’s not about funding breakwaters or retaining walls. Instead, this legislation deals with future construction,” Miller said.

“It’s meant to prevent today’s problems from happening to tomorrow’s homes, businesses and cottages. We can’t change the past but we can ensure that new construction is built in safer places, where it’s not at high risk of flooding or coastal erosion.”

Miller then pointed out that Halifax already has rules about coastal development. In fact, the Land Use By-Law for the Halifax Peninsula states:

No development permit shall be issued for any dwelling on a lot abutting the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, including its inlets, bays and harbours, within a 3.8 metre elevation above Canadian Geodetic Vertical Datum (CGVD 28).

Mind you, this is a pretty fresh regulation, as a glance at the Halifax waterfront will tell you. But at least Halifax has started claiming to think about the environment — Chapter Two of its Regional Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS) is entitled, “Environment, Energy and Climate Change” and it begins like this:

Protection of water, land and air is a significant component of this Plan. The natural environment is one of the defining features of HRM, with its extensive coastline, lakes, rivers and vast forested areas. Citizens have indicated that anticipating the potential effects of climate change and protection of the natural environment are key priorities for preserving quality of life, community identity, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. The natural environment also provides many ecological and economic benefits to the residents of HRM. Environmental stewardship requires the collaboration of all levels of government and the community.

I couldn’t find the words “climate change” anywhere in our MPS.



I asked CBRM senior planner Rick McCready if we had any coastal setback regulations in the CBRM and he told me in an email:

[W]e do not have a standardized set back from water bodies or a minimum elevation above sea level in the CBRM LUB [Land Use By-Law].  This issue was discussed several years ago when a report on development standards for the Bras d’Or watershed was prepared which was presented to the Councils of all four municipalities abutting the lake. That report recommended both minimum setbacks and minimum elevations for new waterfront development. However, those recommendations were never incorporated into our bylaws.

Which is not to say our Municipal Planning Strategy (updated 7 February 2019) doesn’t acknowledge the threat to coastal properties. A section entitled “Erosion Setbacks From Major Bodies of Water” states:

Our shores are constantly eroding. Depending on the movement of the water, the type of soil or rock formations, the degree of erosion varies considerably. It would be prudent for a Municipality with this amount and variety of shoreline to develop setback provisions that anticipate the erosion likely to occur during the normal lifetime of a building. [emphasis mine]  However, this is a complex science and there is very little data available to influence an informed policy directive on the subject. An arbitrary setback imposed without knowledge of the rate of erosion and the factors causing it would be too much of an imposition on development in some situations and too little to protect development in others.

It takes real chutzpah to agree it would be prudent to do something before immediately announcing you have no intention of doing it. Especially when the reasons you cite for not doing it — complex science, lack of data — don’t seem to have stopped others from doing it. Halifax decided it had enough data to introduce setback legislation.

But as a municipality, we seem content to abdicate all responsibility for protecting the natural environment to the province. In fact, in the section of the MPS labeled “Coastal Management Plan,” we explain our “policy” this way:

It shall be a policy of Council to develop a liaison with the Province of Nova Scotia’s Dept. of Natural Resources to consider formulating a coastal management plan for sensitive shoreline areas of the CBRM outside the jurisdiction of the Provincial Crown Designations for publicly owned lands.

Presumably we’ve been liaising with the province and are okay with the coastal management rules it will eventually bring in because we’ll have to modify our MPS and LUB to accommodate them.



I also searched the CBRM’s Secondary Land Use By-Law for North End Sydney, which would cover the intended site for the library (the Waterfront Southern Sub-Area or WSSA) and the only mention made of “sea level” is in relation to building heights and viewplanes.

The word “coastal” doesn’t appear at all. The word “coast” only appears in conjunction with the word “guard.”

The phrase “climate change,” as I mentioned earlier, appears nowhere in the MPS or the LUB or any of the other planning documents I searched.

In terms of applicable development rules for the WSSA zone, there is a list of permitted land uses, two rules regarding viewplanes and two lot development requirements, one of which is a minimum building setback — from a “public street/road,” not from the coast.

North End Sydney, NS, Future Use Land Map. Source: CBRM

Source: CBRM


WEDG issue

In looking for information about best practices in waterfront development in 2019, I stumbled across the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG) produced by the Waterfront Alliance — a group of more than 1,000 organizations with the shared goal of “making the New York and New Jersey harbor a shared, resilient, and accessible resource for all.”

In his introduction to the guidelines, the group’s president, Roland Lewis, says:

How, where, and what we design at the water’s edge are open questions with profound consequences for us both now and for generations to come. The Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG), developed by the Waterfront Alliance, is a powerful tool for communities and landowners alike to find common ground to promote ecology, access and resiliency.

Category 1 in the guidelines is “Responsible Siting & Coastal Risk Reduction” and it includes this discussion of setbacks:

Setbacks offer the highest levels of structural protection, risk reduction, premium reduction, and environmental benefits. Setting back structures from hazard areas to keep them out of the sea level rise-adjusted future floodplain, floodway, wave zone, or regularly inundated area is the preferred option in less dense areas, particularly when building on previously undeveloped land, and for structures not critical to water-dependent uses (e.g. docks and piers). Employing site-wide elevation or grading changes to meet target elevation as an additional strategy may be used, provided that impacts on habitats, and overall neighborhood character, and resilience are addressed. In these areas, the costs—including environmental impacts and long-term costs such as higher maintenance and insurance—may outweigh the benefits. [emphasis mine]

That last line reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend (who is, I should note, a dedicated user of the McConnell Library). She pointed out that money spent to ensure the resiliency of a structure on the waterfront was money not being spent on library programs and equipment and salaries and maintenance and “you know, books.”

And the issue of potentially higher insurance costs for a waterfront structure seems worth exploring, because if there’s one group in this world that believes in climate change, it’s insurance adjusters.


Rising tides

The Waterfront Alliance looks at waterfront development this way:

From intricate ecosystems to overlapping jurisdictions and land use policies, waterfront design is complex, even for the most seasoned planners, practitioners, and communities, and is becoming even more so with the growing risk of coastal flooding due to sea level rise.

Sea levels are rising due to combination of melting ice caps and glaciers (Greenland’s, by the way, are melting four times as fast today as they were in 2003) and the expansion of warming water.

But here in Atlantic Canada there’s a third factor at work, which Gavin Manson of the Geological Survey of Canada described to the Chronicle Herald in October 2018 as “the waterbed effect.”

During the last glaciation about 21,000 years ago, there was a thick ice centre over the Hudson Bay region. Manson explained that the depressed crust underneath that ice sank as the ice grew, and that in Atlantic Canada, the ice cover was thinner.

“Because of the difference in ice thickness between the two areas, we were actually elevated more than normal,” he pointed out, saying that the heavy ice managed to displace some of the material underneath the earth’s crust away from the Hudson Bay area to the Atlantic.

“The material underneath the earth’s crust is quite fluid. It’s kind of like sitting on a waterbed. When you sit down, when you put your bum down, it sinks underneath you but it rises up around the edges. We were on the edge and we were actually a high ground surface compared to where we were prior to glaciation.”

Due to deglaciation over time, Manson said that the sub-crust material that was previously displaced is now slowly returning to the Hudson Bay area, leaving Atlantic Canada to sink.

“That area (Hudson Bay) is actually rising and our land here is actually sinking, trying to go back to where it was prior to the glaciation,” he said.

Manson has called the combination of rising water levels and Atlantic Canada’s sinking a “double whammy.”

According to the provincial government’s science, sea levels in Nova Scotia — a province where 70% of the population lives within 20km of the coast — will rise between 70cm and 140cm by 2100. For those of you who, like me, have never really warmed to the metric system for measuring height, that’s 2.3 to 4.6 feet.

But the problem is not just sea level rise (SLR), it’s sea level rise combined with more frequent extreme weather “events,” as I guess we have to call them.

There’s actually a database — the Global Extreme Sea Level Analysis (GESLA) project — maintained by a team at the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool, England that tracks extreme sea levels. According to this 2018 article in Nature, researchers are attempting to use the data to predict how often extremes will recur. The bottom line is simple, according to one of the researchers:

Floods are going to become more frequent.

But again, flooding depends on all kinds of factors — North American coastal cities will be affected differently from European coastal cities. West Coast North American cities will be affected differently from East Coast North American cities. Cities located on different parts of the same coast will be affected differently.

Still, in our part of the world it seems flooding will become more frequent — as will extreme flooding. The Nature article I cited above included this graphic, which suggests Cape Breton is one of those areas that could see 100-year flood events every 5 to 10 years:

Future flooding graphic. Source: Nature

Source: Nature

So it seems to me it is not being unreasonable and that dreaded word “negative” to question the wisdom of locating a library on a waterfront in 2019.



I will attend the library information session at the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion tonight (March 27) at 6:30 PM, but I wanted to include some response to these concerns in this article, so I sent some questions to Spyro Trifos, the architect of the new library (I forgot to ask who is funding his design work, since funding for the new library has yet to be secured, but can find that out tonight).

I asked whether, if the CBRM had a 3.8 meter vertical setback for coastal developments — as Halifax does — this development would meet it. He replied:

The Library is being designed to take in to account climate change and sea level rise. Specifically the lower service level of the library will be constructed of concrete and situated on steel piles to withstand the impacts climate change. The lower service level of the Library is currently designed at an elevation of 12 ft or 3.65m. The lower level will be solely used for parking, bus garage, etc. so as to accommodate the potential impacts of climate change and extreme water levels. The actual occupied level of the library is set at an elevation of 24ft or 7.3m, well above 3.8 m. As the project evolves we will continue to review the potential impacts of climate change. Cri[ti]cal infrastructure will be elevated well above hazard zones.

So, the short answer is “no,” with the caveat that the inhabited part of the structure will meet the setback. I asked if Trifos was worried about the effect provincial coastal development regulations, once introduced, could have on the project and he said:

No I am not overly troubled that a redraft will substantively impact this development , since the occupied levels are well above the impact zones — as will be illustrated in the Open House presentation.

I asked what sea level and extreme sea level projections they were planning for and he said:

According to our engineering consultants, by 2100, the total sea level in the Sydney area is anticipated to rise approximately 1.1 m ± 0.48 m to an elevation of 2.54 m with an extreme level of 3.49 m.

And I asked if building on the waterfront would add costs that would not be attached to an inland development. Trifos said:

All urban sites have specific infrastructure needs and varying degrees of environmental concern. The proposed location includes the need for steel piles, something that may or may not be required at other sites. The location does however have some benefits from a cost perspective. The site is environmentally “clean”. Site access, potable water, sanitary sewer and storm water can all be easily accessed at the waterfront location. Inland sites may or may not be blessed with this infrastructure so close. As we know, storm water and flooding is becoming an ever increasing concern with climate change, and a concern of many Sydney residents. The waterfront location allows storm water to drain, thus eliminating the need for expensive storm water control infrastructure or potentially contributing additional storm water to areas already prone to flooding in the CBRM.

I find it very hard to believe that the site recommended by the planning department — the corner of Pitt and George in Sydney — or the one floated by Ron Caplan during an early library meeting — on Charlotte Street with an entrance on the Esplanade — would not have easy access to potable water, sanitary sewer and storm water.

And while I take his point about increasing worry about storm water and flooding, I would suggest it is particularly acute in certain areas of the city — like the Southend — not the downtown.

The idea that the land is “clean” environmentally is fine but, again, would it really be that difficult to find an environmentally “clean” site inland? If so, then the outlook for future development in Sydney’s downtown is pretty grim.

These arguments don’t sound like the arguments of someone who started out with a bunch of criteria for a library location and found a site that met them. They sound like the arguments of someone who picked a location for the library (because it suited a larger, private development project) and then found criteria to match.


In conclusion…

I started this with a quote from NS Environment Minister Margaret Miller, who warned that the coastal planning legislation the Liberals plan to introduce is:

…meant to prevent today’s problems from happening to tomorrow’s homes, businesses and cottages. We can’t change the past but we can ensure that new construction is built in safer places, where it’s not at high risk of flooding or coastal erosion.

I think she would allow me to add tomorrow’s libraries to that list and I think all I’m saying is that we should be sure our new one is built in a safe place, where it’s not at high risk of flooding or coastal erosion.

Featured image: Wave hitting on Bengtskär, Finnish Gulf. Photo by rockPöllö, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. And yes, I should have a picture of a wave in Sydney harbor!