Scientific Cloak/romantic Heart: Gordon Stephenson and the Redevelopment Study of Halifax, 1957

By Grant, Jill L.; Paterson, Marcus | The Town Planning Review, May 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Scientific Cloak/romantic Heart: Gordon Stephenson and the Redevelopment Study of Halifax, 1957


Grant, Jill L., Paterson, Marcus, The Town Planning Review


In 1957 Gordon Stephenson prepared an urban renewal study for the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He epitomised the foreign professional expert hired to diagnose urban ills and prescribe solutions. This paper examines the tension between humanistic moral values and rational scientific approaches in Stephenson's study and seeks to identify some of the influences on his thinking and methods.

Gordon Stephenson's 1957 Halifax redevelopment report cemented his reputation as an authority in urban renewal. As an exhaustive compilation of slum conditions in Halifax it served as an indictment of urban neglect: the moral judgements rendered in the report reflected the values that inspired modernist planners in the post-war period. Through conducting his study, Stephenson became the vehicle for achieving Halifax's long desired 'house-cleaning' to recapture the centre of the city for modern uses (Paterson, 2009). By delineating areas that required attention he facilitated local government's access to federal funding to expropriate and clear land for commercial redevelopment. In his analyses Stephenson used empirical approaches that applied scientific methods to substantiate expert moral judgements about the needs, health and well-being of disadvantaged community members. As such, the Halifax study epitomised the modernist perspective: combining technical expertise with a discourse of moral improvement and humanism. Stephenson cloaked romantic notions about the requirements of the family and the welfare of women and children within a technical discourse that relied on data, formulas and maps to itemise and spatially delimit blight.

Given that Stephenson provided few sources in his writings to indicate where he obtained his ideas, scholars may find it challenging to trace the origins of the concepts and methods he used. Some articles (e.g. Stephenson, 1958a, 1958b) and books (Stephenson, 1992, 1995) revealed his interest in planning history and philosophy, but they generally lacked the rigour to fully illuminate his approach or explain his methods. His biographies examine his contributions and expose his biases, yet offer limited critical insight (Cherry, 1994; Rodwin, 1995; Alexander and Greive, 1997; Dix, 1997). In his efforts to establish himself as a 'compassionate planner' Stephenson took a typically modernist, top-down approach (Gregory, 2010). Little has been written about his work in Canada aside from occasional acknowledgement of his role in redevelopment studies (e.g. Collier, 1974).

This paper evaluates Stephenson's work in the redevelopment study of Halifax and seeks to situate his analysis in the context of its time and place, using archival sources and municipal documents. It begins by briefly reviewing the interest in urban renewal in the post-war period before discussing conditions in Halifax leading up to his appointment. Following a brief introduction to Gordon Stephenson's ideas the paper reviews the Halifax study. The analysis sections discuss the ideas and methods embodied in the Halifax redevelopment study to relate them to the professional and national context of the time. The paper concludes by reflecting on his legacy. Stephenson's Halifax study revealed the continuing tension between his moral perspective that 'town planning was ... a humanitarian corrective to the urban degradation of yesteryear' (Cherry, 1994, i) and his professional efforts to establish technical credentials as an expert town planner who offered recommendations based on sound evidence and logic. Like many planners of his era, Stephenson struggled to bridge the moral and the physical: investigating his work provides insight into how planners in the post-war period developed methods as they negotiated the tensions in their practice.

Urban renewal in the post-war period

Writing in Community Planning Review, Senator David Croll crystallised the fear of blight that obsessed political and business leaders in the 1950s: 'The slum, like its blood brother cancer, is a national plague and must be dealt with at the national level with local cooperation' (Croll, 1956, 144). …

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