Winnipeg, be not discouraged by the painful and prolonged embarrassment that is Portage and Main.
Our most famous intersection may be a failure, but Winnipeg has, often despite itself, created some great and beloved public spaces.
Those are the ones with many different uses in all seasons, like the new Central Park downtown where there’s a toboggan run in the winter and performances of Shakespeare in the summer. Great spaces also respect and accentuate existing natural features, such as the huge woodlot preserved as part of the landscaping around the new Winnipeg Humane Society headquarters. Great public spaces are planned to last generations, and evolve, like Assiniboine Park. And they foster neighbourly interaction and promote pride in the city, like The Forks.
Great public spaces include everything from traditional parks such as Vimy Ridge to the plantings and paths around the new Investors Group Field to the distinct way the streets feel in the Exchange District — the lights, the paving stones, the curbs, the benches, the setbacks.
"Any one of your favourite places you think of going in Winnipeg — that’s landscape architecture," said Monica Giesbrecht, a principal at the firm Hilderman Thomas Frank Cram. "The great ones are the ones you don’t even have a clue we designed."
In Winnipeg, landscape architecture sometimes fails to earn much love. Politicians and developers often focus only on the buildings themselves, rather than what’s between them and what binds a neighbourhood together. The creation and maintenance of Winnipeg’s public spaces often isn’t counted in the infrastructure deficit, even though they define the city’s character and make it livable. And landscape architects often get confused with gardeners or get brought in at the end of a project as an afterthought to, as Giesbrecht jokes, put some parsley on the pig.
September is Manitoba’s first Landscape Architecture Month — long overdue, since the province is home to the country’s first and still excellent landscape architecture programs. To mark the month, some of Winnipeg’s best landscape experts — Giesbrecht, Bob Somers from Scatliff+Miller+Murray, and the University of Manitoba’s Ted McLachlan — took stock of Winnipeg’s public spaces, picking some hidden gems and pointing out (many) missed opportunities.
THE ICON: ASSINIBOINE PARK
What it was: Before landscape architect Frederick Todd got his hands on it in 1904, it was 283 acres of (boring) woodland and prairie.
What it is: Our version of New York’s Central Park, surrounded by Winnipeg’s most sought-after neighbourhoods. Home to the zoo, the conservatory, restaurants, public art, bike, ski and walking trails, a new and beloved children’s playground and many, many more spaces to dawdle through.
Why it works: Its diversity of use and users, its beauty and its ability to evolve. While immigrant families have picnics at the BBQ pits, the cricket teams play in one of the grand open meadows, mountain bikers race through the secluded monkey trails and friends stop for brunch at the new Qualico Family Centre. As Giesbrecht says, you can do five or six things a day, or a year, in the park. And, a huge, multi-year redevelopment plan has largely respected Todd’s vision for the purpose and look of the park while catapulting it into a new century.
Others like it: The city’s other great parks — Kildonan, St. Vital — are similar, if smaller, gems that have become the central parks for whole quadrants of the city.
Others that should be like it: Kilcona Park, which has not had the infusion of cash and creativity that some other parks have enjoyed, though a redevelopment plan for the huge site is underway. Even Garbage Hill, the best lookout in the city, could be a jewel with a little planning and cash.
THE SPIRITUAL SPOT: OODENA
What it was: A flood-prone wedge between two high-traffic destinations — the Johnson Terminal and the Children’s Museum.
What it is: Cree for "centre of the city", it’s the spiritual heart of The Forks. Oodena is half amphitheatre, made from the bowl left after an archeological excavation. And it’s half observatory, thanks to rock monoliths that align with the solstice and equinox suns and Viking-esque armatures that point to specific constellations. It’s mean to be a quiet place that honours the Aboriginal origins of The Forks.
Why it works: With its combination of otherworldliness, nature and Winnipeg’s ancient history, there is nothing like it elsewhere in town. And it’s become a hub for significant events, especially aboriginal ones such as the first Indian residential schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathering.
Others like it: None, and that’s the way it should be.
THE URBAN OASIS: MILLENNIUM LIBRARY PARK
What it was: Possibly the dodgiest downtown park ever. Winnipeg blogger Christian Cassidy, an astute urban observer, has written about how the park’s design made it feel isolated and unsafe, clogged with blind corners, a skating rink that barely operated, empty reflecting pools and the "always clockless clock tower."
What it is: Brand new and built over what was the library parkade’s crumbling roof, it’s got a zen urban wetland with lily pads, an open green event space, moveable lounge chairs and dining spots, a grove that will be shadier when the trees grow and plenty of public art to activate the space, including the much-talked-about huge misty flask called emptyful.
Why it works: It’s a little sanctuary buttressed by concrete buildings, whose style still reflects its surroundings. It’s flexible, with furniture that can be moved around and event spaces. It’s got better sightlines for safety. You can take a nice shortcut through or stop and linger. It’s also an example of downtown partnerships. The Downtown BIZ is responsible for programming the park, and bought and maintain the furniture, while library supporters are working on fundraising for the second phase, which includes a new entryway into the library.
Others like it: City Hall’s courtyard grove, another recently redesigned mid-century park built over parkade tunnels. Old Market Square, despite the fuss about the Cube. The sunken Steinkopf Gardens between the Manitoba Museum and the Centennial Concert Hall, which the U of M’s Ted McLachlan says is another great example of a 1960s space that’s been given a proper facelift.
Others that should be like it: Window Park out front of APTN on Portage Avenue, a plaza space that never quite worked when it opened in 1985, and now badly needs renewal.
THE STREETSCAPE: WATERFRONT DRIVE
What it was: A former rail line that morphed into a gravel parking lot wasteland, buffered by a berm than cut off access and sight lines to the river and cloistered criminal activity. One of Winnipeg’s wasted waterfront spaces.
What it is: A new downtown neighbourhood with hundreds of high-end condos and more in the planning stages along with a new hotel under construction. Waterfront Drive now feels like a park road — slow and windy and lush, with flower-garden traffic circles and bump-outs to slow cars. Stephen Juba Park has seen dramatic improvements, including better safety sight lines to the river.
Why it works: It’s possibly Winnipeg’s best example of development created by landscape architecture first, an example of the large-scale spatial planning that can drive and guide building. There are still worries some condos aren’t occupied and the ground-floor retail spaces are still largely empty, but the original $9 million investment sparked a building boom the downtown hadn’t seen for years.
Others like it: The Chief Peguis Trail extension, to some degree, though it’s more about parkland than creating density.
Others that should be like it: Nearly every main route into town, including Portage Avenue and Pembina Highway as well as the drive from the airport. Most lack the natural vista of the river and wouldn’t quite work as a park-like drive, but all could be significantly improved with a little creativity and civic pride. Same with the ugly nightmare that is Confusion Corner.
THE "RE-WILDING": OAK HAMMOCK MARSH
What it was: A bog, that later became marginal farmland that later became a Second World War practice bombing range.
What it is: Thirty-six square kilometres of recreated wetlands, including miles of walking trails, some of the last remaining tall-grass prairie and other landscapes that attract hundreds of thousands migrating birds a day. The Ducks Unlimited offices are in an interpretive centre that has one of the best green roofs in Canada.
Why it works: It’s one of the most ambitious and most successful examples of "rewilding" in Canada, built before the word "sustainable" was even used.
Others like it: Fort Whyte. The retention ponds in Royalwood, one of the best and earliest examples of suburban bio remediation.
Others that should be like it: There are countless. Manitoba has drained thousands of acres of wetlands over the years, and done little to preserve or recreate them elsewhere.
THE MISSED OPPORTUNITY: MEMORIAL PARK
What it is: Conceived by Premier Duff Roblin to honour war veterans, memorials commemorating events both horrific and wonderful are scattered around the park and its adjacent wedges. The main feature is the Tetris-y pool and fountain.
Why it doesn’t work: There’s a reason Occupy Winnipeg set up shop for months in Memorial Park. It’s the front yard of power in Manitoba. It’s already part of a grand avenue punctuated by one of the loveliest legislatures in the country, but, after 50 years the park is anything but grand. What should be an uninterrupted view up the steps of the Ledge is skewed by the plethora of memorials. The fountain needs a serious facelift. It doesn’t respect natural pedestrian patterns. It’s tired and incoherent.
What it could be: There have been designs — at least two in the last decade — to redo the park. Oddly enough, even though the park is sad, it’s well used. Soccer games erupt there most summer evenings, people stop to cool off in the fountains, and this summer the park hosted a bunch of hipsters watching 80s movies outdoors. McLachan called it the "highest priority space to get right."
INTERACTIVE MAP: Winnipeg's public spaces
We've reviewed six public spaces in Winnipeg in the story above - have a look at a few more in the map below.
Did we miss a place you love (or one you love to hate?) Fill out the form below the map to tell us about other public spaces in Winnipeg. We'll review submissions over the next few days and add them to the map.