A few weeks ago Toronto's Fortress Real Developments returned to Winnipeg to unveil a set of glossy images for their proposed new skyscraper in the downtown. The evocative illustrations portray a dramatic glistening pinnacle soaring high into the technicolour sky of a Prairie sunrise. Blurred for atmospheric effect, the vaguely familiar utopian depiction of surrounding Winnipeg looks as if the city has been put through an Instagram filter named "Urban." Its dense grid-work of buildings and tree-lined sidewalks appear ready to burst with activity in the morning rush.
The fantasy renderings are an appropriate reminder of our downtown's shortcomings and provide an image to strive for in the real world. The most visible difference, obvious from even a helicopter's perspective, is the drawings portray an urban neighbourhood focused on the human experience. The reality of Winnipeg's modern downtown is it is not a community for people, but a machine engineered primarily to move automobiles.
Decades ago, when Winnipeg became focused on vehicular circulation as its primary goal of urban design, the scale and texture of its environment changed. Public space became over-scaled to accommodate the speed and volume of traffic and entire city blocks were wiped clear for surface parking. At 50 kilometres an hour, the detail of a city is lost. Buildings designed in response to the car became larger, less articulate and more introverted, with fewer entrances and more monotonous blank walls. The human scale gave way to the vehicular scale, resulting in a less intimate downtown that has been designed primarily to be experienced at driving speed.
A glaring example of this priority shift came in 1979 when the Trizec building with its one-storey, opaque walls that run the length of three football fields replaced a rich and varied streetscape of 30 heritage buildings and their pedestrian-oriented, retail storefronts.
As the city nears one million inhabitants over the next two decades, prioritizing people in our urban-design equation might begin to allow Winnipeg to evolve away from its current reality and into a version of its artistic portrayal. A neighbourhood designed from the starting point of a person on a sidewalk experiencing the city at a walking pace results in spaces that reflect the personal scale of a human body. Small niches, alleys and green spaces offer places to linger and meet. Building facades become detailed and intricate with a greater number of entrances and more transparency at the ground floor.
Awnings and canopies protect the sidewalk from wind and rain and street furniture such as benches and lighting invite opportunity for personal interaction with others.
It's easy to be seduced by the grandeur of skyscrapers, but Fortress's renderings that depict a city of densely spaced, human-scale, low-rise buildings, separated by parks and not parking, would create the conditions for a very vibrant downtown. Exemplified by areas such as the Exchange District, low-rise buildings frame an attractive sidewalk environment by allowing sunlight to reach the ground while still defining a scale of street-edge pedestrians typically feel comfortable walking beside. Most vibrant urban streets around the world share the characteristic of being populated with smaller buildings.
The rhythm of narrow facades and small storefronts offers pedestrians a rapidly evolving field of vision that is found to be more intellectually stimulating while providing greater opportunity for commercial transaction.
Small buildings also invite economic opportunity by providing lower rent space that promotes startup business, family-owned retail or affordable residential units that can become inaccessible in larger, new buildings.
Perhaps the most important quality expressed in the artistic interpretation of Winnipeg is the idea of diversity, a vital component in any successful community. Architectural, functional and social diversity can enrich the urban experience, stimulate creativity and innovation and grow the economy.
In the most prosperous and active urban neighbourhoods, buildings with unique sizes, ages and styles become containers for a wide variety of functions that provide a range of entrepreneurial opportunity to people from every social background and economic stratum. Winnipeg has today entered a fortunate time of growth and development with several large proposals currently being designed or constructed. Despite the optimism that surrounds these projects, unless we are able to establish a healthy, diverse, people-focused community around them, they will likely remain disconnected islands in an ocean of parking lots and empty sidewalks. The retail businesses and restaurants that are planned for many of these developments will likely be more successful supported by an adjacent thriving residential community rather than relying solely on a market that drives in from the suburbs for events at the MTS Centre.
If we focus on planning our city centre from an eye-level perspective, at a personal scale and with the human experience as a priority, Winnipeg may one day transform into something resembling the alluring imagery of a Toronto developer's imagination.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.