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Embracing density

Keeping urban sprawl in check beneficial to everyone

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 Water-main breaks caused by the cold tax the city’s infrastructure budget.


Water-main breaks caused by the cold tax the city’s infrastructure budget.

It has been a difficult time for Winnipeg's infrastructure. Our water periodically looks, but certainly doesn't taste, like a fine Canadian whisky. A combination of the polar vortex and daily water-main breaks has entombed cars from Charleswood to Transcona in knee-deep ice. Recent snow-clearing efforts left most of us wanting to trade in our car for a late-model Mars Rover, and of course in the not-too-distant future, the annual pothole invasion will begin.

The rising cost of maintaining this infrastructure and other civic services have left the City of Winnipeg scrambling to balance its budget, resulting in a third straight property-tax hike for 2014. This increase will be accompanied by a rise in sewer and water rates and likely, education taxes. A few months ago, a KPMG report recommended a 'winter surcharge' be added to property taxes in years when snow-removal costs exceed the city budget.

These reactionary solutions to infrastructure deficits leave governments trying to catch up by spending greater amounts of money fixing problems, without addressing their root cause. Over the last 50 years, Canadians have built sprawling, car-oriented cities that have resulted in a sharp reduction in population density. This has left civic governments responsible for a larger stock of infrastructure with fewer taxpayers to pay for its construction and long-term maintenance.

Since 1970, Winnipeg has grown in population by 33 per cent, yet its area has increased by almost 80 per cent. The populations of mature neighbourhoods such as Wolseley, River Heights and Riverview have also declined by 20 to 30 per cent in that time. Even Osborne Village, the city's most urban neighbourhood, is 10 per cent less populated than it was four decades ago. This decrease in density means each taxpayer has become responsible for a greater share of infrastructure and city services, stretching tax dollars beyond their limits.

Density is not a downtown issue. The greatest challenge to our city's long-term sustainability is infilling our existing suburban neighbourhoods and building higher-density, more integrated new ones. Studies across the country show adding density within a city's existing footprint can have a dramatic impact on economic viability. In Edmonton, it was found the long-term costs for 17 proposed edge developments, with new schools, community centres, roads and libraries will exceed their return in revenues by $4 billion over 60 years. PlanIt Calgary estimated adopting a compact growth plan that reduces new land use by only 25 per cent will save the city $11 billion in initial construction costs alone over that same period.

The subject of adding density to existing suburbs in Winnipeg is often met with public apprehension, but as taxes rise and the city crumbles beneath us, looking for ways to grow internally is becoming increasingly important.

A significant barrier to promoting infill growth is the number of parking stalls required for new projects in established neighbourhoods. Smaller properties are often unable to devote enough land to meet zoning requirements, which pushes development to perimeter sites where surface parking lots can be inexpensively built. After balking at a series of proposals last summer to ease parking bylaws, council recently approved car-share programs as a means of reducing parking requirements in mature communities. At the same time, the recommendation to permit some on-street parking for multi-family developments was rejected and a reduction in overall parking requirements was not addressed.

Last summer's recommendation to allow the subdivision of larger existing properties seems to have fallen off the radar, but Winnipeg has been progressive in the allowance of 'granny flats' or secondary suites. In 2012, the process was streamlined to promote construction of rental suites in existing homes or as detached buildings on a lane. A strategy that has found success in larger cities such as Vancouver, secondary suites increase density in a neighbourhood while providing affordable housing options and supplemental income to homeowners. The province has even established a forgivable-loan program to encourage the initiative. As housing costs continue to rise, supplemental suites will likely become a more prevalent feature in our city.

In Winnipeg, rapid transit is often seen as a boutique project, but progressive cities understand it is much more than just another form of transportation. It is considered an investment catalyst to stimulate transit-oriented development (TOD), an important tool allowing cities to target underdeveloped areas for infill growth. Even Winnipeg's meagre transit corridor has spawned the Fort Rouge Yards TOD that will add 1,800 new residents to the Lord Roberts area. This growth will return the neighbourhood population to 1970 levels, enhancing the viability of commerce along south Osborne, increasing lagging property values and repopulating four local schools that are currently at 60 per cent capacity, helping to reduce the need for increased education taxes. The transit corridor is also acting as a catalyst on other adjacent properties, including a recent proposal for an 18-storey, mixed-use tower beside Harkness Station on Stradbrook Avenue.

There are numerous other strategies modern, creative cities are employing to promote internal growth and densification. In Winnipeg specifically, we might begin to consider a long-term plan to reclaim our old rail yards, look to remove environmental polluters that inhibit development near the St. Boniface Industrial Park and implement progressive taxation policies that focus more on land use than building value. We can provide incentives to fill urban parking lots and redevelop our unparalleled but underused stock of heritage buildings.

Embracing density is no longer a hippie urbanist cause. Recent events demonstrate the economic sustainability of our urban growth affects all Winnipeggers.

Everyone hates taxes, potholes, brown water and snow-filled streets. With renewed commitment to building our city in a sustainable manner, we will begin to address the root causes of Winnipeg's infrastructure deficit, reducing pressure on taxpayers and allowing governments to improve civic services.


Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 27, 2014 B4


Updated on Monday, January 27, 2014 at 3:22 PM CST: corrects spelling of whisky.

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About Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.


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