Over the past few weeks, Winnipeg newspapers have been filled with scandalous stories of government mismanagement and partisanship that has paralyzed city hall in a quagmire of resignation, accusation and recrimination.
As the citizens of Winnipeg focused on the dysfunction of their city's municipal leadership, voters in Alberta's two largest cities went to the polls to elect what has been dubbed Canada's dynamic duo of civic politics. In Edmonton, former city councillor Don Iveson, 34, received nearly two-thirds of the vote to become Canada's youngest big-city mayor. Calgary's wildly popular incumbent mayor, Naheed Nenshi, 41, swept back into power with support from almost three-quarters of voters.
A Google search of each young leader reveals a long list of adjectives of which any politician would be envious. Headlines are peppered with words like progressive, forward-thinking, dynamic and bold. These types of descriptions are not generally attached to civic leaders who pledge to build their cities using the sprawling, suburban model of the last 50 years. Progressive mayors are typically urban-focused with a long-term vision for a fiscally, socially and environmentally sustainable city.
Both Alberta mayors captured the imagination of their young electorate by running on strong urbanist platforms that emphasized the importance of building cities that are networks of sustainable, walkable, livable and lovable complete communities. Nenshi in Calgary dubbed his urban philosophy 'the three Ds of great cities'--density, diversity and a sense of discovery.
The cornerstone of Don Iveson's campaign was a comprehensive long-term plan that considered the holistic causes of key issues such as infrastructure deficits, traffic congestion and budget shortfalls. Instead of simply fighting the losing battle of filling potholes and building bigger roads, he pledged to focus on an aggressive expansion of Edmonton's light-rail system to provide efficient and reliable transportation options that effectively reduce the number of cars on the road. A strong believer in transit-oriented development, Iveson hopes to use this LRT expansion as an opportunity to densify and promote inward growth by strategically locating transit stations in key areas of the city to act as catalysts for high-density infill development.
In Calgary, Nenshi spent his first term challenging the way his city has traditionally handled its frantic growth, supporting policies that increase density, stimulate infill development and make new suburbs diverse, walkable and integrated into the existing city fabric.
His focus in the downtown has been to promote neighbourhood building by constructing segregated bike lanes, investing in the pedestrian environment and supporting mixed-use development on surface parking lots and neglected downtown fringe areas such as the East Village.
To support the revitalization of established communities, he fought for zoning changes that would allow secondary rental suites to be built in single-family homes as a way to densify and diversify older neighbourhoods and provide affordable housing options.
Nenshi's most controversial policy has been his 'End the Subsidy' campaign, which attempts to rein in Calgary's infamous runaway suburban growth by levying a tax on homes built in new perimeter communities. His belief is when fringe subdivisions are constructed, the infrastructure supporting them (roads, sewers, schools, police) costs Calgarians $4,800 per household more than the property taxes the city receives in return. This results in an annual $33-million subsidy to developers. His goal is to ensure development levies cover the true cost of sprawl, making him unpopular with developers but broadly supported by taxpayers.
It seems improbable that in Alberta's cities, the traditional poster children for unmanaged suburban sprawl, two strongly urbanist mayors would find such popularity. The transformation of Alberta's urban self-image has come as a result of tremendous population growth.
The pervasive feeling is they have reached the big-city ranks and are striving to compete with centres such as Vancouver and Toronto. Citizens now aspire to a similar cosmopolitan energy, more diverse and vibrant neighbourhoods and an urban lifestyle fitting a modern, progressive metropolis.
This growth has also forced Alberta's government leaders and citizens alike to begin to understand and respond to the challenges of urban sprawl. For decades, each city has rushed to accommodate thousands of new arrivals every year through largely uncontrolled suburban development.
Today, both cities are facing the economic consequences and urban-character issues of car-oriented, low-density city-planning policies.
In Winnipeg, attitudes toward urban sprawl are somewhat like the debate over global warming. Although some effects can be seen, our slow growth has meant the more serious repercussions of sprawl can be dismissed as their effects don't yet present a specific urgency.
Our overwhelmingly low-density development patterns indicate that as other cities are understanding and embracing the principles of smart, sustainable growth, we are quickly progressing in the opposite direction. Recently approved Ridgewood South, a new 3,400-home perimeter community disconnected from the existing city infrastructure stands as an example of this progression. The community's required $60-million road extension will equate to an $18,000-per-residence taxpayer subsidy for the road service alone.
It is not too late for Winnipeg to change. Despite the uncontrolled sprawl seen over the last 15 years, it is still a relatively dense city. It has one of the highest transit ridership levels and proportions of multi-family housing in the country. It has great walkable old neighbourhoods and wonderful heritage buildings that define its urban character. If we adopt Calgary's big-city attitude and focus on infill growth and walkable, connected suburbs while engaging the same progressive, forward-thinking civic leadership, we can learn from our faster-growing neighbours' experience and seize the opportunity to build more sustainably today and avoid the difficult task of undoing problems in the future. The question is, will we listen to their advice before it is too late?
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.