Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg is not a city

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In the 1970s, Ed Schreyer's NDP government decided it was time Winnipeg grew up. It was time to end the "small towns" of Winnipeg, St. James, St. Boniface and nine more, each of which had its own city council and create one big city, namely Winnipeg.

While Sidney Green would argue the reason Unicity was created was for tax purposes only -- that is, the provincial government wanted the Winnipeg downtown to stop subsidizing the suburbs -- the fact remains that, ideologically, Schreyer's government saw the need to overcome parochialism and start looking at the city as a whole.

That meant the amalgamation of 12 small municipalities into one city, with one city council whose 50 members would elect the mayor and set citywide policies to be implemented by community committees.

This, of course, did not happen. Mayor Stephen Juba persuaded Schreyer to allow the mayor's position to be elected citywide and while the city council did set citywide policies it also, unsuccessfully, tried to administer them at the same time.

Hey, 38 years after the creation of Unicity, what lessons have we learned?

Council today, just as it was 38 years ago, is parochial. Look no further than Coun. Justin Swandel's commentary on banning pesticides and establishing a police commission. "I have not received a single phone call concerning a ban on pesticides and the establishment of a police commission," he said. "So why should I vote for it?"

I've always felt that councillors are not only parochial, but there is a large division between the inner city and the suburbs. But it's more than that. The fact is, Winnipeg is not a city at all. It is a grouping of 29 (or more) neighbourhoods that make up a large town.

Let me explain. I know, for example, people who live in St. James who have never gone downtown or, for that matter, to any other community in Winnipeg. They were born, they live and will die in St. James.

I have discovered that, outside of a few regional spots that do attract people from all over Winnipeg (Assiniboine Park, The Forks, Rainbow Stage) you will not find people who live in one area using recreation centres, malls, etc. in another area. They stay within their own neighbourhood.

"What's wrong with that?" you might ask. "Cities are made of neighbourhoods."

You are absolutely right. Cities like Toronto and Vancouver have distinct neighbourhoods, but they have something that Winnipeg lacks -- an urban culture.

What I mean by that is, the majority of Winnipeggers (with the exception of immigrants and First Nations people) come from farming communities. Consequently, they bring with them a rural mindset that contributes to Winnipeg's small-town atmosphere.

Former mayor Glen Murray (probably the only mayor who had a citywide vision) brought in Richard Florida, author of two bestsellers, The Rise of the Creative Class and The Flight of the Creative Class, to talk about what a city could be.

Murray's attempt to convince citizens of Winnipeg's potential, however, was lost. The audience was overwhelmed by Florida's ideas. Why? We couldn't get past our small-town, Prairie thinking to look towards creating an urban culture.

So, what choices do Winnipeggers face? Will we continue to function in a parochial, small-town fashion where decisions are made one at a time?

Should we build a water park? If so, where? Do we build a new football stadium and if so, where? Polo Park? Point Douglas? University of Manitoba? Should we have bus rapid transit or light rail? Where should we build it?

This is the 21st century. Small towns are dying out. It's time to grow up. Winnipeg must develop an urban culture -- that is, as Richard Florida suggests, a creative class of artists, architects and entrepreneurs who work together and have a vision of the city as a whole.

We could then envelop the uniqueness of neighbourhoods, then transcend those neighbourhoods into a citywide urban culture that would allow Winnipeg to contend with other large cities like Toronto and Vancouver and move into the 21st century.

is a community and political activist, freelance writer and broadcaster.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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