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V is for vertical height (or lack thereof)

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BY geographical necessity, all Winnipeggers are basically on the same level.

Unlike New York, Tokyo or Dubai, vertical height - the act of building upwards -- just doesn't seem to interest us.

The prevalence of bungalows, strip malls, squat fire hydrants and low-lying curbs here seems to suggest that flatness is part of our collective psyche. We have only five buildings over 100 meters tall.

The question is: what does our grounded existence say about us?

Physiologically, you can notice the impact this trend has by comparing how developed people's calf muscles are in a city like Vancouver compared to those here at home.

The vast number of inclines, hills and stairs to be traversed in that city means leaves many people's lower leg muscles bulging.

Experts suggest that our flat landscape contributes to a kind of unfairly earned inferiority complex when we compare our physical environment to other cities like majestic Vancouver, or even too-tall Toronto.

They laughed audibly when asked how our city being so flat impacted on how we act as a group of people living in the same geographic area.

"We tend to think that where we live is dead flat and therefore tends to be boring," said University of Winnipeg geography professor Jock Lehr.

He moved to Canada 40 years ago and has lived in many other Canadian cities. Lehr said while some people make the flatness/dullness connection, he doesn't believe it's true. Even though we live low to the ground, the diversity of the landscape and cultures mixing here make us far from dull.

"There are other qualities on the Prairies like boundless horizons -- you can watch your dog run away for two weeks," Lehr said.

"It's a different kind of beauty - as the old joke says - 'there are no mountains to get in the way of the view,'" he added.

Jino Distasio of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies said he was part of a study a number of years ago that tried to determine the most livable city in Canada.

While the winner was Vancouver, based largely on ready access to the mountains, nature and quiet spaces, he's not ready to concede that we're worse off.

Distasio said the flatness of our physical reality is probably felt more by people who move from other places in Canada. At the time Manitoba Hydro was discussing plans to build a new downtown office, Distasio distinctly remembers thinking another tall building at the corner of Portage and Main would probably add a lot to how Winnipeg appears.

"It's not a substitute for mountains, but the skyline is always looked at as something that's important for a lot of people," he said.

One thing's for sure: the few opportunities we currently have to look down on each other probably says a lot about who we are.

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 28, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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