OTTAWA — Winnipeg's population growth is still largely centred in its suburbs, but the city's downtown is making a growth statement of its own for the first time in decades, new data revealed Wednesday.
Statistics Canada's 2016 census data show Winnipeg grew 6.3 per cent between 2011 and 2016, raising the population above 700,000 for the first time. That growth rate is higher than the national average of five per cent and higher than the Manitoba growth rate of 5.8 per cent.
Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies and the University of Winnipeg, said the city's growth notably outpaced that of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, the country's three largest cities.
"It's been probably 100 years since that happened," Distasio said. "It's hard to find a better time period for the city in terms of growth."
The population of the city is now 705,244. As a metropolitan area, including bedroom communities, Winnipeg grew 6.6 per cent to 778,489. That makes it the 10th fastest-growing census metropolitan area in Canada. Alberta and Saskatchewan cities led much of the charge of urban growth in Canada, with Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Lethbridge the five fastest-growing.
Fifteen years ago, Winnipeg's growth was less than one per cent, and some observers thought it would lose its ranking as the eighth-biggest city in the country to Hamilton, which then was growing at a much-faster pace. That didn't happen, and in the last five years, Winnipeg's growth rate was twice that of the southern Ontario city.
More than 60 per cent of Manitoba's population lives in the Winnipeg metro area.
Distasio said several factors contributed to the turnaround, but the major one is immigration.
"It's not the natural growth rate," he said. "We're not having another baby boom. Immigration has really driven the changes we've seen in the city."
Releases from the census later this year will give a more detailed picture of immigration to the city and province.
The biggest growth was, not surprisingly, in the newest suburbs, led by Waverley West. The southwestern development, which barely existed in 2011, more than doubled in size to 20,500 people. Amber Trails and North Leila in the northwest, Sage Creek in the southeast and the new neighbourhoods north of Kildonan Place were next in line in terms of growth.
For years, downtown Winnipeg was among the last places most people would have considered living, and "growth" was sometimes even in negative digits. More than a decade of incentives to build housing units has finally started to show a turnaround. In the last five years, the downtown population grew by almost seven per cent, an addition of more than 1,150 new residents. The region is bordered by the Assiniboine River in the south, the Red River in the east, Osborne, Balmoral and Isabel streets in the west, and as far as the Centennial, Chinatown and Civic Centre neighbourhoods in the north.
Brent Bellamy, chairman of CentreVenture and the creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group, said the change is cause for celebration.
"There are more people living downtown today than ever have in the history of Winnipeg," he said. "It's becoming a real neighbourhood."
He said the growth is because of a single factor: tax incentives for developers to build downtown. The programs, which offer rebates on municipal taxes to builders who add housing, have generated "hundreds of millions of private investments" over the last 10 or 15 years, Bellamy said.
Last fall, the city and provincial governments combined to offer about $32 million in tax rebates to developers planning to build five rental apartment buildings — about 700 total units — downtown. This year, new skyscrapers, mid-rise condo and apartment buildings and heritage building conversions will drive additional growth.
Bellamy said the city hasn't indicated whether it will continue the program. Without it, residential development downtown is a losing proposition. It's more expensive to build in the centre of the city. Land prices are higher, and with less space to manoeuvre, different construction methods have to be used.
Winnipeggers will generally pay more for condos in the suburbs, something he said is unusual compared with most major cities, where people are willing to spend more to be in the city centre.
Bellamy said the only profit developers make when building downtown is the tax rebate offered by the city.