The two large mounds of dirt stand alone and cold in a windblown field in the southeastern corner of the city known as Precinct K. This past summer, in preparation for a new residential suburb, heavy equipment moved in and began plowing up the topsoil on what used to be farmland.
Much has been written about how endless urban sprawl is creating a long-term financial burden on the City of Winnipeg. There is a growing realization that in order to contain the ballooning infrastructure deficit, we need to rethink our approach to development and focus more on increasing density in already developed areas of the city. Yet new suburbs continue to be built like clockwork, with seemingly little thought about whether they are needed at all in the big scheme of things.
The City of Winnipeg's Complete Communities plan identifies 15 areas of land, or precincts, for new residential development. The goal is to provide "long-term sustainability" in residential growth, with the population of Winnipeg expected to expand by more than 180,000 people by 2031.
Since the Complete Communities plan was approved in 2011, Winnipeg has only grown by about 25,000 people, yet development is already proposed or in progress in at least five of these precincts -- this despite the fact the mammoth Waverley West development, capable of housing up to 40,000 people, is still far from complete.
Why is Precinct K being developed? Is it a strategic expansion resulting from a careful analysis of housing needs and infrastructure requirements within a long-term budget framework? Was there a study that identified the immediate need for a new community here? Apparently not. Once a precinct has been earmarked for future residential development, there are few barriers to building on it as long as the area is adjacent to existing city infrastructure. If you can buy the land, you can build on it.
There are also few restrictions regarding how the neighbourhood is configured. The city does not usually dictate how the streets will be routed, where precisely the schools or community centres will go to best serve surrounding areas, or where green space will be preserved. These things are determined by the developer or by the consultants they have hired -- MMM Group in this case.
The consultant usually meets with affected community groups, all separately, to get a sense of what they want or what they might be willing to accept. They throw this information into a big decision-making cauldron, mix it up with various secret ingredients, and a few months later a land-use plan is unveiled to the public. Although it is open to input, the plan doesn't often change significantly beyond this point.
There are some parameters the developers need to work within. For example, there is a mandatory minimum green-space requirement of 10 per cent. This, however, is somewhat negotiable. Up to two per cent of the requirement can be paid in cash by the developer to fund improvements such as land drainage. This makes the actual "public open space" requirement only eight per cent of developable land, and even this is not necessarily all parks, trees and paths for public use. In the past, the public open-space requirement has included schoolyards and other areas you wouldn't necessarily consider a park.
This is a big concern for RPARC (Riel Parks and Rivers Common), a coalition of groups including Save Our Seine and OURS Winnipeg with a common interest in protecting green space in southeast Winnipeg. Save Our Seine, in particular, has been working to preserve the forested area along the Seine River, with the goal of creating a continuous linear park from Bishop Grandin Boulevard to the southern city limits. While the group has lots of support for the concept, it might be difficult to achieve when there is so much power in the hands of the developers and when much of the adjoining land is privately owned.
Recently, MMM Group presented its draft plan for Precinct K (which no doubt will end up with a lovely name like Something Lakes or Something Woods or Something Grove) to the public. To the dismay of Save Our Seine, there was no firm commitment to protect land along the Seine River beyond the flood-prone areas the City of Winnipeg is obliged to purchase. There was only a conceptual plan to allocate eight per cent of the land from riverfront properties for trails or "window parks" along the Seine River greenway. This would likely result in a fragmented green space, with some existing forested areas being chopped down for housing.
"Part of the problem is that Winnipeg has no master plan for city parks," explained Michele Kading, executive director of Save Our Seine. "Although the city held an open house to develop a parks strategy in 2010, the plan has not yet been completed. City planners are so busy reacting to the flurry of new developments in precincts around the city they have no time to complete the basic planning that is needed to guide these developments."
The fragmented approach to planning can also be seen in other areas. For example, a collector street that is supposed to connect Precinct K with Royalwood instead stops dead at the railway tracks because of an existing agreement that prevents additional at-grade crossings.
The situation with Precinct K is also complicated by the fact it is being developed in multiple stages and by at least two different developers. MMM Group has the difficult task of building a plan that satisfies all parties while meeting the requirements of the city and accounting for potential future infrastructure changes.
Their plan, which was available online for only 14 days for the public to view, will be submitted to the city within weeks, followed by a public hearing this spring or summer. Expect to see houses springing up by 2015.
This might seem rushed, given there is no pressing need for new subdivisions such as this one. Sure, the developers might argue there is demand for these new communities, but when suburban growth is outpacing the population growth of the city itself, it is hard to justify the rushed expansion that we're seeing now.
Land developers and consultants are only doing their job. If land is made available for development, they will build on it. If they are required to commit eight per cent of land to green space, you can't expect them to set aside 12 per cent. They are profit-maximizing entities and they will take what they are allowed. It is up to city officials take a leading role in planning new neighbourhoods and stop the piecemeal approach to development. They need to ensure that when new neighbourhoods are built, they are integrated into the surrounding communities and that natural areas that need to be preserved are preserved.
Most importantly, they need to rein in the uncontrolled expansion of the city to improve Winnipeg's prospects of long-term urban sustainability.
Derick Young blogs at http://aroundthistown.ca