December 9, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Now that the sun is shining, the grackles are croaking and half the population of the city is distracted by the NHL playoffs, it's possible not to notice Winnipeg sits on the precipice of disaster.
No, the Red River isn't coming to swallow us up, as it now attempts to do every second spring or so. The latest flood forecast suggests the Red will crest in southern Manitoba around the same level as it did in 2001, when Highway 75 didn't close at Morris and nobody other than perpetually aggrieved agricultural producers suffered from the deluge.
The crisis facing Winnipeg involves nothing less than whether this city will survive the next two decades without bankrupting itself -- and not just in terms of whether it will be able to afford to repair all that cracked concrete and fractured asphalt politicians seem to love more than actual human beings as of late.
There are many indicators things are looking up for Winnipeg. The economy is unremarkable but stable, downtown redevelopment is lurching forward at a slow but steady rate and the Jets are back in town to serve as a much-needed opiate during the five-month period of drudgery we know as Prairie winter.
Ask Winnipeggers whether they are happier with their city today than they were five years ago, and you're more likely than not to hear cautiously optimistic anecdotal reports.
Winnipeggers seem happy, in spite of social inequality so stark it can even shock American tourists. Winnipeggers seem content, despite a deeply entrenched form of racism that allows otherwise sensible-sounding, university-educated adults to express vile spasms of anti-aboriginal hatred in public.
Winnipeggers seem to be proud of the place they call home, despite the constant threat of property crime in every neighbourhood of the city.
Compared to the vast majority of cities on this horribly overpopulated planet, Winnipeg remains among the best places to live. But being content with what we have is not the same as refusing to strive to make this community even better.
Unfortunately, that will require a radical rethinking of the way we live here in order to achieve any benefits in the medium-term and distant future.
And what the hell does that involve? Well, it's crunch time for city planning, in terms of how we both plot out new neighbourhoods and build up old ones.
A couple of years ago, the geeks in the property department's planning division put together a new long-term planning blueprint called Our Winnipeg. It's packed with sensible-sounding directives intended to make our neighbourhoods more dense, more walkable, safer and more easily served by transit.
It also has fewer teeth than a baby earthworm when it comes to ensuring politicians and developers actually follow those directives, instead of doing more and more of the same: keep building out, continue extending kilometres of streets and sewer pipes and remain stuck in an endless cycle of failing to maintain existing infrastructure.
For decades, Winnipeg has been ensnared by the mathematics of urban failure. Faced with a steep short-term price for doing what must be done, we put off basic infrastructure maintenance until it reaches the crisis level. We put off the creation of new infrastructure until construction inflation renders the cost abhorrent. We put off investments in mass transit -- the only concrete means any city has of ensuring densification -- until the price tag is astronomical.
As a result, Winnipeg is a low-density city with no ring road, few walkable neighbourhoods and only 3.6 kilometres of dedicated bus corridor -- a legacy of more 60 years of poor decision-making.
The walkable neighbourhoods we enjoyed in the shadow of the Second World War are now represented by a handful of scattered remnants. The ring road first envisioned in the 1950s could be completed by the 2030s. And the transit system first envisioned in the 1960s may not be completed at all, as politicians and citizens alike question whether the expenditure is worth it.
Here's the stark reality: We cannot afford to put off major investments in transit. The popular statement that "Winnipeg is a car city" is just as idiotic as "Baltimore is a violent city" or "Zimbabwe is an autocratic state." All three statements are true -- but that doesn't mean the situations they describe are desirable.
The only reason Manhattan has so many tall buildings is New York City has subways, most of them built well before the population skyrocketed. You cannot move millions of people around such a small place without mass transit.
Conversely, no city could afford to service the population of Manhattan if it was laid out as loosely as Winnipeg is laid out. The cost of road and sewer maintenance alone would be unserviceable.
Winnipeg, of course, is no Manhattan. We're not even Vancouver or Ottawa, to name two Canadian cities who've poked their toes into subterranean transit. Underground subways were never feasible in the Red River Valley because we do not have strong, tunnel-supporting granite below our feet, but soft, pliable clay and easily shattered shale.
So we are left with above-ground transit, which takes the form of dedicated bus corridors, and maybe, one day, light rail.
The often-heard argument is we cannot afford this sort of luxury. This is ignorant of the history of every other major city on the planet. You need transit to create density. Waiting for the density to arrive first will simply encourage more sprawl.
The goal of rapid transit is not to simply get people from one place to another quickly. It is to avoid the need for cities to occupy larger and larger footprints.
It sounds utopian, but denser cities are cheaper to operate, easier to navigate, promote more interaction between people and tend to be prone to less crime. They are simply more livable for people other than those who rely exclusively on cars.
Winnipeg, however, will never be one if we keep doing what we're doing.
Two Fridays ago, angered by what he perceived to be the Selinger government's refusal to fund civic infrastructure, council finance chairman Russ Wyatt (Transcona) threatened to cancel the second phase of the Southwest Transitway. Days earlier, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz -- whose ambivalence toward rapid transit will forever be regarded as one of the defining characteristics of his time in office -- made similar comments.
Premier Greg Selinger, Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux and Finance Minister Stan Struthers will only reiterate their one-third support for a transit system the city can barely afford to pay on its own. Federal politicians say nothing.
Winnipeg will soon consider whether to open up Ridgewood South, a 325-hectare triangle of land on the south side of Charleswood, for development into mostly single-family homes. The few other remaining Winnipeg greenfields will follow. Whether developers will be forced to create some form of density on these lands will depend on whether Our Winnipeg is really just a piece of paper.
Be happy, Winnipeggers. Enjoy the spring. Enjoy the moment. Watch some playoffs and exude a sigh of relief as the river recedes.
Just remember one thing, if you'll permit the pop-culture reference: Winter is coming.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2013 A8