Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A little compassion for Forks lands

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Imagine a reforested and naturalized urban acreage -- a two-hectare circle where converging paths, representing our many cultural/wisdom traditions, lead through tiered landscape to a central body of water surrounding an island greenhouse.

The perimeter is punctuated by unique portals to each path, which are taken from the sacred architectural styles particular to each tradition's culture of origin. A fountain at the beginning of each path functions as the headwaters which contribute to a common stream. The central island is constructed in the shape of the 13 major plates that form the shell of a turtle that symbolizes Turtle Island. A geodesic dome greenhouse forms the "shell," which symbolizes the cosmos. Teaching areas abound in four directions.

The Garden of Compassion blends reconciliation, education, ecological responsibility and unique branding for Winnipeg as a "City of Compassion and Human Rights Education," leading to many benefits including education-tourism potential.

It was hoped the Garden of Compassion concept would be considered for the city's Parcel 4 land adjacent to The Forks. More than 60 meetings with notable individuals and potential partners have been held in proving the value of the concept. This culminated in presenting the opportunity to The Forks North Portage Partnership and informing city councillors of this unique opportunity.

The powers that be, however, are set on a commercial/revenue model. Taxpayers might like the idea of the city not having to invest in public space, but if we made these decisions solely based on eliminating cost to taxpayers, we would not have one green space or public recreation facility, museum or cultural institution. Nor would we have developed the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Folklorama, the fringe festival, jazz festival and other events that now generate considerable revenue.

Places and experiences such as these increase our quality of life and provide tourism dollars to the economy. The Garden of Compassion could do likewise. Less obvious, but also quantifiable, are health and wellness benefits that result in decreased rates of physical and mental illness, addictions and homelessness -- social benefits that result in lower crime rates and more acceptance among diverse peoples.

There are several challenges inherent in the current FNPP plan.

The green space is mostly atop buildings. We will see little of this from street level and much of it is not accessible.

Developing more commercial space on the Rail Side land and Parcel 4 -- in addition to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights' own restaurant and gift shop -- will compete with The Forks' current businesses, which struggle in winter.

Residential housing/condos on these lands will greatly increase the pressure on parking and may work against the city developing a centralized parking hub on the north side of the CPR high line and an attractive streetcar-style public transit system with loops connecting the Exchange, St. Boniface, the greater downtown area and The Forks.

Most of all, we miss a timely opportunity to build the brand of Winnipeg as a compassionate city.

The location for the CMHR at The Forks is a game-changer for The Forks lands. We have sent a 12-person, delegation to Louisville, Ky., two years in a row to learn about developing Winnipeg as a City of Compassion. The Garden of Compassion could be a focal point in this development. We could be known internationally for human rights education and peace and conflict studies. We could make some real strides toward reconciliation of our own difficult history with respect to integrating and respecting all cultures.

We are artists. We are thoughtful, spiritual, humane, intelligent, and we are just coming into our own. The Forks is a special place -- a meeting place for thousands of years. It is the epicentre of the beating heart of the continent. The current FNPP plan has some good points, but we have the time and the talent to do even better.

Although other lands have been suggested for the Garden of Compassion, what would be ideal would be a hybrid plan for its inclusion at The Forks. Discussions with potential synergistic partners to develop a comprehensive plan, including a satellite university campus and eco-village-style student housing are ongoing.

A plan being rushed through council in the height of summer, when many of us are not aware or engaged in planning processes that will affect our city, is not wise. Public consultations, originally slated to be held in September, were moved up to this past week.

It would be nice if we could slow down just a bit and think of the long-term ramifications of the use of this key piece of public land.

Shawn Tester is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 A17

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