Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City needs to innovate, not slash

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Winnipeg operates 20 libraries and maintains miles of bookshelves in the Internet age.

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Winnipeg operates 20 libraries and maintains miles of bookshelves in the Internet age. Photo Store

The provincial budget was released last month, and many municipal leaders have expressed their displeasure at the lack of funding for local infrastructure. In Winnipeg, some frustrated councilors mused that without money from Broadway, the city would be forced to impose drastic cuts -- from eliminating arts funding entirely to ending support for community crisis workers -- to mitigate the infrastructure crisis.

This extreme suggestion was quickly criticized as threatening and unproductive. Still, seeing as how the city has the unfortunate distinction of holding the highest per capita infrastructure deficit in the country, it is definitely time for some serious contemplation regarding the future of Manitoba's capital.

It is not surprising the first measure elected officials often propose are funding cuts, as eliminating a program is the easiest way to free up funds. And certainly, there are times when doing away with a redundant service is an appropriate and efficient decision.

But while 'what can we cut' is easiest to ask, there are other questions that are perhaps even more useful when devising a plan to put Winnipeg on a sustainable path.

Since the early 2000s, a number of cities across North America have begun replacing concrete sidewalks with rubber or plastic ones. While these latter materials are more expensive, thanks to their flexibility, they are less prone to cracking than cement and have been shown to last up to three times as long. As such, they are overall a more cost-effective material than conventional concrete. Could Winnipeg set up a pilot project to test whether rubber would be an appropriate substitute here?

Or take libraries. Considering changes in technology and demand, does the city need to maintain 20 full branches across the city? Thanks to Internet catalogue searching and delivery service between branches, more people are simply requesting a book online and picking it up, rather than perusing the physical stacks.

Maybe the Winnipeg Public Library could provide three or four large branches in different parts of the city for citizens who do enjoy browsing, and then have a number of small satellites where you could pick up a delivered book or access the services of a librarian. Would this meet the needs of Winnipeggers without the cost of maintaining, heating and lighting so many large branches?

Taking an even broader approach, with just 1,400 people per square kilometre, Winnipeg is one of the more sprawling urban centres in the country. This means fewer residents are forced to pay to maintain more roads, sewer lines, and other infrastructure; coupled with one of the most variable climates in the world, this makes it more difficult to keep these public goods up to an acceptable standard.

Should the government devise policy that makes infill or brownfield development more attractive, to bring Winnipeg's density into line with vibrant communities such as Salt Lake City (1,500 people per square kilometre), Ottawa (1,700), or New Orleans (1,950)? It would mean more taxpayers would be paying for less overall infrastructure, which would go a long way to making the city more financially sustainable.

Along those same lines, does the city know how many Manitobans live in bedroom communities around the capital but commute in daily to get to work, using Winnipeg's roads but not providing for their upkeep through property taxation like city residents? Is there a way for Main Street to work with the province so exurban commuters are paying their fair share for the amenities they use regularly?

Cities across Canada and the United States have growing infrastructure deficits, and the above are just a few examples of the sort of issues and initiatives being discussed and implemented elsewhere in North America. Ultimately, not all may be appropriate here, but elected officials should spend time exploring such ideas that could potentially save money, instead of immediately threatening the outright elimination of the programs Winnipeggers value.

Thinking outside the box in devising solutions to the challenges the city faces, and asking whether there are ways to provide residents with the amenities they need in a more efficient -- and equitable -- way, definitely takes more time and effort than simply imposing across-the-board funding cuts. But in the end, it can lead to a community that not only boasts functional amenities such as good roads, but those critical extras such as museums and parks that make it a place people actually want to live. And it is likely most Winnipeggers would prefer that be the type of city their elected officials strive to foster.

 

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A9

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