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Tapping local culture

Vibrant urban centres capitalize on identity

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Imagine if every weekend were a festival in the Exchange District.


Imagine if every weekend were a festival in the Exchange District. Photo Store

People flock to major cities to take advantage of unique experiences. In theory, most of the types of activities tourists seek can be replicated most anywhere, but people are willing to pay a large premium and go out of their way to see a show on Broadway, or eat a Philly cheese steak in Philadelphia.

These unique experiences don't merely appeal to tourists. They are part of what keep people coming downtown after hours, rather than staying in the suburbs. Having a glass of wine or coffee at a patio on a cobblestone sidewalk can be a much more enjoyable experience than doing the same thing in a suburban strip mall.

While we tend to think almost exclusively of major world cities when we think of unique urban experiences, many mid-sized cities have been able to leverage their unique historical, demographic and geographical features to provide their own enjoyable and differentiated experiences. Doing so doesn't necessarily require major investments. A little creativity can go a long way.

While the Midwest is part of "flyover country", it contains many metropolitan areas that have carved out significant niches. Kansas City is the BBQ capital of the world; Pittsburgh is home to an outsized artistic scene; Chicago's culinary scene is very likely among the top five in North America; and the Minneapolis-St.Paul metropolitan area has become one of America's (and therefore, the world's) premier craft beer destinations. Smaller Midwestern cities have also found their own ways to stand out.

Milwaukee is constantly overshadowed by Chicago. In many respects, it really is just a smaller Chicago. While trends tend to trickle down from Chicago, Milwaukee's Riverwalk is not only older than Chicago's, but arguably nicer. The American Planning Association has named it one of the Top Ten Great Public Spaces in America. The river walk hosts a plethora of restaurants and cafés with patios overlooking the river, as well as a craft brewery that offers popular tours. The city spent $35 million on the river walk, but adjacent property values have increased by $500 million. Equally as important, it has helped to make downtown Milwaukee a safer and more desirable place.

Omaha, Neb., is tucked away in the southwest portion of the Midwest, so it doesn't get much attention. But when it does, it is often because of its Old Market district. The Old Market was formerly a collection of produce warehouses. In the 1960s, local architects pushed the city to redevelop the declining district, harnessing the historic architecture and urban form. The Old Market is now a successful mixed-use residential, commercial, and entertainment district. The streets are filled with pedestrians until after last call with people taking advantage of charming restaurants, quirky shops, and a diversity of night-life establishments. It feels more like Paris than America, minus the French.

The thriftiest example comes from Madison, Wis. The college town and seat of state and county government is often referred to as the Berkeley of the Midwest.

Among its more iconic amenities is the Dane County Farmer's Market. The city allows vendors to set up all around the legislature. It is the largest producer-only market in the country, showcasing Wisconsin's enduring agricultural strengths. It also draws immense numbers of residents and tourists to adjacent restaurants and bars. A 2003 study estimated the market attracts $3.5 million of economic activity to downtown Madison annually. That might not seem like much, but it comes at little cost. Moreover, proximity to fresh produce is very nice amenity for local residents.

Many mid-sized Canadian cities have successfully tapped into their local cultures to provide unique experiences. For instance, Quebec City's historic core is a significant tourist draw and Victoria's cafés and breweries have put it on the map. Winnipeg and Ottawa have had some success turning winter to their advantage. The Rideau Canal and the Forks are both legitimate winter destinations.

Winnipeg's historic Exchange District -- home to 150 heritage buildings stretched over 20 city blocks -- could one day be a significant tourist draw. If the Exchange District looked like it does during festival season every weekend (weather permitting), the National Historic Site could eventually become one of the premier cultural hubs in Canada.

Red Deer, Alta., once named Canada's cultural capital, is an affordable artistic destination.

Regina's Warehouse District, bounded by Deudney Street's bar district, could also proceed along the lines of Omaha's Old Market as the neighbourhood gentrifies. Uptown Waterloo, Ont., has the raw ingredients to be a much more notable nightlife destination, and even places like downtown Sudbury, Ont., have a lot of potential for mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented redevelopment.

Large masses of people can support an incredible diversity of activities and amenities. Even medium-sized cities can provide differentiated experiences with a little bit of creativity and commitment. Every city is unique, and that can be a very good thing.

Steve Lafleur is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2014 A13

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