Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Let's give Unicity another go

Winnipeg needs to absorb neighbours to control its fate

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Take a drive around the outskirts of the City of Winnipeg right now and the need for an expanded Unicity may just smack you in face.

On the edge of North Kildonan, the city is planning to barricade roads leading into East St. Paul to dissuade a Toronto developer from building a Walmart just outside the city's boundaries.

On the edge of Transcona, a residential-property developer hoping to build affordable housing has wound up in conflict with heavy industry across the border with the RM of Springfield.

On the edge of Richardson International Airport, the nascent CentrePort industrial development is struggling to secure servicing because the RM of Rosser falls outside a century-old deal governing the use of water from Shoal Lake.

And in every Winnipeg bedroom community, ex-urban residents are stewing as a result of a city decision to prioritize city dwellers over suburbanites when it comes to signing up for recreation services such as swimming lessons.

All of these headaches -- and potentially many more -- might just disappear if the City of Winnipeg did something it has not done for more than four decades: Swallow up some of its neighbours, either in whole or in part.

In 1972, Winnipeg merged with 13 of its suburbs as part of an effort to reduce the bureaucracy associated with what was then a two-tier system of municipal government. Before Unicity, residents of the old inner city and its neighbouring municipalities were governed by their own councils as well as a regional metropolitan government.

The amalgamation, which predated similar efforts in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal by nearly three decades, was supposed to make municipal government more efficient as well as end an annoying situation where residents of lightly taxed suburbs were consuming city services without paying for them.

Unfortunately, the expanded City of Winnipeg did not live happily ever after. Even after 510 Main St. gained control over the vast majority of the Winnipeg metropolitan area -- the area where more than half the workforce commutes to the city every day -- outlying areas of the early megacity continued to develop at the expense of the inner city.

Today, the city continues to contain the vast majority of its metropolitan population: 714,000 people live inside the City of Winnipeg, while only another 75,000 people reside in the 11 municipalities that make up the Winnipeg Census Metropolitan Area.

Nonetheless, residential, industrial and commercial growth in some of those municipalities -- particularly the St. Pauls, Rosser, Springfield and Headingley, the latter of which seceded from the city in 1993 -- is taking place without any apparent co-ordination with the city itself.

In theory, Winnipeg and its neighbours are supposed to hash out their differences through an entity known as the Manitoba Capital Region. But this weak stab at a regional government has proven utterly useless.

The city will only be able to control its fate if it controls more land. And that means swallowing up entire portions of its neighbours, not just within the Winnipeg CMA, but also just outside of it in the RMs of Rockwood, Cartier and St. Andrews.

Why go so far? If you look at the expanded City of Ottawa, you'll see the nation's relatively well-planned capital controls vast areas of agricultural and natural land well outside its former borders.

Ottawa was allowed to swallow up so much land in an effort to co-ordinate regional transportation, servicing and land-use plans without having to negotiate the messy business of intergovernmental relations.

While it might seem weird to find formerly independent Ontario towns such as Stittsville and Manotick within Ottawa's city limits, there's no doubt 110 Laurier Ave. -- Ottawa's city hall -- has been empowered to control its destiny.

In Winnipeg, the city has never quite managed to fulfil the Unicity promise. But North American city planning is a lot more advanced in 2013 than it was in 1972, thanks to lessons learned across the continent. If Winnipeg does not expand, at least to absorb adjacent neighbourhoods within the existing urban agglomeration, the city is destined to fight endless battles with its neighbours.

Such a move will not be popular on Broadway or in any of the city's bedroom communities, where many property owners pay artificially low municipal taxes. But that's just too freaking bad. Winnipeg's next leader must be brave enough to grapple with the annexation question, which is coming whether Broadway cares to admit it or not.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2013 B1

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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