Bold steps to redefine downtown

Advertisement

Advertise with us

The first half of the 20th century brought war, pandemic, drought and depression, and in Winnipeg, a catastrophic flood. As cities emerged from these challenges in the 1950s, they were buoyed by the optimism of a better future and were not hesitant to make bold, forward-thinking moves for the next generation.

Read this article for free:

or

Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$1.50 for 150 days*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles
Continue

*Pay $1.50 for the first 22 weeks of your subscription. After 22 weeks, price increases to the regular rate of $19.00 per month. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled after the first 22 weeks.

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/01/2022 (258 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The first half of the 20th century brought war, pandemic, drought and depression, and in Winnipeg, a catastrophic flood. As cities emerged from these challenges in the 1950s, they were buoyed by the optimism of a better future and were not hesitant to make bold, forward-thinking moves for the next generation.

In 1955, fueled by the vision of Winnipeg as a modern metropolis, a public transit system that moved more than one hundred million passenger trips per year — twice what Winnipeg Transit currently carries — was completely dismantled. More than 400 streetcars were taken off the road and rails torn up to make room for a future with private automobiles and gasoline buses.

Eleven months later, the city doubled down on this vision, announcing that downtown streets would be converted to one-way circulation, accommodating through-traffic to the growing suburbs. Elm trees lining the downtown streets were cut down, boulevards were removed, sidewalks narrowed, and the streets were made wider to accommodate more cars. In the space of less than a year, downtown Winnipeg was changed forever.

Fort Street is an example of a downtown thoroughfare that was widened and converted to one-way traffic to increase vehicle capacity, thereby diminishing the pedestrian experience. (Brent Bellamy photo)

Of course, we now know that the overwhelming prioritization of cars over all other modes of transportation, and the creation of a network of surface highways across downtown, would become a dagger in the heart of our once-bustling city centre. The fearless implementation of such bold and transformative ideas, however, is enviable, and almost unimaginable in today’s Winnipeg.

The challenges we have faced over the last two years can’t be compared to those of the last century, but as we emerge from today’s pandemic and evaluate the future of downtown, overcoming collective hardship creates a unique moment in history when similar bold moves might be possible. Could we undo what was done in the 1950s, with the same forward-thinking attitude and acceptance of change that they had?

A new transit master plan has been adopted that will redefine conventional and rapid transit in a way that is similar to our lost streetcar system, with high frequencies along major routes. With a downtown recovery strategy being implemented, and a downtown urban plan in development, the idea of re-thinking the streets themselves could build a foundation to support the success of these initiatives.

Only a handful of streets in downtown are high-traffic thoroughfares, yet most are built as four lanes of one-way traffic with capacity that far exceeds demand. Imagine if we took streets such as Kennedy, Edmonton and Carlton, and removed a single lane from each, replacing them with wider sidewalks, bike lanes, grassy boulevards and trees. We would have room for benches, public art and lighting, and still have three lanes left for vehicle traffic.

Narrowed streets with trees, boulevards and bike lanes would improve pedestrian safety and comfort by creating a physical buffer between the sidewalk and road. Trees at the street edge enclose a driver’s field of vision, which has been found to instinctively lower driving speeds. Narrower streets also result in shorter distances for pedestrians to cross, reducing the time they interact with vehicles.

Street vegetation would help address climate resiliency by controlling the growing effects of wind, stormwater runoff and overland flooding. Trees improve air quality by absorbing fine particulates, and through shading and transpiration they significantly reduce air and sidewalk temperatures during the hot days that climate change is bringing with greater frequency.

Returning to two-way traffic would be an impactful, complimentary move to support these newly defined, more livable downtown streets. More than 80 cities across North America have successfully restored streets to two-way, realizing the positive impacts of calmed traffic, safer streets and better-connected neighbourhoods.

One-way streets are designed to be traffic funnels. Without having to navigate oncoming vehicles, one-ways can reduce driver concentration and environmental awareness and, most importantly, encourage motorists to instinctively drive faster, making streets less safe for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike.

One-way streets were designed for through traffic, but they make navigating between points within downtown very difficult. This creates less direct travel routes, resulting in drivers turning more than twice as often on average, causing more vehicle-pedestrian interactions that reduce safety.

The improved neighbourhood connectivity of two-way streets has also been found to increase economic development by improving access to amenities and services. More convenient navigation within a neighbourhood promotes stop-and-go shopping that supports ground-floor retail, and slower, two-way traffic increases storefront visibility.

A downtown with narrower streets, wider sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaped boulevards and trees, with calmer, more connected two-way traffic, would create a safer, more comfortable and more livable city. It would make urban living more attractive, increasing property values and demand for new development.

Downtown would become a place to linger, to sit at sidewalk patios and shop at storefront retail, helping to grow the neighbourhood economy and create vibrancy and safety on the streets.

As we work to regain the pre-pandemic momentum of downtown Winnipeg, we have an opportunity to be as bold as they were in the 1950s and undo what they did, by restoring our downtown streets into great places for people.

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy
Columnist

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

Report Error Submit a Tip

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

Analysis

LOAD MORE ANALYSIS