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This article was published 28/9/2018 (652 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
About 15 years ago, then-Crescentwood resident Deborah Zanke and her husband moved downtown, provoking shock and disbelief among friends and colleagues.
At that time, the Exchange District was a much different place, she recalls, and many of those people couldn’t fathom why the couple was giving up their beautiful home in one of Winnipeg’s most desirable, venerable neighbourhoods for an unfinished condo space in the Travellers Building at the corner of Bannatyne and King.
"It was a leap of faith," she says.
And Zanke hasn't looked back. She and her husband committed to the downtown lifestyle they anticipated. They gave up their car and joined Peg City Car Co-op, use Winnipeg Transit and regularly attend concerts and theatre performances.
Nowadays, choosing to live in the Exchange and elsewhere downtown raises fewer eyebrows: between 2011 and 2016, the downtown population increased by nearly seven per cent, and restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, and retailers have sprung up in lockstep.
"Being here is like being in a different city," says Zanke, who works from home as a public-relations professional.
But any residential growth the downtown has seen in recent years has been effectively dwarfed by the development occurring in the city’s suburban and exurban communities, a trend seen in essentially all major Canadian cities, according to one of Canada’s leading urban scholars.
"Over the last decade, Winnipeg added another 84,000 people, which is good, because the region has had growth problems," says David Gordon, an urban planning professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who co-authored an extensive study of Canadian suburban growth in August.
"But only about 4,000 are living in the active core. We saw that 75,000 of those lived on the edges, in automobile suburbs and exurbs."
Since 2006, 91 per cent of the city’s population growth has been in suburbs and beyond, and 89 per cent of its dwelling-unit additions have been concentrated in those neighbourhoods. Those figures point to a pattern of sprawl that comes with a host of health and environmental concerns, including increased vehicle use, greenhouse-gas emissions and obesity, along with a need for more money allocated to pay for new suburban infrastructure, Gordon says.
As the city’s suburban neighbourhoods see their populations climb, it also means a larger proportion of its voters reside in those communities. With less than a month to go until the civic election on Oct. 24, those suburban votes carry tremendous weight for political hopefuls and incumbents alike.
"Our city suffers from 80 years of sprawl," says Monica Giesbrecht, principal of HTFC Planning and Design. "(Winnipeg has) created a bunch of different cities competing for resources."
Logically speaking, Giesbrecht and Gordon both say, it makes sense that voters will be more motivated to cast a ballot in favour of a candidate whose to-do list matches their own priorities and concerns.
Recent polling done by Probe Research commissioned by CBC suggests the issue that registers most resoundingly with Winnipeggers is one traditionally tied to vehicle use: nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated road and bridge repair was among the three issues that matter most to them; it was the top issue for 25 per cent of respondents.
Meanwhile, only four per cent of respondents said revitalizing the downtown was their top concern, and only 23 per cent ranked it in their top three.
"Downtown is not the majority lifestyle in Winnipeg," Gordon says, something that’s been true for several decades.
"There just isn’t the critical mass of residents here to leverage the political power to have more development take place," said Zanke. "People who live elsewhere don’t necessarily see having a thriving downtown as in their own interests."
Brent Toderian, Vancouver's former chief planner and the president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism, says viewing urban and suburban dwellers as directly dichotomous is fallacious, and many people who choose to move to suburban neighbourhoods do so to maximize the bang for their buck and return on investment. But a latent effect of the sprawl Winnipeg and other cities have experienced is in the precedent it sets for decision-making at a citywide level.
"The simple fact is there’s more supply in the suburbs, and if it’s being subsidized, why wouldn’t someone choose to live there?" asks Toderian, who’s visited Winnipeg many times throughout his career. "Once they choose it, however, they put great pressure on the inner-city and downtown to conform to their needs."
For Toderian, the clearest illustration of that pressure is the mounting opposition to opening Portage and Main to pedestrians, an issue that has dominated the campaign trail ahead of both the election and its accompanying intersection-specific plebiscite. According to the Probe Research referenced above, two-thirds of respondents oppose removing the 40-year-old barricades.
"There really is no demographic group where you will find a majority of people favouring the reopening," Probe president Scott MacKay told the Free Press after the results were released. "That includes groups you might expect to favour the reopening."
The poll also asked respondents whether the smooth flow of traffic downtown is more important than pedestrian access. Eighty-five per cent of people opposed to reopening the intersection agreed, and 76 per cent who want it opened did not.
"That tells me Winnipeg is a city deeply in the throes of car dependency," Toderian says. "It’s inevitable, then, that the political conversation is driven by roads and potholes, pun intended."
One person with a keen understanding of that idea is Paula Havixbeck. From 2010 to 2014, she served as Charleswood-Tuxedo’s city councillor before forgoing a shot at a second term in a bid for Winnipeg’s mayoralty. She now works as a consultant and teaches at Red River College.
When Havixbeck ran for council in 2010, she says it was clear from conversations with potential voters that issues surrounding food accessibility, environmental issues and poverty were important to her ward’s residents.
"I got out to about 4,000 doors, and you learn it’s not just potholes; people want more out of the city," she says.
But, even so, Havixbeck said a great deal of her campaign was spent on topics one might expect for a vehicle-reliant neighbourhood — potholes, infrastructure and traffic congestion — rather than the ones she’d have hoped to discuss at greater length.
As a voter, she’s noticed a similar strategy being deployed.
"When I listen to candidates in (River Heights, where Havixbeck has lived for two years) I do see a lot of focus on what they think suburban voters would want, versus what’s the overall good, and what’s going to make Winnipeg more vibrant and reduce social issues in the downtown," she says.
Of course, pandering to potential voters in your ward makes sense for candidates seeking election, but it’s important to understand that suburban and urban voters don’t tidily fit in their presumptive boxes: someone living in Charleswood might favour more downtown bike lanes, while an Exchange District resident or business owner might not.
"There are plenty of people who live downtown who live the same way as someone in the suburbs," says Richard Milgrom, the head of the University of Manitoba’s department of city planning.
Milgrom agrees the political conversation in Winnipeg is often vehicle-centric. "With the centre (of the city) hollowed out, the majority of councillors are representing more suburban voices who want better service for the way they live," he says. "Generally, the way they live involves a lot more car trips.
"It makes it very hard to make downtown-positive decisions."
Zanke understands that voters in suburban neighbourhoods often look out for their own interests, just as she does. And while experts acknowledge where a person lives — whether in a recently built suburb or an old neighbourhood in the core — doesn’t perfectly define what issues they deem important, it does provide political candidates with certain ideas of what those residents want to hear.
"At some point, it’s difficult (for council candidates) to look past the direct driver of their re-election," Giesbrecht says.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
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