Flawed to the core City’s record of urban ‘planning’ has long been an exercise in after-the-fact rationalization, not foresight
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Earl Levin had big plans for downtown Winnipeg.
The year was 1969, and Levin, the head of the Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg’s planning division, laid out a bold vision for the future of the city’s historic core in a document entitled the Downtown Development Plan.
The economy was booming and Winnipeg — flush with cash — hoped to improve its reputation on the national stage by transforming its decaying downtown into one befitting a cosmopolitan city in the second half of the 20th Century.
It was an era of wrecking balls and construction cranes, as cities across North America were engaged in a grand, continent-wide experimentation in new development practices, with unprecedented suburbanization and car-centric transportation routes.
The issues plaguing downtown Winnipeg in those years were many, if not unique.
In 1941, more than 15,000 people called the downtown core home, but by 1966, that number had fallen to 8,706 — a decrease of 44 per cent in just 25 years.
A third of downtown buildings were assessed as being in poor condition; 30 per cent of the area was comprised of surface parking lots; and 20 per cent of the commercial structures sat vacant.
Enter Levin, with his 20-year, $161-million revitalization plan, which would have seen the construction of high-rise residential towers, new public parking facilities and recreation centres, a skywalk system, and wide swaths of open green space.
The proposal was ambitious, with the far-fetched goal of attracting 75,000 new residents downtown in just two decades.
But Levin’s dream was not to be, finding a vocal critic in then-mayor Stephen Juba, and was ultimately scrapped by the city within two years. Winnipeg has been trying to “renew” and “revitalize” downtown ever since.
Fast forward to 52 years later.
It’s the fall of 2022 and Winnipeg is in the midst of a municipal election campaign that will set the policies and priorities of our local government for the next four years.
Downtown is still plagued by many of the same issues Levin’s 1969 plan sought to address.
It is still seen by many, if not most, residents as decaying and blighted. Its population sits at 16,800, according to the 2021 census — an increase of just seven per cent over 1941.
Twenty per cent of downtown is comprised of surface parking lots; 50 storefronts closed permanently during the COVID-19 pandemic; and 1.5 million square-feet of office space sits vacant.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The seeds of our current crisis were planted in the aftermath of Second World War.
Across North America, residents were fleeing downtowns in favour of shiny new suburban developments. Winnipeg was no exception, exploding out in every direction, as new neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city were built one after the other.
According to The Divided Prairie City, a 2015 collection of academic essays published by the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies program, the city’s suburban footprint grew by 133 per cent from the early 1950s to the early 1970s.
It is a phenomenon often referred to as “urban sprawl,” which is characterized by the widespread adoption of low-density, single-use (often residential) development.
Then came the 1972 Unicity Amalgamation, as 12 surrounding communities were folded into the City of Winnipeg, which only deepened the trend.
“With suburban resources came suburban influence over the direction of the downtown and central city,” wrote Robert Galston in One Great Suburb: Municipal Amalgamation and the Suburbanization of Winnipeg.
“Suburban dominance on council led to complex urban issues being ineffectively addressed.”
The development of new neighbourhoods required the construction and maintenance of an expanded network of infrastructure, resulting in further civic resources being funnelled away from the struggling downtown towards the more prosperous, middle-class suburbs.
While upfront costs of development — roads, sewers and water lines — were charged to developers, the maintenance of that infrastructure was the responsibility of taxpayers.
The public was also on the hook for the construction of new civic facilities in these communities, such as swimming pools, parks and libraries, as well as the provision of emergency services, street cleaning and snow removal.
The fiscal consequences of such rapid growth, and the adoption of unprecedented patterns of development, would not be seen for many decades.
In some cases, empty land adjacent to existing neighbourhoods and infrastructure was skipped over in favour of parcels further away from the downtown core — in large part because it was deemed more profitable by developers.
In a scathing 2013 essay — Winnipeg: Aspirational Planning, Chaotic Development — Christopher Leo, a professor emeritus at the U of W, suggested the approval of such developments by municipal decision-makers was tantamount to a dereliction of civic duty.
“Planning is, in reality, a clean-up operation designed to legitimize decisions that are primarily driven by developers, and that prioritize the interests of those developers, and of the residents of their new neighbourhoods, over the interests of the city as a whole,” Leo wrote.
“The appearance of planning is constructed retrospectively, to conceal a reality that looks orderly, but lacks the coherence needed to permit the development of a viable and affordable network of services and system of public transportation.”
In the decades after those seeds were planted, Winnipeg dutifully watered them.
Elmwood is a historically working-class area of Winnipeg, the city’s lone pre-amalgamation neighbourhood east of the Red River.
Many years ago, one of its residents, Michel Durand-Wood, had a question. He couldn’t shake the feeling he was watching his neighbourhood deteriorate, and he wanted to know why.
“It’s hard not to notice the decline. Things don’t get fixed, stuff falls apart… The city is still growing, we’re still getting new residents, so why is it that… we seem to get poorer and poorer?” Durand-Wood said during a recent interview.
“Every budget it’s always: What do we cut this year? It didn’t make sense to me. At a neighbourhood level, I wanted to know: how do we get more services? How do we get the city to fix stuff?”
That initial question — a simple why — set Durand-Wood off on a quest to learn more about how local governments, in particular Winnipeg’s, operate. He also became increasingly active in his neighbourhood, hoping to improve things from the street-level up.
Eventually, his brother-in-law told him about an organization called Strong Towns, a non-profit advocacy group founded in the United States. Given his new interest in local governance, he thought Durand-Wood might find the organization’s perspective interesting.
Strong Towns grew out of a blog started in 2008 by an engineer and planner named Charles Marohn, who became convinced the development practices adopted across North America in the post-Second World War era were contributing to a growing financial disaster for municipal governments.
When he read Marohn’s work, Durand-Wood had a lightbulb moment: what he was seeing in Elmwood and across Winnipeg made sense.
“If you take a step back and ask yourself, can we afford what we’ve built? The inevitable conclusion is we can’t, so you have to have a completely different conversation from that point on,” Durand-Wood said.
“It’s not a revenue problem, it’s not a waste problem, it’s an insolvency problem.”
Durand-Wood took the Strong Town principles he’d learned, and Marohn’s call to “do the math,” and began applying them to Winnipeg. He pored over municipal financial statements and crunched the numbers. Ultimately, he determined Winnipeg was in financial crisis.
The bottom line: the City of Winnipeg lacks the tax base to maintain its existing stock of infrastructure — let alone expand it.
“Build, abandon, build again on the edge, abandon, build again further on the edge. That’s the paradigm of development we’ve known since we were born.”–Michel Durand-Wood
“Build, abandon, build again on the edge, abandon, build again further on the edge. That’s the paradigm of development we’ve known since we were born. That’s how the city grows, it just keeps growing to the outside, as our downtown dies, as our older neighbourhoods die,” he said.
“That’s just what we’ve come to accept. We almost don’t see it, even though it’s right in front of us… We cannot afford what we have built. We shouldn’t build more, because when you’re in a hole, you don’t keep digging.”
During the 2018 municipal election, the potential opening of the Portage and Main intersection to foot traffic was put to the ballot box as a plebiscite. As far as Durand-Wood was concerned, the question was a “no-brainer.”
But when the vote to open the intersection failed by a significant margin, he realized just how many citizens of Winnipeg lacked an understanding of the issues — and potential solutions — we faced as a community.
That’s when he decided to launch a blog — Dear Winnipeg — aimed at facilitating a better, more informed, more productive conversation about municipal governance. The blog went live in December 2018, roughly two months after the last municipal vote.
The project gained wider attention during Winnipeg’s 2019 budget deliberation, when he wrote a post criticizing the city for pushing forward on the construction of a new recreation centre in Waverley West, while it was considering closing existing pools and libraries in older neighbourhoods.
To Durand-Wood, it was a matter of common sense: Why build a new facility on the edge of the city when we can’t even afford to maintain our existing ones?
He grew more concerned when the director of public works, Jim Berezowsky, publicly suggested the city might have to phase out more than 18,000 street lights over a three-year period due to a cap on the department’s funding.
“Once again, it was all about the cuts. Everything was on the table… I was like, literally, we are not keeping the lights on!” Durand-Wood said.
A decade earlier, a 2008 audit into Winnipeg’s management of capital assets came to the same conclusion Durand-Wood did many years later.
“The city may be constructing capital assets that it cannot afford to maintain into the future. This can lead to a reduction in the overall level of service provided to citizens as the required maintenance is deferred to meet budget targets,” the audit report reads.
In Durand-Wood’s eyes, that is exactly right.
“The first people you default on are not the bond holders. The first people you default on are the citizens of Winnipeg. And we’re already doing that.”–Michel Durand-Wood
“The first people you default on are not the bond holders. The first people you default on are the citizens of Winnipeg. And we’re already doing that. There are already implicit promises that have been made to us that aren’t being held up,” Durand-Wood said.
“Implicit promises like: when there’s a road, we’re going to maintain it; when there’s a community centre, it’s going to continue to operate; when there are libraries, they’re going to be open. An implicit promise that when the city builds something, it will maintain and operate it, not for five years, but forever.”
In this, Winnipeg is not alone.
In an interview, Daniel Herriges, the editor-in-chief of Strong Towns, said it’s hard to underestimate just how revolutionary the changes to development patterns across North America were in the aftermath of the Second World War.
For nearly all of human history, communities were centred around walking as the main method of transportation, and they were built incrementally, by many hands, with whatever resources were available at the time. They were not built to remain static, as if frozen in aspic, but to evolve.
But by the early 1950s, the personal automobile was king, and it became commonplace to have large corporate developers build entire suburban neighbourhoods in one fell swoop, or to remake whole inner-city blocks as part of a single project.
In Winnipeg, these trends manifested in the Lord Selkirk Park Renewal Project, which transformed the heart of the city’s Jewish community. Other examples include the construction of a large row housing project near Burrows Avenue and Keewatin Street.
According to an academic article from Marc Vachon and Joshua Warkentin — The Rise and Fall of Winnipeg’s Modern Project (1958-1972) — these developments are now regarded as some of the “worst planning mistakes in the city’s history.”
They were also the sorts of developments that were taking place across North America.
“It was an unprecedented experiment, and part of what makes it unprecedented is we did it everywhere at once, very rapidly… It was a controlled experiment without a control group… We transformed an entire continent,” Herriges said.
“It has resulted in an almost unfathomable number of places that are functionally insolvent. We have systematically not done the math for the ability of this development pattern to generate enough concentrated wealth to sustain itself.”
”We are on the verge of an epidemic of failing places, that are hitting that third life cycle of the growth Ponzi scheme… and it worries me.”–Daniel Herriges
Herriges said that for decades cities have been misallocating resources on a grand scale, building infrastructure they lack the ability to maintain long-term. The result: deferred maintenance and cutbacks to essential services.
It amounts to a Ponzi scheme, according to Herriges — not in the sense that it’s a criminal conspiracy, or the brainchild of a malicious actor, but in that the development pattern needs perpetual growth to sustain itself.
“There’s no Bernie Madoff in this story. But it resembles a Ponzi scheme in that the early entrants into the scheme get bailed out by the later entrants, until the whole thing collapses. And by entrants into the scheme, what I mean is development,” Herriges said.
“You add new infrastructure, you’ve got growth, and you’re cash-flow positive until you reach the second life cycle and things need major repair. And the only way you can cover (those costs) is with continued growth… and when you cease to grow the whole thing falls apart.
“We are on the verge of an epidemic of failing places, that are hitting that third life cycle of the growth Ponzi scheme… and it worries me.”
Durand-Wood said that once you understand the central insight of Strong Towns — that we lack the taxbase to support our existing infrastructure, let alone expand it — then suddenly the current state of the city of Winnipeg makes a lot more sense.
“I can understand why no one thinks about it this way, because it’s been like this since before we were born. It was a paradigm shift that happened in the ’40s, so of course none of us sees these things. None of us looks at the city and think it’s abnormal or financially unproductive,” he said.
“We just look at it and think: yeah, that’s the way things are, because that’s all we’ve ever known. But once you see it, you kind of see it everywhere, and it really gnaws at you.”
Brent Toderian is the former chief planner for the City of Vancouver, and an internationally recognized urbanist who now owns a private consulting firm, Toderian Urban Works.
In an interview, he said that when it comes to city planning, Winnipeg’s reputation on the national and international stage is far from positive.
“(Winnipeg) is a city that can’t see past its own car-addiction. It plays out in your budget, it plays out in your political decisions, it plays out in your detailed arguments about things like Main and Portage, it plays out in the conversations surrounding your elections,” Toderian said.
“It’s just constant examples of Winnipeg ignoring the successes of other cities and continuing to double-down on failure, continuing to support its own addiction, its dependency on cars. And that’s the least healthy, most expensive, least sustainable way of planning your city.”
Toderian characterized continued investment in car infrastructure as a “race to the bottom.”
While it’s a counterintuitive insight, he said that if you want to make Winnipeg a more pleasant place to drive, the solution isn’t more investment in roads, but to invest in alternative modes of transportation, such as walking, cycling and public transit.
“If you’re serious about addressing vehicle congestion, we know for certain the only two things that do that is a combination of better infrastructure for alternatives — walking, biking, transit — combined with pricing mechanisms that affect the choice to drive,” Toderian said.
“Those are the only proven ways to actually reduce vehicle congestion. Everything else is just more money spent to induce more driving with the same — or worse — congestion. All of that is absolutely certain. There is no doubt at all to it.”
Toderian said it’s not a question of “urbanist ideology,” but evidence-based decision making.
“I’m not one of those urbanists who says: everyone should not want to drive. I’m actually much more pragmatic than that. If you want to be able to drive easier, the best thing you can hope for is that other people choose to walk, bike or take public transit,” Toderian said.
“Every decision is based on a business case, and the business case is there for investing in walking, biking and transit. The business case is rock solid… As a matter of fact, it’s ideological to ignore that evidence, and this plays out all the time in Winnipeg.”
”If you’re serious about addressing vehicle congestion, we know for certain the only two things that do that is a combination of better infrastructure for alternatives — walking, biking, transit — combined with pricing mechanisms that affect the choice to drive.”–Brent Toderian
The past two mayoral administrations — Sam Katz (2004-14) and Brian Bowman (2014-22) — have been primarily characterized by holding the line on property taxes (Katz) and record investment in roads (Bowman).
This has resulted in a public transit system with subpar service and low ridership, and an active transportation network with significant gaps.
And despite our record investment in roads, Manitoba Public Insurance says that damage claims due to potholes in Winnipeg are through the roof: in the first six months of 2022, there were more than 2,000 such claims — more than six times higher than the entirety of 2021.
When it comes to repairing our existing roads, let alone constructing new ones, Winnipeg is bailing water out of a sinking ship. At our current levels of record spending, it would take approximately 48 years to repave or reconstruct all of our streets and alleys.
The problem is they deteriorate at a faster rate than we can fix them. We simply can’t keep up.
Toderian said that conversations about city planning often turn into “ideological debates,” and somehow the “car-based voices end up sounding practical,” while those who advocate for alternative transportation “end up sounding impractical.”
“The opposite is true. When you understand the economics of city building, the most practical course of action is to invest in walking, biking and transit infrastructure, to emphasize infill development, more activity in your downtown, inner-city and early suburbs,” Toderian said.
“If you want to have a conversation about avoiding future municipal tax increases, that’s the only way you can do it… Suburban sprawl is an incredible drain on municipal finances, and thank goodness you’ve got the inner-city and infill development to subsidize it.”
The American-Canadian journalist Jane Jacobs, whose work had a profound impact on urban studies, suggested big cities thrive when they are composed of healthy, inter-connected micro-villages.
In order to achieve that, neighbourhoods need a good mixture of frequent streets; buildings of different ages; a high concentration of people; and a combination of primary uses. She argued that unless neighbourhoods are able to attract foot traffic from surrounding areas, they will fail.
“Dull, inert cities… contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves,” Jacobs wrote.
”Suburban sprawl is an incredible drain on municipal finances, and thank goodness you’ve got the inner-city and infill development to subsidize it.”–Brent Toderian
According to Herriges, what’s needed now is another paradigm shift, one as revolutionary as the development pattern that was ushered in across North America in the years following the Second World War.
Instead of thinking big, we need to think small.
“You look for: Where are the people in this community struggling right now? What needs are they struggling to meet in a way local government can address? And then you ask: What is the next smallest thing we can do to address that struggle?” Herriges said.
“You address the urgent struggles of people in the community… You launch a thousand small experiments, you take the ones that are successful and you scale them up… And that’s a really fundamental transformation from the way things are done now.”
But the fact is we need a rupture from the status quo, because what we have been doing for decades isn’t working. It is insanity to keep doing the same things over and over again while hoping for different results.
Poverty and homelessness are more visible and acute in downtown than ever. The tree canopy is dying. The city routinely dumps raw sewage into our rivers. Winnipeg’s infrastructure deficit is $7 billion, and there’s a $60-million shortfall in the municipal operating budget.
The city is in crisis, and no one is coming to save it. It falls to the citizens of Winnipeg, and those they elect to city hall on Oct. 26, to act.
Two roads lie ahead, and the one Winnipeg is currently on is rapidly approaching the point of no return.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.