Jason Syvixay is a City of Edmonton planner whose primary focus is infill development. It is his belief, based on his own housing experience growing up, that housing options should be diverse to be able to accommodate people's variabilty in societal and economic circumstances.
When I was younger, I remember sleeping on a mattress wedged in a corner on the second floor of our family’s home, overlooking a staircase that faced the main entrance. My sister’s room was beside mine, my parents’ room beside hers.
It was a small, semi-detached house near the corner of Burrows Avenue and McPhillips Street in Winnipeg’s North End. For my parents, like many refugees new to Canada, the path to home ownership was a long journey that required hard work and resilience — and little by little, from one location to the next, our living arrangements changed as our family size and needs did.
Growing up in a semi-detached house meant learning to be a good neighbour to the people living next door — as our sounds were buffered by just one wall. While some people may desire a large house and a generous backyard to host gatherings, others may appreciate living in smaller dwellings, surrounded by public amenities such as parks or corner stores.
Others might be drawn to the notion of co-living spaces, made popular in cities like New York and Washington with WeLive, a housing model where tenants share kitchens, living rooms and amenity spaces — where the building itself becomes a physical social network, designed to enhance interactions between people and potentially combat urban anonymity.
Over the last several decades, the demographic makeup of our cities has changed significantly.There has been a mass migration of people moving from the core to the suburban fringes. This loss of people in central neighbourhoods and the growth of urban sprawl continue to cost Canadian cities billions of dollars in building and servicing new infrastructure, while existing physical, social and cultural supports are not effectively used.
With more space between us, we have less interaction with one another, amplified by the necessity to drive from one amenity or service to the next located well away from our neighbourhoods.
This urban shift, however, has inspired many municipalities, including Winnipeg, to develop strategies to nurture a more compact urban form. In Edmonton, where residents, administration, architects and the development community were asked to envision a future city of two million, it took shape in what’s been called the Infill Roadmap.
"This proactive discourse led to outside-the-box thinking around how infill can advance in a way that not only respects the past but understands the need to adjust, to be creative and to be open to new possibilities that make our communities thrive," says Kalen Anderson, director of Edmonton’s municipal development plan renewal.
In 2014, the inaugural roadmap was adopted by city council, in response to the municipal development plan goal of achieving 25 per cent of new residential units within older neighbourhoods. It focused on adding "gentle density" to core and mature neighbourhoods by enabling regulatory changes to allow low-scale and low-density infill development.
While subdivision and the building of narrow-lot homes dominated much of the conversation, the Infill Roadmap also contained actions that helped to improve construction standards, improve communication between neighbours and builders and retain mature trees.
Infill projects would now require development permit notification signs to be posted on construction sites within two weeks of approval, providing the community with key information about the project and its builder.
A residential construction guide was developed to communicate expectations around the construction process, while free infill pre-application meetings were scheduled to encourage builders to consult with city administration before construction, ensuring that their projects carefully considered municipal regulations and policies.
The Infill Roadmap, and other materials produced, were designed to be visually compelling, accessible and easy to understand — clearly articulating what had been learned through research, what was heard from the community at large and how feedback was translated into actions.
"During the implementation of the Infill Roadmap, the city was proactive with outreach and engagement relating to emerging community concerns," says Lyla Peter, Edmonton’s director of development and zoning services.
"The team working on the project wanted to find new ways to keep the conversation alive, and to be thoughtful and empathetic when balancing the real fears and anxieties of communities experiencing change for the first time. They made a point of being clear and transparent, as people respond better to change when they have an idea of what to expect. They also were flexible and allowed for changes and ‘detours’ to the plan, based on what they heard from communities."
"The team working on the project wanted to find new ways to keep the conversation alive, and to be thoughtful and empathetic when balancing the real fears and anxieties of communities experiencing change for the first time."
At the start of 2019, Winnipeg launched its first infill strategy, inviting a lengthy debate and discussion around what makes homes suitable for people and communities.
Is it the single-detached home with ample greenery at the front and rear? Or is it a mix of homes that welcome everyone?
Edmonton got to the heart of these types of discussions during the development of its second Infill Roadmap last year, which turns its gaze on medium-density or "missing middle" multi-unit housing that falls between single-detached homes and tall apartment buildings.
In Edmonton, it includes row housing, triplexes, fourplexes, courtyard housing and walk-up apartments. These housing forms are considered "missing" because they have been largely absent from urban streetscapes throughout Canada.
One of the most notable policy changes was allowing for semi-detached and duplex housing in single detached residential and low-density infill zones. This milestone resembles a historic move made by Minneapolis in 2018 that eliminated single-family-only zoning and enabling triplex developments on lots once reserved for single-detached homes.
University of Manitoba city-planning students visited Edmonton to learn more about the work being done to advance missing middle housing. In their classwork, they looked at downtown Winnipeg and how surface parking lots could be better developed with mid-rise housing forms instead of high-rises that tend to saturate the market.
"Our team of city planners have been working so diligently and aggressively to advance infill in the city that we haven’t had much time to take stock of all that’s been achieved," Edmonton senior planner Colton Kirsop told the U of M students.
"We just removed single-family zoning, but instead of celebrating this, we were fairly humble and simply moved on to the next action in our plan."
In embracing the "missing middle" this year, Edmonton launched a juried design competition to transform five lots in one of the city’s older neighbourhoods. The competition has attracted housing proposals from across Canada. The winning team will be given the opportunity to purchase the site and build their winning design.
As a former Winnipegger, it’s exciting to see the city taking important steps to craft a new approach to infill. As tens of thousands of people have moved to the fringes, it means there is underutilized infrastructure in the city’s core.
Winnipeg, like Edmonton did, should dedicate resources and staff to its strategy; invest in communications and marketing materials to ensure everyone is on the same page with the infill agenda.
That could mean hosting diverse events and curating a positive, forward-looking conversation that involves various stakeholders and includes monitoring and addressing construction issues and facilitating partnerships between community leaders, developers and residents to ensure it’s not just the city that’s hosting the infill conversation but rather Winnipeggers as a collective.
Winnipeg is evolving its thinking about what makes it great. Its downtown has undergone a significant renaissance, with billions of dollars in investment over the past decade alone and a surge in residential population.
A booming start-up and technology sector is densifying the heart of the city with investment and people. A resurgent hockey team has fuelled the city’s confidence once again, leading to playoff parties in the streets.
Perhaps, in all of this innovation and revitalization, it’s time for Winnipeg to recognize that more density is the answer to long-term fiscal and social sustainability; how density may allow for better investments in all sorts of features and amenities that benefit everyone; from multi-modal transportation system investments to community centres to schools to businesses.
If Winnipeg wants to continue its positive trajectory, which I believe it does, then it must continue to evolve its thinking around what housing should look like and where it should be advanced.
I wait eagerly for the day I can return to Winnipeg to a home that is just the right size and fit for me.