Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/3/2016 (524 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For the record, I love Winnipeg’s downtown.
Born and bred in Toronto, I have a great affinity for the core areas of large urban centres. I love the grit, the mess and the tightly packed energy. I love the way the wind gusts through the concrete canyons, the slippery sidewalks in the winter, and the sour odours that come with the dog days of a hot summer.
I love being able to walk most places, and when I can’t do that, being able to wander out into the edge of traffic and hail a taxi. I love watching large buildings being erected, as they grow from deep, muddy excavated holes to looming structures. I love the constant din created wherever large numbers of people live in close proximity to each other.
I am, in almost every way, a city person.
And while Winnipeg’s core does not match the density and buzz of larger cities, it has many of the qualities I find, and crave, in other downtowns. And some features that other cities do not have.
It is tremendously easy to access and escape. I love the architecture, the design of its streets and the natural balance of the two great intersections of downtown Winnipeg: the convergence of Portage and Main, and the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Downtown Winnipeg is where I have had some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, heard some of the best music I have ever been honoured to witness, bought art directly from actual artists and lived some of the best days of my life.
Do not fool yourselves. Many people in larger cities do not get the opportunity to do as much, for as long, in their downtowns as I have in Winnipeg’s downtown.
And yet, it is hard for me now to walk around Winnipeg and be tormented by what could be. That, I’m afraid, was the unexpected consequence of my involvement with the Reimagining Winnipeg project.
Reimagining Winnipeg was a collaboration between StorefrontMB, a collection of advocates and activists from the design community, and the Winnipeg Free Press.
Three public forums were held at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café in downtown’s fabled Exchange District in the winter of 2012. Architects were invited to propose ideas for the betterment of the city, encouraged to stretch their imaginations and follow their hearts. Reimagine the city, they were told, without concern for cost, building codes, permits, land-acquisition complications or (as was the case in several submissions) the laws of physics.
The results of their deliberations create a body of work that is both breathtaking and confounding. Suddenly, lush parkland replaced the concrete cavern that is Portage and Main. Rivers were re-routed to create a new waterfront and white sand beaches. Enormous towers appeared at the epicentre of the city; others envisioned railway lines, bus rapid-transit routes and expressways being buried so that blocks of street could be transformed into a dynamic public plaza connecting downtown more directly to the rest of the city. Streets were closed to create compelling outdoor urban art galleries. Alleyways in the Exchange District were reclaimed with glass canopies and cantilevered balconies to create dense and diverse markets. One architect even conceived of a magnificent highrise home at The Forks for brown bats, creatures that feast naturally on mosquitoes. It was beautiful and horrifying at the same time.
The fantastical designs from Reimagining Winnipeg were so moving, I find that I cannot visit the places that were reimagined without wondering what this city could be if we embraced those wild and (sometimes) impractical ideas.
Winnipeg, unlike almost every other city of similar or larger size, has an opportunity to evolve into perhaps the most unique urban community in Canada. Thanks to decades of slow or no growth, our downtown is, in many ways, a blank canvas waiting to be transformed. Our reluctance and, in some instances, inability to tear things down has given to us a reservoir of architecture and design that was eradicated in faster growing cities. Unfortunately, our lingering fear of moving too quickly or too boldly has left us, in most instances, unable to take advantage of our great preserved resource.
It does not help that we are living in a time where repairing roads is considered government’s No. 1 priority. Or that suburban opinion leaders wield primary control over local government. Those factors create an impasse on development and creativity that can be stifling.
Thankfully, Reimagining Winnipeg reminds us of what could be. It is not important that many of the ideas are prohibitively expensive, or that they would be too disruptive to gain political consensus. It is only important that the ideas that follow on these pages represent the best of what we could do, if we were not so constrained.
In that regard, Reimagining Winnipeg is less a blueprint for the future of the city, and more of a reminder that great cities must demonstrate ambition and daring to realize their greatness.
And that maybe, just maybe, one of the ideas in this book will bring ambition and daring to life in Winnipeg...
Foreward from the book Re/Imagining Winnipeg, edited by Lawrence Bird and Sharon Wohl. The book will be launched Friday at McNally Robinson Booksellers, 7 p.m.
Chapter 1: No City Limits
Why is it that many North American cities, regardless of climate, culture and geography, appear to be near carbon copies of one another? Why do we inadvertently (and often unnecessarily) impose limits on the city? The projects in this section each offer ideas for developing parts of the city that might normally be considered unreachable or unusable: a decommissioned railway bridge, airspace over traffic arteries and a major intersection.
The Tower: ‘Reclaiming a Civic Animation’ - David Penner Architect
This project aims to return an age-old civic function — the act of disseminating information — to the corner of Portage and Main.
The role of communication is amplified in the form of a towe with, at its base, four publicly accessible boom-cams and digital screens inviting people, both Winnipeggers and tourists, to assemble and participate in the cultural production of the city.
The Tower exploits already existing structural systems — radio antenna structures — and weds them to new digital technologies to create a revitalized stage for public participation in the city.
Chapter 2: Fantastical
The city is about everyday life, but it is also, crucially, about imagination. Imagination is our first and best tool for understanding where it is we want our city to go, what kind of place we want to live in — and how we might begin to build it. So sometimes it’s worth floating fantastical ideas as a first step to realizing the city we want. As Edgar Pieterse — director of the African Centre for Cities — has put it: "As a species, first and foremost we need things that can power our imaginations, that can get our passions going, and that can give us a sense of meaning. That is not a brick. It is not a pipe. It is an idea. It is an imaginary… and cities offer that."
The Journey is the Destination - Cibinel Architecture
If you could walk from one end of the city to the other, without a car in sight, which route would you take?
Would you stick to the roadways or would you find yourself meandering between buildings, under bridges and on the river?
This proposal imagines a Winnipeg where pedestrian-friendly pathways become urban magnets, drawing people to typically unused areas between buildings, under bridges and on the river.
They carve through the urban landscape and connect to each other, creating an uninterrupted medley of beautiful, active, vibrant spaces.
Chapter 3: Transport
How we get around the city is key to how we live in it. Transportation infrastructures are meant to connect parts of the city, but paradoxically, they often divide it, creating places we don’t want to be. Traffic arteries, parking lots and rail yards separate neighbourhoods and divide districts, making it hard or impossible to get around except by car, even for short journeys. How can we plan urban transportation systems to give us a choice about how we get around — and to produce less carbon? Moving forward, we have no choice but to do so.
New Main Street District - Architecture49
New Main Street District proposes a series of large-scale interventions reconnecting downtown and The Forks — healing the rift created by the eight-lane Main Street and the CN Railway.
Moving the elevated rail line and Main Street’s vehicle lanes underground, the proposal creates space above ground for a green promenade and urban garden with generous pedestrian areas, frees up land to become lively mixed-use commercial, office and residential buildings, and allows the redevelopment of Union Station as a vibrant bus, train and commercial station.
Chapter 4: Hubs
Cities have traditionally been punctuated by gathering places where people come together for various forms of exchange: churches, markets, forums, squares. But the trend over the last century has been toward dispersal — as city dwellers moved out to the suburbs, the old civic reasons for gathering together in places like these seemed to apply less and less. The seven projects in this section try to find ways in which to acknowledge and work within today’s urban realities, while creating places for gathering at a range of scales: from pop-up galleries to civic spaces in the interstices of the city.
Brand-in a-Can - Sean Radford
This proposal uses shipping containers to populate and grow the city’s street-scale pedestrian fabric.
Sea-cans, which come in a standard range of 20-foot, 40-foot and 53-foot lengths, can be configured to house numerous sizes and types of small-scale operation. They also lend themselves to easy location, portage and re-portage in and around the city.
Tough but flexible, they’re a very appropriate model for our city, and add an honest, iconic and bold element to the visual identity of Winnipeg.
Coffee Can, for example, provides a place to grab a quick coffee while waiting for a bus in the otherwise pedestrian unfriendly in-between space of Confusion Corner — all while adding an iconic element to this famous intersection.
Walk[IN]Winnipeg - Calnitsky Associates Architects Inc., design team: Ed Calnitsky, principal-in-charge; Juan Sternberg, project architect; Vanessa Jukes, Evan Kallusky.
Walk[IN]Winnipeg wants Downtown Winnipeg to be recognized as a walkable city, forward-thinking, sustainable, progressive and welcoming to young people.
It proposes making use of existing alleys, refurbishing adjacent buildings and transforming the outdoor space between them into an indoor, weather-protected walkable area.
Cantilevered balconies and patios jut into the air, and skywalks connect buildings for greater versatility, creating a dramatic vision that redefines the backstreets.
These changes will create new mixed-use space, with the ground floor teeming with food services and retail activity. Floors immediately above house business and personal services, promoting interaction with street activities; private residential spaces crown these diverse and multi-functional buildings.
Below ground, service areas increase the parking capacity of downtown Winnipeg.