Voters must look past Portage and Main
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/09/2018 (1476 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As Winnipeg heads to a fall civic election, much has already been written about reopening Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic. Although the debate over whether this nationally famous intersection should be reopened is not new, the pending referendum has amped up its intensity. Winnipeggers on both sides of the issue are as passionately engaged as they were during the True North arena debate. Is this a good thing?
To the extent that the issue has engaged citizens, it is indeed a good thing. But to the extent that this single issue might overshadow other important civic concerns, it has become a distraction and Winnipeggers are at risk of missing the opportunity to discuss other issues that will have a greater impact on the city’s future.
A serious drug epidemic, effective crime-reduction strategies, social and economic equity, urban planning and city design, creating intelligent communities, densifying the urban core — these are all make-or-break issues that determine whether a city becomes a place where people want to live, work, play and invest.
Let’s take urban density and consider its importance to Winnipeg’s future. While we are talking about Portage and Main, few are paying attention to the fact Winnipeg remains one of Canada’s least densely populated cities, and that has very serious long-term implications.
Optimal population density dictates whether a city is affordable and can sustain itself in the long term.
While Metro Toronto and Winnipeg occupy a similar footprint, Winnipeg is home to an average of 147 residents per square kilometre, compared to Toronto’s 849. Why does this matter? Cities require an inordinate inventory of infrastructure and services to make them livable. A city is made up of residential, commercial, industrial and institutional structures, which are the homes, workplaces and gathering spaces for its citizens.
These structures need to be organized in a logical and coherent fashion. They need to be connected with basic infrastructure, such as roads and transit, to allow for the movement of people, goods and services. This also requires a supply of energy, water utilities and communication. In addition, various levels of government need to provide a second layer of services, including police, fire and paramedic services, libraries, hospitals, schools and universities, parks and playgrounds.
These services are publicly funded. Essential infrastructure is not only built with tax revenue; it is maintained and eventually replaced using taxpayer funds. Given this funding model, taxpayer density matters. In Toronto, some of the core first-tier infrastructure, such as roadways, pipes, sidewalks and utilities, is shared by many more residents than in a far less densely populated city such as Winnipeg.
Residents of our city bear a much higher per-capita cost than Torontonians. Our infrastructure deficit already stands at more than $1 billion and, as we continue to add to our inventory of infrastructure assets, the deficit continues to grow. In simple terms, we cannot afford to maintain or replace the assets we already own, yet we continue to add to the inventory of depreciating assets that will consume future resources. Being dense matters — and Winnipeg needs more density.
Portage and Main captures our imagination, but it has virtually no bearing on the financial viability and sustainability of our city. It is simply about the aesthetics and practicality of one particular intersection. How we plan and design our city has everything to do with its long-term viability, yet there is very little discussion of the issue.
Lately, infill development has appeared on our radar, but more often for negative reasons than for its positive long-term implications.
This is our collective failure. Winnipeg deals with infill proposals on an ad hoc and one-off basis. Residents of various neighbourhoods have not been given a concrete plan that shows the evolution of compact, livable and vibrant neighbourhoods. Understandably, residents of St. Boniface and Fort Rouge oppose individual projects when we fail to present a comprehensive and coherent long-term development plan that paints a vivid, compelling picture.
Elections present the best opportunity for citizens to discuss, debate and establish the priorities they want future elected leaders to pursue. If the 2018 election is highjacked by a single issue of relatively marginal consequence, we will have lost an opportunity to tackle larger issues that will shape our city and our quality of life for decades to come. As people who live, work, play and invest here, we owe ourselves more.
Sudhir Sandhu is chief executive officer of Manitoba Building Trades.