Pave paradise, put up a parking lot
It was in 1874 when 18 Mennonite families from the Russian Empire withstood the whipping winds and frigid temperatures of the Canadian prairies and settled in the southeast corner of Manitoba, a newly incorporated province just 160 square kilometers in size.
Rooting themselves in community and religion, the settlement sought to create a safe, supportive place for themselves, their loved ones and their posterity.
Just 72 years later, the community grew to be a town that touted itself as a hub for manufacturing, trucking and retail, earning the nickname the “Automobile City” from former mayor A.D. Penner.
Today, Steinbach is now the third largest city in Manitoba with a diverse population and grandiose plans to accommodate its growing number of residents.
But the city built around a crossroads, now finds itself at a crossroads of its own. Will development continue to sprawl at the edge of town by moving new residents into suburbs, who only come down Main Street if it’s by car?
Or do tax dollars get invested into the city’s core, making it livelier and more accessible?
Gary Snider, a B.C. expat living in Steinbach, read Canadian writer Charles Montgomery’s Book Happy City which explores similar topics, and had a revelation about his own home.
“We’re building cities that are designed to self-destruct,” Snider said. “How do you maintain it, once you build it — how do you make it a place where people can thrive?”
Snider then came across the Strong Towns approach.
Strong Towns was founded by engineer and planner Charles Marohn, who analyzed municipal development trends across North America since the post-Second World War era. Through research and data analysis Marohn found most development practices were unsustainable and detracting from what once made cities attractive: walkable downtown cores, businesses which attract customers on foot and high-density neighbourhoods close by.
The concept gained popularity, with chapters now established across North America to advocate for more responsible, sustainable city planning and development.
“Growing up you don’t really think about it, and nobody ever tells you to think about it,” said Chris Krahn, a fellow Steinbach resident. “There could be a way that we can live our lives that isn’t necessarily designed around owning a car and moving out into the suburbs.”
Through Krahn and Snider’s mutual discovery of the concept, the pair formed their own chapter of Strong Towns in Steinbach, with Krahn concerned about the city’s “expansionist” mindset and Snider seeing Steinbach as a city that still has time to pivot from sprawling to sustainable.
“The way we create our city streets and develop our areas outside the city core can have a huge, either positive or negative, impact on how a city progresses,” Snider said.
The Automobile City
While the need for cars in modern society is recognized, critics say development now prioritizes them.
“We’ve kind of built our cities around the car,” Krahn said.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s improvements to Highway 12 sought to manage traffic volumes to be as smooth as possible amid a steady population increase. Slot turn lanes, extra traffic lights and repaving with million-dollar price tags afforded motorists access to new commercial businesses off the north side of the highway.
But, the road remains unfriendly to pedestrian traffic today; some commercial businesses are inaccessible by foot and stores are surrounded by sprawling concrete parking lots which favor cars over people.
In the 2021 Census, of a 7,530-person sample recorded of the employed labour force aged 15 years and over with a usual place of work or no fixed workplace address, 6,845 said they use a car, truck or van to commute either as a driver or passenger, while just 385 said they walked and 140 biked. Only 165 others reported they use public transit or another method to commute.
“If we could think about making more walkable places, and places where you could get to all the things that you needed within a short distance…I think the happiness factor starts to go up.” Snider said.
A review of the city’s development plan, published in 2018, writes infill development should “promote and support the maintenance and protection of existing built-up neighbourhoods” by building on lots within developed areas,” but the city won’t support new development that would result in the “isolation of existing residential uses and inefficient utilization of municipal services.”
Yet, some developers are doing exactly that.
In a planned development near Old Tom Road and Loewen Boulevard, the outlook is bright. A mixed-density neighbourhood touts accessibility to city services and businesses. But, collector streets within neighbourhoods which only lead to other, larger streets demand residents have cars to access nearby amenities.
Krahn argues while Steinbach is, for the most part, accessible, residents may have the mindset to do their weekly grocery shops at big box stores on the edge of town rather than walking to a local store or market every few days. The former is convenient, but the latter stimulates the local economy.
“They provide jobs for some of our local people, but where the monies go after the Superstore till gets added up at the end of the night — that money is not staying in the community,” Snider said.
In 2014 the city of Guelph, ON partnered with American-based consulting firm Urban3 to map out the city’s future through data collection. The case study found areas with high-density, mixed use and urban development have some of the highest tax density and use land the most efficiently.
“We see that by developing these areas far from the city center, we got to get water and sewer out there, pave roads to get out there, we got to put schools out there,” Snider said.
“And at some point, the maintenance ticket for all of it starts to come due.”
To put it simply: most cities, including Steinbach, don’t have the tax base to sustain its sprawl.
Pave paradise, put up a parking lot
Some see municipal budgets as a list of what a city values.
According to the city’s master plan, The Central Business District, the name coined by the city for Steinbach’s downtown area, should include amenities that ensure a “safe and convenient pedestrian environment that encourages active transportation.”
In 2022 the city announced as part of their capital projects they would construct sidewalks along Brandt Street, McKenzie Street and in the Wyndham Estates, yet a glance at numerous road renewal projects and developments approved by the city in years past show little consideration for pedestrians.
In October 2021 the province announced it would be overhauling the intersection of Highway 12 and Loewen Boulevard to the tune of $8 million to add more turning lanes and widen existing streets.
How, and if, pedestrians and cyclists will be accommodated in the design remains to be seen.
Krahn speculates engineers are pressured into foregoing pedestrian infrastructure in road designs, because including it doesn’t jive with what the intersection is supposed to do: move traffic. “That’s a big problem,” he said.
Krahn uses Millbrook Market, a mixed-use compound planned in the city’s north end and advertised as Steinbach’s newest place to “live, work and play,” as an example of poor planning: while the construction promises residential units close to amenities, it remains closed off from other areas of the city with no active transportation connecting it unless one owns a car.
Krahn does most of his transportation on foot, while Snider bikes most places, including from his home in Steinbach to Kleefeld where he works.
“When you’re walking down the street, there’s a lot of traffic and it generates a lot of noise. And it doesn’t feel like the place that you really want to be,” Krahn said.
“My philosophy is that anywhere you want to go in a car, you should be able to go on a bike safely and comfortably. And that is hard to do sometimes,” Snider added.
Not including sidewalks, the city has just under 30 kilometers worth of active transportation routes, but the two argue they serve as fashion and not function.
“If you want to have nice walking or biking infrastructure, it needs to actually go somewhere meaningful. It needs to connect people and their homes and the rest of their lives,” Krahn said.
In a sense, zoning for parking requirements in the city hinders its density, too.
City zoning laws dictate recreation and entertainment centres require 1 parking space for each 500 sq. ft of gross floor area, which means the city’s incoming Southeast Event Centre will need to construct a 188-space parking lot on top of its 94,000 sq. ft. footprint. At dental offices and medical centres, one parking space is required per chair.
The city only requires one lockable bicycle space per 20 required automobile spaces for all new commercial development.
Sustainability, or profit?
While still a budding group, with a casual meeting for the public planned at 7 p.m. next Thursday at The Public Brewhouse and Gallery, Strong Towns Steinbach’s mandate moving forward is to help shift priorities away from more development at the extremities of the city and refocus on the quality of the city’s heart to make it accessible and livable. Without doing so, Krahn and Snider say, Steinbach’s downtown core will die.
While things remain “OK,” Snider gets the sense the city is going to continue to measure success by the number of building permits approved — hardly an indicator of its long-term sustainability.
“City council here has a point of pride because we one of the lowest property tax levels in Manitoba,” Snider said.
“If that’s to be maintained, I think that’s where this focus in the core needs to be. They need to realize where their bread is buttered.”