Winnipeg has a green party, consisting of a small but committed group of people who are determined to exercise an influence on the city’s future. This may actually be possible. Public awareness of environmental issues appears to be growing, while disenchantment with business as usual in city hall is always there to be tapped. But it will be very difficult.
One of the problems the party must face is the long-standing bias against political parties in local government. As I point out elsewhere, parties are seen by many as counter-productively disputatious representatives of special interests, insufficiently concerned with common-sense governance in the interests of the city as a whole. The Green Party of Winnipeg has an opportunity to overcome that bias, but to do so it must move beyond purely environmental concerns, such as opposition to sprawl and pesticides, and consider how an environmental perspective can be at the heart of a platform that addresses the needs of the city as a whole.
Following are a few of the many questions party members may wish to consider if they hope to build their movement into a truly effective political instrument.
The party is of course opposed to sprawl, and says so in its platform, but what to do about it? The party’s platform states: “Planning focus will shift to reinvestment in existing neighbourhoods rather than developer-driven new ones; redevelopment will replace development as the preferred option.”
That’s not a plank for a platform, it’s a sentiment. It’s not enough to prefer infill development to conventional suburban development, because a platform needs to be capable of passing muster as a business plan. A lot of home buyers don’t want infill housing, but do want to live in a conventional suburban neighbourhood. Advocacy of and support for infill development in inner-city neighbourhoods is in itself laudable, but it does not answer the question of where conventional suburban housing will be located.
Winnipeg can in fact accommodate new neighbourhoods in the suburban style in a manner that limits sprawl a great deal more than current land use policies do. If the Green Party wishes its position on sprawl to be taken seriously, it must say how it intends to do this.
LAND USE IN THE WINNIPEG REGION
The Green Party’s call for additional development charges on new fringe development makes a lot of sense. There is a very reasonable case to be made for the proposition that current development cost structures in effect subsidize new subdivisions at the expense of the rest of the city. But this question cannot be addressed in isolation from the question of land use in the Winnipeg region as a whole, because, in the absence of a regional policy, additional development costs within the City of Winnipeg will simply drive development into urbanizing municipalities adjacent to the city.
Therefore, the Green Party must also have a regional land use policy. It could, for example, advocate the creation of a regional government, or increased provincial regulation of land use outside the city, or possibly a tax surcharge on municipalities outside the city, to be rebated to the city in order to help cover the costs of services the city now provides free of charge to users from outside the city. Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages, but without some approach to regional land use issues, the Green Party’s approach to new subdivisions is not workable.
At last report, the City of Winnipeg was hoping to seal a deal with pork processor OlyWest for the location of a major new hog processing facility in Winnipeg. The Green Party does not have an official position on this initiative, but within the party there is much anti-OlyWest sentiment. If the party opposes OlyWest, it should also consider what alternative policy it supports. Does the party wish simply to leave pork production to other communities, or will it advocate a different way of producing pork? A related question concerns employment. Most of the employees of OlyWest would be immigrants and Winnipeg has a substantial population of immigrants. If the Green Party proposes not to create these jobs, it should also consider its position on job creation for immigrants.
OPEN SPACE POLICY
It would make a lot of sense for the party to consider how it can expand the appeal of environmental concerns beyond the constituency of committed environmentalists. One way of doing this would be to advocate the development of a comprehensive open space policy covering everything from parks and community gardens to parking lots, empty lots and rail lines. Such a policy could facilitate the transformation of a patchwork of different types of open spaces into a system of pathways, recreational spaces and greenways, which would also be available as paths for leisurely walks and commuter routes for bicycles and pedestrians. Many Winnipeggers who are less concerned than Green Party members with the ills of the environment might find such a policy attractive for other reasons.
Whether the Green Party and I like it or not, the business community is always a major force in municipal politics. There is no need to pander cravenly to everything the Chamber of Commerce demands, but without a platform that is capable of drawing some support from the business community, chances of implementing a program are slim to none. The Green Party platform should include provisions regarding taxes, land use regulation and other issues that concern business owners and managers. In developing such provisions, Green Party members might wish to ask themselves how at least some tax and land use regulations could be good for both business and the environment. My next suggestion is one of many items the party might wish to consider in that context.
The Green Party platform calls for a green buildings policy, but the wording suggests that that would apply only to city buildings. The energy savings that go with green buildings also save money. Can the Green Party work out a way of creating a loan fund – possibly in co-operation with Manitoba Hydro and the Manitoba provincial government – for retrofitting buildings to make them energy-efficient, with the loans to be repaid out of the savings on energy costs? If a workable program along these lines were developed, it would be bound to draw support, not only from the business community, but also from people in the construction trades.
These are only a few of the questions the Green Party of Winnipeg must consider if it hopes to be seen as a real political party, fit to run the city, and not just as a special-interest group. It must also decide how it would pay for addressing Winnipeg’s infrastructure deficit, how it would manage its relations with the provincial government, what to do about affordable housing, and more. All of these questions can be considered from an environmental perspective. In so doing, the party should be able to build and strengthen its program for environmental protection, while at the same time demonstrating its fitness to govern.