In a post entitled “Are You Tired of the Sprawl Game?”, I argued that we miss the essentials of the problem of managing urban growth by focusing instead on images and ideologies – arguing, for example, about New Urbanism vs. modernism, or liberalism vs. conservatism, instead of doing what needs to be done. In this post, I follow that argument up with some practical suggestions for Winnipeg.
I focus on a particular city because that’s really the only way growth problems can be addressed. Each city is unique, and there is no universal template. That said, each city displays many similarities with many other cities. My suggestions for Winnipeg will resonate with many who are familiar with the problems of other mid-size, slow-growth cities in North America.
In Winnipeg, as in many other slow-growth cities, the essence of the problem of sprawl is that we extend roads, sewers and water lines much farther than we need to to accommodate our slow population growth. As a result, the costs of these facilities spiral out of control for want of enough property owners to pay for them. There are a lot of simple, straightforward planning practices that we could be following to help bring our runaway infrastructure and servicing costs under control, while making the city a more interesting and pleasant place to live.
There are generally no very good reasons why we’re not doing these things. The most important single reason is quite simply that North American cities have, over the past three-quarters of a century, been developed on principles that sounded good in theory but haven’t worked in practice, and we’ve been slow to break the bad habits that developed during this period.
Here’s my five-step program for getting a start on breaking those habits:
1. GET SERIOUS ABOUT DOING NEIGHBOURHOOD PLANS FOR THE SUBSTANTIAL AREAS WITHIN THE CITY THAT ARE AVAILABLE FOR CONVENTIONAL SUBURBAN DEVELOPMENT.
The development industry and the city planning department talked City Council into opening up a vast new tract of farmland now called Waverley West, which will greatly increase the city’s infrastructure and service delivery burdens. They won City Council approval for this ill-advised move by arguing that there was a critical lot shortage. What they didn’t say was that the reason for the shortage is that the city has failed to do the planning work necessary to open up areas within the city that would be suitable for regular suburban development, but would not constitute sprawl, and would allow us to make more efficient use of existing infrastructure and service networks, instead of developing new ones. The city needs to hire more planners and put them to work on this critical task. (Go to Are you tired of the sprawl game? for more detail.)
2. SUPPORT THE TRANSIT SYSTEM BY PAYING ATTENTION TO THE LOCATION OF NEW MEDIUM AND HIGH-DENSITY DEVELOPMENT.
People living in apartments and row houses tend to be users of transit, if convenient transit is available. But if we permit the location of apartment buildings in the far reaches of such suburban areas as St James, or Island Lakes, as we have, we end up with apartment dwellers dependent on automobiles for almost all their transportation, because it’s impossible provide a good transit service in those locations. An efficient transit system that draws a lot of passengers is essential to the development of a sustainable city.
3. GET BUSY ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF RAPID TRANSIT, A JOB THAT ALMOST EVERYONE NOW ACKNOWLEDGES NEEDS TO BE DONE.
Fifty years of talk and studies should provide an ample basis for decisions. The establishment of an efficient, modern transit system would be a critical step toward bringing the costs of services and infrastructure under control. In tandem with the development of rapid transit, land use measures need to be taken to allow so-called transit-oriented development along the transit lines.
4. MAINTAIN AND EXPAND THE GOOD INITIATIVES WE HAVE UNDERWAY FOR THE REVITALIZATION OF INNER CITY RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBOURHOODS AND THE COMMERCIAL CORE…
…and intensify the focus on the development of housing to support both the commercial heart of the city and low-income residents of nearby neighbourhoods, instead of abandoning those initiatives, as the city now seems to be doing. (A recent measure to provide tax incentives for multi-family and mixed commercial-residential development is a step in the right direction.) A lively, attractive downtown, where people from all walks of life can afford to live, is central to the achievement of all the other objectives I advocate.
5. PUT NEIGHBOURHOOD COMMERCE, SHOPPING-MALL-BASED BUSINESSES AND BIG BOX DEVELOPMENTS ON A LEVEL PLAYING-FIELD.
At the moment, such big box stores as those in the St. James Street strip enjoy hidden subsidies because they do not have to meet the same standards for building design or contributions to infrastructure maintenance as other businesses. The importance of giving all our business people an even break ought to be obvious to everyone, regardless of their political beliefs. For more information, read The Twilight Zone of City Zoning Regulations
We can get all these things done without arguing about New Urbanism vs. modernism, liberalism vs conservatism or capitalism vs. socialism. By all means, let’s continue these debates. They’re inherently interesting, and important in the long term. But they need not and should not distract us from pursuing straightforward planning measures that can help restore Winnipeg’s ability to manage its resources within its budget, while making the city more attractive and more functional.
Want to find out more? Here are some useful sources:
A more detailed and comprehensive set of proposals for growth management in the Winnipeg region is presented in Richard Lennon and Christopher Leo. “Metropolitan Growth and Municipal Boundaries: Problems and Proposed Solutions.” International Journal of Canadian Studies, 24 (Fall), 2001, 77-104.
For land use measures that support the transit system, go to http://www.vtpi.org/, or just run a search on “TOD” or “Transit-oriented development”. The internet is full of useful information about this important subject.