What does Winnipeg need in a mayor? II

In my previous post, I made an exception to my usual rule that my commentary will be research-based, and offered some comments on homelessness and crime –— both spheres within which I claim no expertise beyond that of a concerned citizen. In this post, I return to a topic within my expertise: urban growth and development.

Although cities are at best junior partners in dealing with social issues, they play a central role in that cluster of issues known to city planners as land use: the growth of the city and the development of its neighbourhoods, its residential/commercial and industrial districts. It’s as true of cities as it is of individuals that if we want a good future, we have to plan for it. To do that we need city planners who have the expertise to envision the possible futures of the various parts of our city, to pick out the ones that make sense, and to work out the steps needed to achieve them.

There’s a school of thought that considers that way of planning impractical. Invoking the kind of “practicality” that motivates people to save money by not going to university or not buying insurance, advocates of that way of thinking hold that the only job of planners is to help developers get their plans accepted by the city. In that point of view, thinking about, and planning for the future is a frivolous activity and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Winnipeg’s planners – now members of a department significantly renamed “Planning, Property and Development” – have largely been reduced to the role of developers’ helpers. As a result, the growth of the city has mainly been determined by what looks best on developers’ bottom lines, not by what constitutes an efficient constellation of city infrastructure and network of services.

While developers’ convenience is served, the city, left with neighbourhoods scattered hither and yon, struggles to construct roads and water and sewer lines, and deliver services – street cleaning, snow removal, grass cutting, insect control, and much, much more – across the green fields left undeveloped because developers preferred to build elsewhere.

The most conspicuous example of these green fields is the vast open space called Transcona West, located between Winnipeg and what used to be the City of Transcona, now a Winnipeg neighbourhood. This area and many other open spaces don’t produce remotely enough revenue to cover the costs. I have argued elsewhere that this is a root cause of Winnipeg’s infrastructure crisis, which leaves our vehicles rattling over potholes and occasionally being swallowed up by sinkholes.

A similar argument is made by Placemakers, an international urban planning and design firm that has recently opened an office in Winnipeg. In fact, there is little argument on this point among most well-informed commentators. (I’ll spare you the bibliography in these pages, but I’ll be happy to cite chapter and verse for anyone who’s interested.)

Accordingly, we need the next mayor to do two things:

  • Restore the planning department, so that it can once again plan coherently for Winnipeg’s future growth and development.
  • Declare a policy of refusing development permits for new greenfields until old greenfields have been filled up.

Once those policies are in place and have had time to work, we will be in a much better position to come to terms with our infrastructure crisis. Getting there will take a mayor who’s not afraid govern in the best interest of the city as a whole and, if necessary, reject the advice of influential people seeking their own interest.

6 responses to “What does Winnipeg need in a mayor? II

  1. There needs to be a guiding vision for development. Standards and regulations. Urban Sprawl has certainly contributed to our infrastructure deficit which we all our paying for while the developers made money on developments that have not adhered to the standards of Smart Growth. We will need a mayor who can change that.

  2. i am curious about how many of the paving companies in Winnipeg may be owned by the same developers that built big housing developments? The City then has to repay the paving companies for the streets that are built, plus interest. Does this happen?

  3. I love the comment on the planning department currently being used as an assistant to developers to get their suburban plans passed at committee. I believe this is completely true.

    But I have a question for you… You say “Restore the planning department, so that it can once again plan coherently for Winnipeg’s future growth and development.” Do you think this would be better accomplished by trying to retrofit the sprawl that has already occured and work on them to become more tax dense and productive, or would it be more beneficial to try to improve the areas that are already producing the greatest amount for the City?

    • It’s not an either-or. Redevelopment of downtown properties goes on regardless, and policy for them should ensure that they strengthen the downtown as a centre of both commerce and residence. The city is actually doing a pretty good job of this.

      On the other hand, the problems posed by such suburban areas as Waverley West and Transcona West (Click here: http://bit.ly/1qB6tQr) are not so easily solved. The policy should be to call a complete halt to further expansion of the city and ensure that, for the time being, all population growth and commercial expansion be limited to developable areas within the city.

      There are a lot of those, and — regardless of what some of our decision-makers would have you believe — it will take time to fill them in.

  4. Pichon Longueville

    We need to tag some names to the issues. Steeves believed in BRT–he voted for it. Through the evolution of the election, all major candidates expressed their support of this necessary advancement for the city. Hungry for votes, Steeves reversed his philosophy, not because he believes it, but because he wants that segment of votes.

    This is not city planning–this is the exact opposite. He’s willing to sacrifice the future good of the city to win a seat in office. Steeves has shown that he does what it takes to win, not what is good for Winnipeg. If mayor, he would stymie Winnipeg’s growth for decades, much the same way Katz did after Glen Murray left.

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