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.