Simple pleasures of downtown living



Everybody — from planners to politicians, plebeians to patricians — agrees that, to be successful, resurrecting Winnipeg’s downtown means a many-fold multiplication of its population. Yet more people talk about living downtown than actually move there: The proportion of Winnipeggers living within the city centre is less than one per cent.

While lacking the shine of those in similarly sized cities such as Quebec City or the upstart mini-metropolis Calgary, our downtown is redeemable. The Exchange District offers an abundance of splendid architecture fast being converted to homes. The Waterfront Drive project will add hundreds of new jobs and residents. Recent zoning changes invite mixed-use development — dwellings above storefronts — which was instrumental in raising previously dull districts, such as Vancouver’s Yaletown, to the acme of urban trendies.

In downtown Winnipeg today live 5,000 — a stagnant statistic for fifteen years. Contrast this with Vancouver — a metropolitan area thrice the size whose downtown will have 20 times as many residents by 2010. But given that most days 60,000 Winnipeggers are in the central business district until 5 p.m., there’s potential for thousands to cut their commute and live within walking distance from work.

A popular and successful downtown has been mooted and sought for decades. It’s questionable, however, whether we’re nearer to it now than we were in 1987. Young professionals craving an urban lifestyle are quitting Winnipeg for already prosperous city centres in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. And a car-dependent, idealized suburban culture continues to heap myths and stigmas upon public transit (“the loser cruiser,” “the ride of shame”) and on living downtown.

What keeps people from moving downtown? Regardless of whom I ask — young, old, male, female — I hear the same specious dismissals.

Too many panhandlers.

All cities have them. But in livelier downtowns their presence isn’t so noticeable or menacing, for they are a minority among a crowd. They are best quickly dismissed with a look in the opposite direction or the flick of a coin.

Nowhere to park.

Free parking spaces are scarce — unless a spot comes with your rent. Paid parking, however, is plentiful.

It’s dangerous.

Are the suburbs so safe? Automobile collisions kill more young adults than anything. Much crime happens in suburbia also. But busy streets are safe streets. As downtown becomes busier, it will be safer. Mixed-use zoning will put eyes on the sidewalks, as those who live above a busy street tend to keep aware of what happens below.

Where can I buy groceries?

There are countless places to buy good and inexpensive food. Besides The Forks Market and the shops of Chinatown, there’s The Bay, Food Fare on Donald, Safeway on Sargent, California Fruit Market on Main, plus Extra Foods and several ethnic grocery stores on Notre Dame. Certainly more options than one would find within the same radius anywhere in suburbia.

But what about a yard?

As a downtown, what you sacrifice is more than returned in public space. The Forks, Stephen Juba Park and Central Park all provide green space, and within a short walk lie tennis and basketball courts, a YMCA, Old Market Square, the main public library and several movie theatres. Besides, the backyard might be overrated. “One of the main attractions of moving to the suburbs,” writes David Owen in The New Yorker, “is acquiring ground of your own, yet you can travel for miles through suburbia and see no one doing anything in a yard other than working on the yard itself… The modern suburban yard is perfectly, perversely self-justifying: Its purpose is to be taken care of.”

My suburban upbringing, unusually transient, and nine years of inner-city adulthood have found me living from Charleswood to Transcona, St. Vital to St. James, Maples to Osborne Village — and, later, at several addresses downtown. For the diversions I enjoy — walking, browsing used bookstores, bumping into old friends on the sidewalk, live music, eating out — life in the city centre is most satisfying.

If you’re weary of buying gasoline to commute for six hours each week, if you fancy the thought of being able to walk home from work, dinner, a movie, the nightclub, etc., do reconsider downtown. Your welcome presence will only make our city better.