IS Des Moines Winnipeg’s twin? Recently, (Winnipeg through our eyes, May 1) the Free Press proffered that Iowa’s state capital is our “Mirror image.” Although I have visited Des Moines, it’s easier to see the differences via Google Earth. Just zoom in on any residential neighbourhood just off the central business district; then do the same with Winnipeg.
Whereas the sparsely laid houses in inner-city Des Moines occupy large lots, houses in Winnipeg are built right next to each other, and three-storey apartment blocks appear throughout our city grid. Winnipeg is much denser.
How much denser? In Des Moines proper (2000 census population 198,682) the overall density is 835 persons per square kilometre. In Winnipeg proper — i.e. pre-Unicity Winnipeg, excluding suburbs — the overall population is about the same (around 190,000, according to the 2001 census) but the density is 3,092 persons per square kilometre. In several urban neighbourhoods — Central Park, Roslyn, Broadway-Assiniboine — density exceeds 10,000 persons per square kilometre, and densities above 4,000 persons per square kilometre exist as far out as Weston. Even the semi-rural Charleswood neighbourhood of Roblin Park has a population density of 1,491 persons per square kilometre — far above the average of Des Moines proper, never mind their sprawling seven-county census metropolitan area (2000 census population 550,659).
Unlike Des Moines, Winnipeg is truly a city, with a vast, dense urban grid. It’s not just downtown and suburbia; there’s a city in between, and it’s big.
During the streetcar era, most of urban Winnipeg’s homes lay within quick walking distance of a mixed commercial-residential strip offering such essentials as a corner grocery store, a barber shop, a bakery, a caf, a hardware store, etc. Everything else was downtown, just a speedy streetcar ride away.
But a half century of de-urbanization has destroyed storefront continuity along such streets as Portage, Main, Notre Dame, Selkirk, and Sargent. Parking lots, empty lots, strip malls, and gas stations lie interspersed between old brick mixed-use buildings that were somehow spared, lending our major urban streets a look resembling a smile with missing teeth. Inner-city shoppers, today mostly motorists, now tend to look outward, often toward the St. James Industrial Park’s big-box stores, for their needs.
But imagine our city rebuilt and restored, with a giant, continuous walkable storefront environment reaching far out from the downtown. It’s a Winnipeg better compared to Chicago, not Des Moines, and such an urban continuity would make for a potent attraction for both residents and visitors.
Restoring storefront continuity along inner city streets was not among the 10 suggestions offered by the Free Press in its series on downtown, but it should have been.
The city also needs a subway system and not a bus-rapid transit network that eliminates on-street parking along commercial inner-city streets and imperils storefront business while making it harder for pedestrians to cross the streets. (Parked cars on both sides of a four-lane street mean you need only cross two lanes of traffic.) Simultaneously, the Free Press articles encouraged the city to spend whatever it takes to build 10,000 new housing units downtown, but having eight subway stations servicing our large downtown, as per a plan first proposed in 1959, would be a greater incentive to build than any number of subsidies or tax tweaks.
Unlike any other transit idea proposed for Winnipeg, the 1959 plan would offer heated indoor platforms and would bring pedestrians to the greatest number of major destinations — the Health Sciences Centre, Red River College, St. Boniface General Hospital — and urban street corners where people already walk and where rapid transit service is most needed: Portage and Hargrave, River and Osborne, Selkirk and Salter, etc.
According to a 2000 report by the World Bank, subway systems average $50 million per kilometre. That means a 40-kilometre stretch in Winnipeg would cost about $2 billion. A lot of money? Yes. But $2 billion couldn’t buy anywhere near the amount of urban regeneration it would initiate — and Main Street needs more than a light makeover. Between a billion-dollar dam, a half-billion dollar airport terminal, and a mooted $300 million human rights museum, not to mention a the floodway expansion, Manitoba has proved we can afford big projects. Private markets, to flourish, require solid infrastructure, and the urban environment is lost without real rapid transit. A chintzy, bus-based system will only compound our problems both downtown and in the city in between.