Mr. Bowman, tear down these walls!

Another year, another round of buzz about the potential removal of the hideous and disgraceful pedestrian barriers adorning the four corners of Winnipeg’s premier intersection, Portage & Main.

This time the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ has brought in Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance and the man instrumental in pedestrianizing a large swath of Broadway in Manhattan, to tell us what we already know: we’re doing it wrong.

City planning has come a long way since the late 1970s, and informed opinion is unanimous that the Portage & Main barriers—emblematic of the longstanding supremacy of cars over people in downtown Winnipeg—have got to go. Mayor Brian Bowman even made getting rid of them part of his campaign platform.

Well Mr. Bowman, you were elected more than a year ago—what are you waiting for?

Were I elected to the Mayor’s Office with a mandate to remove the barriers, there would be no hesitation. Much as the intersection was swarmed upon news of the Jets’ return, at the exact moment victory was confirmed I would invite my supporters to Portage and Main for a celebration rally. With all four corners blockaded and traffic re-routed, I would commence distribution of dozens of sledgehammers and invite the public to usher in a new, pedestrian-friendly era for the City of Winnipeg by smashing concrete like it was 1989 in Berlin. Once the party ended I’d order heavy equipment to finish the job. Pedestrian signals would be set up within the next 48 hours.


There’s a precedent for this. Winnipeg wants to be the Chicago of the north? Well in 2003, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley had enough of the federal airport near downtown known as Meigs Field. The idea of low-flying planes so near the skyscrapers of the city’s vertical skyline was unnerving in the post-9/11 era, and considering they were nearly all private flights for the wealthy he decided it was in the public interest to close the airport and turn it into a park.

Naturally the FAA resisted so what did Mayor Daley do? Showed the feds The Chicago Way. Ordered a fleet of heavy equipment to roll through in the middle of the night and tear up the runway. Goodbye Meigs Field. Hello Northerly Island Park.

The Winnipeg Way seems to be years of dithering. Decades of hemming and hawing. Sponsor a meaningless design contest. Pay to fly in outsiders. Years and years of blathering on about the topic.

Look, if Mayor Daley can break a lease with the almighty FAA, surely Mayor Bowman can grow a pair and void the agreement with the Portage & Main property owners that keeps people out of the intersection. It’s set to expire in 2019 anyway.

These barriers are a national embarrassment. What other North American city does this? Not a one.

Don’t tell me Winnipeg is special. Other cities have intersections where two wide thoroughfares meet. Really, the appropriate thing to do here would be to return the intersection to the people, and have a pedestrian scramble—where traffic is stopped in every direction so pedestrians can cross from all sides, and diagonally if they wish.

Portage Avenue and Main Street themselves could use a road diet. Protected bike lanes. A bus lane. Even then you’ve still got room for street parking and a couple of lanes of vehicular traffic.

Winnipeg grew up around an electric streetcar network but for too long has felt the debilitating effects of automobile dependency. Downtown has turned into a massive parking lot, core neighborhoods have thinned out while becoming increasingly littered with unsightly strip malls. I’ve nothing against cars per se—I own three and I change my own oil, thank you very much—but when there’s no other acceptable option for transportation, when the city’s historic primary intersection has been purposely retrofitted to accommodate cars and exclude pedestrians, you don’t have a city that’s inclusive, or vibrant, or ready for the 21st century and beyond.

I’ve advocated in the past for the 1959 subway plan that was once a serious consideration in Winnipeg but nobody in political power seems to want to touch it today. Too bad. It’s now more relevant than ever.

The subway that could've been

The subway that could’ve been

Meanwhile, the one single action the current mayor can take in order to end the era of car dominance in downtown Winnipeg won’t require a large capital expenditure. Or years of study and endless meetings.

Mr. Bowman, it’s high time to call in the heavy equipment. And if you want to do it right, be the first to swing the sledgehammer.

Des Moines can’t touch Winnipeg



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.

Why our young abandon Winnipeg

Retaining urban singles key to raising population

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Dallas Hansen

Why are “a disproportionate number of young, skilled workers” quitting Manitoba for greener pastures in BC and Alberta? Neither the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce or the University of Manitoba economics department has any clue, but both are calling for “an in-depth provincial study….”

No need to waste another several years scratching your heads, fellows–I’ve already studied this more deeply than any think-tank every could. As a whole, young, single, educated men and women are leaving Winnipeg because–compared to Vancouver, Toronto, or, sadly, even Calgary–Winnipeg is thought to be, to put it diplomatically, bumpkinly. Provincial.

How Cowtown, once best known for its rodeo festival, ever did eclipse our superior reputation for sophistication might be profitably examined, but it’s not just about jobs and oil. According to Statscan, Manitoba’s unemployment rate for February, 2006 is 4.4 per cent, second lowest in the country, and a half-percentage point below British Columbia’s. Alberta, at 3.1 per cent, might be able to guarantee you a job, but then why do so many young Winnipeggers opt for Vancouver?

As a former Vancouverite who would never consider moving to Calgary, I’ll tell you why. It isn’t the climate–three weeks at a time without a ray of sunlight is worse than three weeks of minus thirty. It’s that Vancouver appeals to young, single, educated adults through its quality urban neighbourhoods. Whether you live in Kitsilano or English Bay, Yaletown or Commercial Drive, you have a giant selection of little grocery stores, cafés, neighbourhood pubs and sundry shops within easy walking–providing plenty of community-building, face-to-face meetings with your young, single, educated peers. Under such conditions a car seems superfluous; without one, the increased cost of living is no longer. Add a potential for better earnings and you’re financially better off.

Some, such as U of M economist John McCallum, have suggested Manitoba has a marketing problem. But no amount of slick advertising can rouse demand for what is essentially an unpalatable product–at least compared to what our competitors can offer. Then what’s our problem? Winter? Edmonton’s is no better. Lack of jobs? Winnipeg’s got plenty, even for artists, writers, actors, etc. In my case, I found opportunity through a publishing institution old as the city itself–the Free Press.

Cities, at minimum, are a collection of buildings and people. A block of densely packed, upright historic frame houses is worth much, much more–both monetarily and in use-value–when it is proximal to a lively, storefront-lined pedestrian shopping street. While today the closest thing Winnipeg has to such a thing might be Corydon Avenue (though it is also dotted with set-back strip malls, a gas station, an auto body shop, a giant phone utility building, etc.) during Winnipeg’s growth days many of our streets–Main, Portage, Selkirk, James, Euclid, Notre Dame–were built up in blocks of solid storefront with apartments on the upper floors. This mixed-use model has proved essential to creating zones of urbanity, the sort of attractive public spaces where the young, single, and educated want to be.

Even if oil prices crash tomorrow, out-migration will continue to haunt Manitoba’s economy until we admit to Winnipeg’s modernist mistakes and begin an aggressive reconstruction program. By all and any means, we must reëstablish storefront continuity along our main city streets, building several storeys of apartment dwellings above; de-regulate on-street parking, moving cars off commercial lands that ought to be built upon; and, most importantly–thought this is a point typically lost upon Chamber-of-Commerce types–we must build a grade-separated, rail based rapid transit system that will every day bring downtown tens of thousands of people, but not their cars, while returning the lifestyle advantage back toward the convenient centre and away from the sterile suburbs.

Speaking of suburbia, that’s one environment from which the young, single, and educated creative classes are almost invariably repelled. Given the dullness of such subdivisions as Linden Woods and Island Lakes, disconnected as they are from the wholesome spontaneity of city life, it’s no wonder that so many middle-class, suburban youth have turned to stimulant drugs (cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy) to feel stimulated.

Calgary is an ugly mess of urban sprawl, tacky houses, and ugly modernist buildings. But planners there know this, which is why they’re pushing to build inner-city density while adding to their successful light-rail transit system. They’re proud of having an inner-city population of 117,000, and their civic government is chasing enough infill development to add another 34,000 by 2024. Meanwhile, Winnipeg’s inner city population, from 1986 to 2007, fell by 13,000, but remains still (somewhat) ahead of Calgary’s.

Compared to Calgary, Winnipeg would have a much easier time feeling like a metropolis. We need only try.