More city than we can pay for

AS people in Winnipeg emerged from a long, frigid and snowy winter, they found a city with roads bearing a striking resemblance to the surface of the moon. This, despite the City of Winnipeg having had its highest road renewal budget in history for each of the last three years. With drought followed by flood, freezing followed by thaw, Manitoba gumbo has been having its way with our city’s roads.

We can’t change the weather, or the soil, and significantly raising taxes wouldn’t be popular, so how will we ever manage our worsening pothole problem? There is one straightforward answer — build fewer roads and get more people to live on the ones we already have. The solution to managing potholes is simple math that reads like a Grade 9 pop quiz.

If 10 taxpayers live on a street that is one kilometre long, each one pays to maintain 100 metres of road. If 10 taxpayers live on a street that is one and a half kilometres long, each one pays to maintain 150 meters of road. Every tax dollar being stretched more thinly by lower density means reduced maintenance and more potholes. It’s a simplistic example, but this is precisely what has happened in Winnipeg, and in most sprawling North American cities, over the last 50 years.

Since the 1970s, Winnipeg’s low-density, suburban growth patterns have resulted in the population increasing by 37 per cent while the built area of the city has almost doubled. Each taxpayer today is responsible for about 40 per cent more land area and its corresponding infrastructure. Looking at infrastructure such as water pipes, according to the city, each Winnipegger today is responsible for nearly 2.5 times more length of pipe than they were in the 1940s, 70 per cent more than in the 1970s.

The math is simple. We have built more city than we can pay for, and our moonscape roads are the result.

Looking deeper, the math doesn’t get better. An excellent source of information regarding the cost of Winnipeg’s growth can be found at the Dear Winnipeg Blog (, written by Michel Durand-Wood. He found that the replacement cost for all of Winnipeg’s roads is about $17 billion, and if we maintain our current road renewal budgets, again, the largest in the city’s history, the replacement cycle will be more than 100 years.

The only solution to our infrastructure deficit is to rethink what growth looks like in Winnipeg and begin embracing higher density and more diverse residential and commercial development in our existing neighbourhoods. Locating more development around infrastructure that is already in place, and less development on the periphery of the city that requires new infrastructure to be built, is the only way we will ever inch towards greater economic sustainability.

The infrastructure in most need of replacement, for now, exists in older neighbourhoods. The combined sewer system is an important example. Replacing the system is non-negotiable and it will cost billions of dollars to do. To be most cost-effective, our goal must be to have as many people as possible using and paying for that new infrastructure, instead of spending money to replace it while also building new elsewhere. This example translates to all infrastructure and city services, including roads, pipes, sewers, fire halls, community centres, libraries, transit, snow clearing and everything the city pays for. The more taxpayers sharing it,

the less costly and the better maintained it will be.

By growing our existing neighbourhoods, we will also be investing in our most productive tax base. Despite being filled with high-value homes, new suburbs typically generate far less tax revenue than less-affluent inner-city neighbourhoods because of their lower overall density. Central neighbourhoods like Wolseley, West Broadway, Spence and Earl Grey generate between 50 and 80 per cent more taxes per hectare than new suburbs built on the edge of the city.

Osborne Village generates more than twice as much tax revenue per hectare than Bridgwater, Whyte Ridge or Island Lakes. This is also true for commercial development. The single block of Corydon Avenue between Daly and Cockburn streets is lined with old, nondescript, two- and three-storey buildings and shops, but its collective assessed tax value is equal to a Costco in south Winnipeg that uses five times more land area, contributing significantly to the city’s overall footprint, infrastructure and maintenance costs.

Not only does the compact nature of mature neighbourhoods produce more revenue, but it also significantly reduces the city’s cost to service them. A study by the Halifax Regional Municipality found that when all infrastructure and public services are calculated, an average home in a central neighbourhood costs $1,416 per year to support, compared to $3,462 in a distant suburb.

By embracing density and infill growth, welcoming change in our neighbourhoods and creating policies that support a more compact urban form, we can grow our most productive tax base and spend less to service it. We can complain about soils, weather and construction techniques, but in the end the severity of our pothole problem comes down to simple math. The only solution is to change the equation.

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.