Winnipeg’s suburban development, long ago linked to public transit routes, is now driven by a desire to live further away from the city centre; the result is more vehicles, longer commutes and growing greenhouse-gas emissions


THE main arteries of this city tell the story of how Winnipeg grew into a metropolis.

Pembina, Portage, Main, Henderson Highway — all of these streets snaking their way through a growing city — used to act as principal corridors connecting the downtown core to bedroom communities that, once upon a time, stood on their own.

They tell the story of how urban sprawl was virtually carved into the DNA of the city as far back as the early 1900s.

“We really couldn’t avoid it — because of the way we were set up, because there were individual cities and municipalities set up surrounding the downtown core,” says Winnipegfocused historical consultant Murray Peterson.

“The city was moving in all directions outward… you naturally had sprawl.”

The nature of urban sprawl in Winnipeg has changed over that time, he says. In the beginning, it was driven, ironically, by public transport.

“Wherever the street car went, you could get development,” he says.

Now it’s driven more by low-density suburban housing development, which is cheaper to build in the sticks than it is to redevelop sites within the city. New builds are “fairly significant” in several areas, says Christopher Storie, the director of the University of Winnipeg’s Institute for Urban Studies.

Continuous development can be seen north of Garden City, as well as in the southwest and in the vicinity of the Island Lakes neighbourhood in the southeast, he says. The result is a city that is still pushing the outer boundaries further from the downtown core.

Based on city census data, the number of people living in Island Lakes grew from 510 in 1986 to 7,465 in 2011. In the same time period, Riverbend, located off Main Street inside the Perimeter Highway, grew from 780 people to 5,390. Even communities with more established neighbourhoods, such as Richmond West, grew from 2,995 in 1986 to 8,240 people by 2011. These neighbourhoods are outpacing the growth rates of the city as a whole.

And the sprawl continues to the edges of the Perimeter Highway. The Waverley West development in south Winnipeg, which was given the green light in 2005, was designed for 40,000 residents by 2020. Sage Creek, where the first home in the development to the east of Island Lakes was built in 2005, will be home to 12,000 by 2028.

“We have continued to sprawl in a classic sense — the single-family or light-density residential housing — towards the perimeters of the city,” Storie says.


These patterns of development do more than increase infrastructure spending for the municipality and lengthen the time it takes to drive from one end of the city to the other. The way a city develops creates the patterns in which its people live. And when it comes to climate change, they create entrenched behaviours that make lowering greenhouse gas emissions a herculean task.

Statistics Canada did a side-by-side comparison of data gathered in 1996 and 2016 to look at how continued sprawl — not only in Winnipeg but across the country — was changing the dynamics of how far people travelled to reach work.

The study of long-form census data found that in Winnipeg the most concentrated place of work is in the downtown core, with 47.5 per cent of jobs within five kilometres of city hall, while another 40.4 per cent of jobs are between five and 10 kilometres of city hall. But fewer people are living in areas with short commutes to this high-density employment zone. 

In 1996, 36.8 per cent of Winnipeggers lived within five kilometres of the city centre. Two decades later that number had fallen to 28.4 per cent, which is still the highest percentage of people located in close proximity of the urban core when compared to the seven other Canadian cities studied. But every city saw an increase in dispersal of people away from the city core. 

During that 20-year period, Winnipeg saw an increase of more than 20,000 people using a vehicle as the primary means of transport to get to work, which is now the preferred mode of 78.8 per cent of the city’s roughly 345,000 commuters. 

So, it is no surprise then when emissions reports show residents’ passenger vehicles are responsible for approximately one-third of all the emissions generated in the city. 


In Winnipeg since 2000, more than 28,000 new building permits have been issued for single-family homes, with peaks in construction coming in 2012 and 2017. In the same period, medium density options saw meagre advances with only 2,100 semi-detached home permits issued, and 4,700 row house permits issued. 

Higher-density options advanced on par with single-family residences. The city issued permits for 25,000 apartment- style units to be constructed. And while permits for single-family dwellings have remained remarkably stable since 2000, permits for apartments have been increasing steadily. In 2000, permits were issued for 119 units. In 2019, permits for 3,145 units were issued. 

Storie says it is good to see progress on more density development, but it still doesn’t mitigate the continued pressure on the city to continue its outward expansion. While it was a pattern developed very early in Winnipeg history, it was further cemented in the postwar years, Storie explains, wherein the inner-city housing was the more affordable option, and thus was often where new immigrants would live. But as the family began to generate more wealth, they typically moved out to single-family homes in the suburbs with more space, and they did this likely at the same time they were able to afford a car for transport into the core, he says. 

In the postwar years, sprawl and its connection and reliance on transit systems was effectively severed as suburbanites became car-bound for their commutes. 

The flip side of ambition is the prospect of falling short. Vancouver has failed to meet its 2020 goal, and Calgary similarly missed its previously set 2020 target. Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman says this is a case where the good need not be the enemy of the perfect. 

“We did change the targets in 2018,” Bowman says. “The targets were done to make sure they were more achievable. And so, we want to make sure that if we’re setting these targets we’re actually achieving them.” 

Or, at least, that is the hope. 

Cities are well-positioned to act on climate change because they’re a large source of emissions, thanks to the number of cars on the streets and the aggregation of buildings and people. 

“(Municipalities) are the form of government that are closest to the people, so in terms of engagement, they’re the ones who could engage key decision-makers, the public, key sectors, and have more tailored approaches to climate-change mitigation and adaptation,” says Dave Guyadeen, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design. 

Guyadeen says cities, in many ways, have the most at stake when it comes to coping with the fallout of a changing climate, since there is such a large concentration of people, infrastructure and businesses. And when extreme weather events happen, for example, the damage costs are staggering. 

“The most important part is cities have access to land-use and zoning controls and regulations, which the federal and provincial levels don’t necessarily have,” he says. 

“So, cities — in land-use planning — they can influence development by specifically targeting things such as mixed-use development, compact development, looking at infill/brownfield (development), green building and infrastructure.” 

Winnipeg has begun setting modest targets for 2030, aiming to have 50 per cent of development be infill, which helps create more urban density, but the city continues to grow outward. 

“Even transportation — you can promote active transportation, transit-oriented development, building pedestrian- friendly communities, which would reduce our reliance on vehicles for movement,” Guyadeen says. 

And this will be critical to Winnipeg’s plan, since sprawl and the accompanying transportation emissions account for a significant amount of the city’s overall output.


Emissions in Winnipeg fall into three large categories: transportation, natural gas and waste disposal. Local calculations haven’t been made available by the city since 2011, but this year council agreed to allot money for a new inventory. 

The 2011 data demonstrated that nearly half (49.7 per cent) of emissions are generated by transportation, one-third from burning natural gas and 14.9 per cent in the waste-disposal process. 

Winnipeg, powered principally by hydroelectricity, does have a leg up when it comes to emissions generated to create electricity, which make up less than one per cent of the total. Transit and wastewater both also generate less than one per cent of the total. 


Of the emissions generated by transportation, 65 per cent is by residents driving. And while the overall goals are slightly more ambitious, the aim is to lower transportation emissions by only 17 per cent by 2030. 

This includes a target for eight per cent of vehicles on the road to be electric by 2030.

“Eight per cent by 2030? No. That’s a bit low,” says Eric Bibeau, an associate professor in the department of engineering at the University of Manitoba. Bibeau was one of the authors of the federal strategic road map for electric vehicles released in 2009. 

Bibeau says Manitoba has lagged behind in electric vehicle sales — less than one per cent of new registrations in the province in 2018 accounted for EVs or hybrids, according to Statistics Canada. That compares to provinces leading the way, such as Quebec and British Columbia where those vehicles accounted for only 5.2 per cent and 6.1 per cent, respectively. 

However, Bibeau believes that in the coming decade, the move for manufacturers to create electric-powered trucks will change things for Manitobans, and Winnipeggers, specifically. 

“It’s going to be pretty idiotic to buy a gasoline truck by 2025,” he says. 

“The eight per cent — I’m not surprised that somebody from Winnipeg would say that, I’m not surprised. It’s low and it shows the culture of not understanding what is going on (in the global context).” 

The climate plan also sets out a goal of creating 800 kilometres of pathways for an active transportation network by 2030. Approximately 290 kilometres have been built so far, city officials say. 

By 2030, the plan states that 14 per cent of people will need to have adopted either walking or biking (or another means of active transport) in order to achieve the 17 per cent emissions-reduction targets. Fifteen per cent will need to take public transit. According to Statistics Canada, based on the 2016 census, 4.7 per cent of Winnipeg’s commuters walked, 1.7 per cent cycled and 14 per cent used public transit. 

Bowman says this is an area where citizens can step up, incorporating active or public transportation into their lives as demand will spur more development. Another piece of the puzzle is analyzing the continued growth of the commuter communities surrounding the city and he expects that will be a part of the capital region plan. 

“One of the things we’re scrutinizing is the kind of growth that happens in and around Winnipeg,” he says. 


Buildings are Winnipeg’s second-largest source of emissions, with 99 per cent produced from burning natural gas, the climate report says. 

Natural gas has been long considered a clean solution for heating needs, given that it emits approximately 27 per cent less than burning heating oil for the same purpose, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says. 

The only ways to mitigate emissions from natural gas are to change mechanisms for heating to renewable sources, or electric (which could put considerable strain on the province’s electric grid) or to invest in building efficiency. 

The city’s plan for mitigation relies entirely on the first and third options. 

The city aims to decrease emissions from heating buildings — both residential and commercial — by eight per cent by 2030. This includes an increase (yes, increase) in the amount of natural gas burned, compared with 2011 levels by about 24 per cent; the plan expects that will be offset by eight per cent of homes switching to renewable sources of energy, or having made significant energy-efficiency improvements. Meanwhile, 12 per cent of commercial or industrial buildings will be expected to do the same. 

The city will make an effort to motivate the switch — especially for commercial owners — by creating energy benchmarks for properties so that each building is rated based on its carbon footprint.

The climate plan also discusses the possibility of using solar energy for water heaters, or possibly investing in geothermal heat pump technology, which is more efficient and generally uses renewable energy sources. 


The Brady Road Landfill is one of the top single-source emitters of greenhouse gases in the province. 

“While waste generation is similar to other Canadian cities, diversion rates have been comparatively poor in Winnipeg,” the climate plan states. 

Approximately 15 per cent of emissions come from waste disposal, generated principally by the decomposition of organic matter in a landfill. A compost program would alleviate and mitigate emissions. A two-year pilot project is finally set to get underway in the fall after nearly a decade of discussions.

“I think I was one of the people who didn’t want to move quickly on compost. Some people blame me on this, I don’t think I deserve all the blame, but my view has shifted on compost,” Coun. Brian Mayes says.

“We should be trying to move that forward if we can get some help from the province. I’d like to pick up the pace right now on this pilot project.”

Winnipeg is the largest city in Canada without a compost program. The city could have learned from pilot projects conducted in other municipalities and fast-tracked the initiative, but chose not to pursue it.

“It’s not like this is tricky technology, like some of the stuff at the North End sewage treatment plant, no,” says Mayes, the St. Vital councillor who chairs the Standing Policy Committee on Water and Waste, Riverbank Management and the Environment.

“There’s a bin, you put the bin at the end of your driveway. I think it came down to cost.”

Bowman agrees that council was not receptive to moving forward with curbside organics in the last term.

“One of the reasons we wanted to get the pilot is there are localized costs that have to be quantified so that we can properly budget,” he says.

The city — with the help of the federal government — has invested $3.2 million in drilling 81 gas wells in the landfill to collect the methane that would otherwise be emitted. Instead of using it for heating or other useful purposes, the methane is being burned to simply turn the emissions from methane to less-potent carbon dioxide. 

The city’s project web page says the practice will reduce emissions annually by the same amount as if 21,700 passenger vehicles were taken off the roads. 


The city has plans and targets, but without a local inventory conducted since 2011, knowing where the city stands is difficult. The closest number that can be used to track progress is the federal government’s inventory report that considers the province’s emissions from 2018. The report, released in the spring, indicated that Manitoba’s emissions have continued to grow, reaching their highest point ever. Between 2005 and 2018, emissions in the province grew by 8.3 per cent. 

Keeping track of progress and reporting it publicly is a critical piece of the emissions-reduction puzzle. The Carbon Disclosure Project, an international not-for-profit organization, has become the go-to source for governments and businesses alike to report their emissions-reduction goals and actions.

“Cities that don’t both measure and manage this information are not as readily prepared to withstand the systemic shocks from either extreme weather, or from other types of disruptions,” says Bruno Sarda, president of CDP North America. 

“So the motivation these days is that it really is considered to be a standard practice.” 

The CDP grades any city government that has voluntarily participated. Winnipeg was not among the seven Canadian cities that received an A-grade, the only score posted publicly. Winnipeg has not updated its inventory report with CDP since 2011.

From that data, Sarda says the city may be on the right path in terms of planning, but has not progressed to the same levels as other Canadian communities. 

He says council should be seeking inspiration from places such as Windsor, Ont., which is investing in home retrofit incentives to maximize energy efficiency. Or Toronto, where idling laws are being enacted and the city transit fleet is being switched over to electric. Or Vancouver, where a clear commitment has been made to utilize more renewable energy sources. All three are A-grade cities, along with North Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary and Edmonton. 

“The thing we find with A-list cities is that they have about double the number of actions to adapt to climate change versus non-A-list cities, and about five times as many (emission) mitigation actions,” he says. 

“So Winnipeg is certainly on the right path, at least they have these emissions targets that they put out in 2018, you know, not super ambitious — 20 per cent reduction by 2030, relative to 2011 — we see that certainly as being behind the mark compared to a lot of the climate science, which says it should probably be a 50 per cent reduction by 2030. 

“Eighty per cent by 2050, that used to be pretty good, now it’s considered a little bit insufficient when it’s really about net-zero by 2050.” 

Bibeau is far more critical. 

“The city is nowhere near on the ball on anything. They have no active policy on climate change,” he says. “It reflects the (policy of) the provincial government. So, there’s nothing really serious going on in Manitoba.” 

Mayes says there are other actions to consider, such as the city’s creation of a food council to consider ways to create locally sourced food networks. 

“Maybe we’re just inching along, but at least we’re moving forward. At least we’re doing something,” Mayes says. “I am OK with our efforts.”

At roughly 28 per cent, Winnipeg’s emissions are a fraction of Manitoba’s, which account for only three per cent of the country’s total, which make up roughly 1.5 per cent of the global total, Environment and Climate Change Canada says.

But the premise of all developed countries acting together to solve the problem is the foundation for global mitigation efforts and it’s not a responsibility to be shirked, Bowman says.

“There are politicians in the world who don’t believe climate change is real and they don’t believe that it’s caused by humans. And fortunately, in Winnipeg, we’re not of that view. City council, I believe, to a person, appreciates the fact that we need to meet these (greenhouse-gas) targets and we are in a meaningful way trying to make a difference.... I want to meet the (emissions) targets and I’m going to continue to be aggressive at looking at different measures we can do to achieve them,” he says.

“We know that we’ve got more work to do, and we’ll continue to do so. But we need all levels of government doing their part, and we need citizens pitching in.” 

Twitter: @SarahLawrynuik



City has a modest climate-change plan in place but is seemingly in no hurry to implement reduction measures

THERE are many instances where municipal governments find themselves hamstrung, victims to the whims of larger governments with bigger spending power and more expansive jurisdictions.

But in the case of one of the biggest looming threats to cities — climate change — municipal governments have an overwhelming amount of power to make meaningful policy moves. Yet, the City of Winnipeg is dragging its feet on consequential action.

In 2018, Winnipeg adopted a climate-action plan aimed at lowering greenhouse-gas emissions generated within the city limits by 20 per cent by 2030, using 2011 levels as a baseline. By 2050, the goal is to have reduced emissions by 80 per cent.

This is below what the federal government committed the country to in the 2015 Paris Agreement; Canada pledged to lower emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, below 2005 levels — a greater percentage on a lower benchmark year. Following those commitments, the federal government also committed to pursuing net-zero emissions by 2050.

When compared with other Canadian cities, Winnipeg’s goals are modest. Vancouver’s aim was to lower emissions by 2020 by 33 per cent, and by 2050 by 80 per cent, using 2007 as a baseline. One might expect emissions reductions would at least be more ambitious in Winnipeg than in the heart of oil and gas country, but Calgary has outstripped Winnipeg in committing to the same emissions reduction percentage by 2050, but using 2005 as a baseline.

“And then as we sort of added a highly consumer lifestyle to the mix, the need to not only house the humans within the family, but then the stuff that comes with the shifting lifestyle, the move towards disposable, cheap items. And it all just begins to group together, and the cost of building housing, and large housing… is much more affordable building on land at the perimeter compared with infill and redevelopment in the interior,” Storie says.


The city, as part of its climate strategy passed by council in 2018, has begun addressing urban sprawl and has committed to infill making up 50 per cent of all residential development by 2030 in order to increase the city’s density.

“We want to be considering that as the city spreads out more, then we would expect to see that the number and length of person vehicle (trips) are increasing and other (transportation) options may become less viable or more costly for the city to implement,” says Lindsay Mierau, manager of the city’s Office of Sustainability.

“And that has direct implications for addressing greenhouse-gas emissions.”

The city plans to focus infill development in strategic areas close to transit corridors, and it will also move focus away from single-detached residences that are more energy intensive than their denser counterparts, Mierau says.

This is one aspect of the city’s climate plan that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2030, when compared with 2011 emissions.

In order to limit global warming to 1.5 C this century, emissions need to be reduced by 7.6 per cent every year between 2020 and 2030.

Storie says the kinds of goals the city is laying out for infill will require policy changes since it is often a secondary choice for developers because it is typically more costly, given land acquisition costs.

Coun. Brian Mayes, chairman of the Standing Committee on Water and Waste, Riverbank Management and the Environment, says he thinks focusing on density alone is an oversimplification of the problem. There has already been focus on reimagining suburbs to be more complete communities that people don’t have to leave as often, he says.

Then, there is the problem that if single-family homes end up being in short supply in Winnipeg, there’s nothing stopping people from buying in neighbouring communities and taking their tax dollars with them, he says.

“It’s all billed as if we just need to build up,” he says. “Well that’s a bit simplistic. We do need to have people living downtown, but there’s tens of thousands of people who don’t want that.” he says. 


Winnipeg is far from the only city to struggle with urban sprawl. It’s a question that’s been raised in towns and cities across North America, in large part because there is no shortage of land.

New, imaginative approaches to sustainable neighbourhood development are being considered across the country and around the world. For example, in Edmonton, the city is undertaking a first-of-its-kind community — called Blatchford.

Planners are attempting to reimagine the concept of a neighbourhood with pedestrian streets, relegating cars to back lanes. The community will be collectively powered using geothermal heat-pump technology to provide more efficient heating and cooling systems. And local businesses and recreational facilities will be integrated within the community in an attempt to bring services to residents, instead of forcing them to travel to find those services which, the theory goes, lowers their reliance on personal vehicles.

But at the same time, bedroom communities across Canada are growing at alarming rates as sprawl in major cities hits certain thresholds. Cochrane, 40 kilometres northeast of Calgary, saw a growth rate of 47.1 per cent between 2011 and 2016, Statistics Canada says. That was second only to Warman, Sask., just north of Saskatoon, which grew by 55.1 per cent.

Manitoba hasn’t seen the same explosion in growth rates of bedroom communities that’s been witnessed in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan, but the Rural Municipality of Ritchot, just south of Winnipeg, did make the top 20 list for 2011-2016, with a growth rate of 21.9 per cent.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported last fall that more than half of the residents living in communities surrounding Winnipeg commuted into the city on a daily basis — from Springfield, Headingley, St. Clements and East and West St. Paul.

Sprawl has been looked at from every which way, Storie says — the effect it has on infrastructure spending, on the provision of services, on the socioeconomic inequality between neighbourhoods. As climate change becomes a major action item on cities’ agendas, however, transportation needs of people living further from work and services really is the biggest challenge.

“My biggest concern here, in terms of urban development, is the balance between sprawl and transportation and efficiency of transportation,” he says. “We have a very strong car culture in this city, so there needs to be incentive, either through a rebate program or through a provision of services, whereby we get people out of their vehicles and into transit, and reduce that demand on the car.” 

Twitter: @SarahLawrynuik