A WALKING THEY WILL GO
Winnipeg is a sprawling, car-addicted city, however more residents are seeing the benefits of working and living in walkable neighbourhoods
FROM his perch 12 storeys above Osborne Village, Robert Keizer is an elevator ride from anything he needs.
“My grocery store, my liquor store, my favourite hangout are all just steps away,” the 27-year old IT specialist said.
He eats fresh food every day. He can stop for a pint on the way home with zero fear of a DUI charge. If he feels a bit peckish, his favourite haunt — Cornerstone Restaurant and Bar — is a five-minute walk.
Keizer, 27, doesn’t own a car, but it’s not because he hates cars — “I just drove 20,000 kilometres in 14 days on a cross-Canada vacation” — he simply isn’t going to become a slave to one.
“I just don’t see the point, given where I live.”
While the average suburbanite would see being carless as isolating, Keizer finds it liberating. When his friends are going out, he walks over and joins them. “In the suburbs, anything like that is a drive.” If he ties one on a little too hard, getting home safely is not an issue.
Spring, summer and fall provide a refreshing walk to work in the East Exchange, and he’s going to try out the riverwalk in winter, too.
Brian Wall is an architect in the Exchange District. He lives across the hall from his office. Having raised three daughters in Harbourview South in northeast Winnipeg, he’s never going back to the burbs. Virtually everything he needs — doctor, dentist, restaurants… his daughters — are all within walking distance.
“There is a vibrant lifestyle in the Exchange that we love,” Wall said in an email from Nicaragua, where he and his wife, Alison, have a winter home, something he said is only made possible by their move downtown.
“We have learned what it means to be involved in the life of someone less fortunate than us. We have learned that taking a cab — even though we have a car — often costs less than driving and allows us both to enjoy our evening without worrying about safely getting home.
“More importantly, we spend more time together downtown than we ever did in the suburbs.”
Across North America, cities are struggling to find ways to become more walkable, to let residents live more of their lives on foot and less in automobiles. The reasons are many, but largely boil down to the financial health of cities and the physical health of their residents.
It’s a lesson Winnipeg is starting to learn.
HISTORY: A STREETCAR NAMED RETIRED
THE city grew up around streetcar lines, and evidence of the benefits of such a design remains on streets such as Corydon Avenue, Osborne Street and Portage Avenue, among others. High-density homes — apartment blocks — rose next to the streets, with single- and two-family homes radiating out from there.
The combination of foot traffic getting off the streetcars and high numbers of residents living close to these streets created the kind of critical mass that allowed services, from grocers to butchers to coffee shops, to thrive.
But when the Second World War ended, the streetcars were decommissioned, the tracks ripped out and growth focused on the automobile, which allowed city residents to dream of larger homes and open spaces. Building codes for shopping centres mandated building an island in a sea of parking spaces. People who could afford single-family homes seemed offended by any idea of living near multi-family homes.
“I think it’s just in our DNA in Canada and North America,” said Brent Bellamy, an architect with Number Ten Group, noted urban planning commentator and Free Press columnist. “We sort of have this image in North America where we came from an agrarian society and so we have this ideal of space.
“We came here and from Day 1, we had unlimited space, and that’s sort of the ideal we built our country on.”
A key factor, said Mike Moore, president of the Manitoba Home Builders’ Association, is until 1972, what we know as Winnipeg was a collection of individual cities: West Kildonan, St. Vital, St. Boniface, and so on. Up to that year, when the various communities amalgamated, each did planning in its own way.
“What Steve Juba did was brilliant,” Moore said of Winnipeg’s mayor at the time. “He knew the city of Winnipeg was landlocked, its tax base was shrinking and had few opportunities for development.”
Amalgamation brought all the areas ripe for development — Charleswood, North Kildonan, St. Vital, Fort Garry and others — under city taxation. “Juba knew he’d have an unlimited supply of new taxes.”
It solved the city’s revenue problem, but just like the city had no cohesive plan for development before unicity, it’s never had one since, Moore said.
“I can’t tell you what’s going to be built in the next 15 to 20 years, because we have no plan,” Moore said. “In Calgary, I can find out exactly what’s going to be built, where the new sewer lines are going and where the new light rail stations are going to be in 20 years, because that city has a plan.”
Bellamy, who is board chairman for the downtown economic development organization Centre Venture Development Corp., also pointed to other factors, such as a perceived need to keep zoning separate — commercial goes here, schools go here, single-family housing goes here and multi-family housing goes there — where before, stores and apartment buildings and houses would share spaces, creating the kind of density that supports local services.
“In Europe, they appreciate more, they long for, the human connection — the coffee shop and those social spaces,” said Bellamy. “They build smaller living spaces because they live in the city more. They use the library and coffee shop and all the amenities of their neighbourhoods.
“We see density as bad; they see density as what creates vibrancy.”
He sees Corydon Avenue as an ideal model for a new neighbourhood. “There’s a five-storey apartment building at every corner. It provides that density, that energy, and a critical mass to support the retail that’s interspersed in there, instead of having to drive to the shopping centres down the highway.”
Behind the density are single-family homes, often with porches, on streets lined with trees and flanked by sidewalks.
Bellamy said he finds that style of streetscape much more human, more friendly.
“I love the layering of the public space, and then the semi-private spaces with the porches and the private spaces inside the homes and backyards,” he said. “You feel safer walking on the sidewalks because you have this sense of a barrier between you and the cars.”
Bellamy, whose columns are often accompanied by anti-downtown tirades in the online comments section, said it’s not about getting everyone to live downtown, nor is it about forcing people out of single-family homes, but rather finding more sustainable models for new or existing developments, patterned after what he calls the old streetcar neighbourhoods. He lives in one of those streetcar neighbourhoods himself.
“In the old days, you would know the grocery store clerk, you would know the butcher, the baker, the candlestickmaker, because you went to those shops three times a week,” he said. “Now, it’s all about driving to these huge asphalt parking lots and braving the cold to this big-box store, and to me, it’s a lifestyle I don’t understand, and how it happened so quickly. I hope we’re starting to see the logic of not doing that.”
Critically, it’s all without forcing people into a lifestyle they don’t want.
“You want to give people those options — the large home on a large lot,” he said. “At the same time, you want themto pay the true costs of their choices.”
If you look at those older neighbourhoods — Osborne Street, Academy Road, Corydon Avenue, Portage Avenue and Main Street — you’ll see retail and higher-density housing along the old streetcar route, blending into single-family homes within walking distance. It’s a model that still works today, with thriving restaurants and shops along many of those streets, dependent on the neighbourhood’s density and not on the automobile.
Instead of extending the old streetcar grid, the city started building what Bellamy called cul-de-sac neighbourhoods, which were designed to prevent flow-through traffic and slow traffic entering the neighbourhood, but had the unintended consequence of forcing residents to drive virtually everywhere.
So, if public transit was key to a sustainable past, is it key to a sustainable future? Coun. Jenny Gerbasi thinks so.
Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) pointed to the removal of streetcars and a reluctance to return to rapid transit as a key contributor to the city’s lack of density. In other cities, higher-density living in the immediate vicinity of a transit hub, with medium- and lower-density housing within walking distance, provides the numbers needed to support retail services at that transit hub, making the use of rapid transit evenmore appealing.
“That’s a big part of it, having an alternative to the car that’s fast and convenient,” she said. “In Winnipeg, we’re just beginning to build a rapid transit system and focus on active transportation for both recreation and commuting.”
Ease and economics both played a role in making the city dependent on the car, she said, so as the city grew, consequences were ignored or put off as the next generation’s problem.
“Part of it is just the nature of having all that open space. There was no urgency and in the beginning, even the congestion wasn’t all that bad,” said Gerbasi.
Chris Leinberger studies urban planning around the world. He’s chairman of the Centre for Real Estate and Urban Development at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He sees the issue as much about the future survival of cities as it is about the environment, fiscal sustainability or personal health.
“Many of the 21st-century knowledge industries looking to locate an office are demanding — both the companies and the employees — a walkable urban option,” he said. “If you don’t have that product on the shelf, you’re just not competitive.”
“It’s the same as in the 1950s, if that same city did not put in freeways and drivable suburban, you put yourself out of position.”
Leinberger said cities are realizing demand for walkability is growing, but that doesn’t mean you don’t also build drivable surburban living.
“You have to have both. Today, we’ve overbuilt drivable suburban, that’s why prices are so weak and it’s driving up the prices of walkable urban.”
If economics is what brought us here, economics is also forcing change.
“Everything government has to pay for is stretched because we’re building in such low density,” Bellamy said.
“We used to have 10 houses per kilometre of roads, now we have seven houses. When that happens, either the roads will deteriorate or everybody’s taxes will go up.”
That fiscal reality is what’s driving the current conversation about growth fees, where the City of Winnipeg intends to impose surcharges on each new house built in the suburbs. The city is currently locked in a legal battle with the development community, which is challenging the city’s authority to impose such fees.
Gerbasi said it’s true current fees and taxes pay for development in the immediate area of a new suburb, but each new suburb imposes costs on the city that aren’t recovered in future property taxes.
Bellamy said those costs include new fire halls, community centres, libraries and connecting the new development’s infrastructure to city services.
“As well, the developer builds the neighbourhood and then just hands it to the city to maintain for the next, what, 150 years?”
Mayor Brian Bowman, the city’s point man on growth fees, said the city is trying to plan for more sustainable developments in the future and sees growth fees as a separate issue.
“It’s just about making sure we have the money to grow in a way that’s fiscally sustainable,” he said. The proposed growth fees are $5,100 per 1,000 square feet of space in select outlying areas, with a plan to impose them in the future on commercial development and infill housing.
Still, Bowman said the end game in building out the city’s rapid transit system is to develop areas around transit hubs that are more walkable, and develop areas that don’t force residents to leave their neighbourhoods to get typical household provisions.
“We’re seeing that already with (downtown’s) Graham Mall,” he said, pointing to such developments as Sky, True North Square and the coming building of two new apartment towers at Winnipeg Square.
While the city has identified the costs associated with new developments not recovered in future property taxes, Bowman’s press secretary, Jeremy Davis, said the city will not comment on those costs while the proposal is being argued in court.
CALGARY, a city also lacking geographic constraints on development, recently imposed a similar fee, and undertook an extensive consultation process with developers to arrive at estimates of the cost of growth. The calculations included the cost of public facilities (fire halls, police, libraries, transit and recreation), new roadways, waste and water service and storm water runoff, or drainage.
Calgary identified an average cost of $435,044 per hectare. The city then calculates that cost against the number of people expected in each development, with each unit in multifamily dwellings paying less and single-family homes paying the most. Areas with more complex waste and water requirements paymore, aswell.
Developments in established areas, which require less new infrastructure, pay less, and a maximum levy has been set for high-density dwellings in a bid to encourage such developments.
What does walkable mean? Bellamy says it’s about more than the ability to walk around. Pathways that give residents the ability to take a leisurely stroll are important, but true walkability is about being able to walk with purpose — to the store, to work, for a bite to eat or for that last mile from, or first mile to, a transit hub, he said.
Coun. Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg- St. Norbert), who in a previous life advocated for active transportation, said the city’s devotion to the automobile is evident, sometimes in ways she finds disconcerting.
Lukes raised her family in Fort Richmond, one of Bellamy’s so-called cul-de-sac neighbourhoods, where the car reigned supreme to the point residents were up in arms over her proposal, well before she joined council, to install sidewalks to let children walk to schools and the community centre.
“Today, hundreds of people use them every day,” she said. “But you wouldn’t believe some of the insults I received.”
Where does the city go from here? It should, according to Leinberger, look to four cities in Canada as inspiration — Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec City.
Leinberger, who delivered a keynote address to the Canadian Real Estate Association in Winnipeg in 2015, said he recently ranked those four cities for walkable urban lifestyles and merged the results into his list of the Top 30 cities in the United States. The result? All four Canadian cities placed in the Top 6. That ranking is based on the percentage of a city’s office space located in walkable areas.
He gives Winnipeg a failing grade.
“You and Calgary, in my estimation, wouldn’t be close to those Top 6. You’ve got some great models right in your own country and you’re not living up to them.”
WHEREVER the city is headed, the homebuilders’ Moore wants a road map. He said with a plan, developers and the city could work hand in hand to deliver whatever kind of growth the city wants.
“We’ve been asking for one for years,” Moore said, adding developers would welcome a cohesive strategy not only formaking the city’s growth sustainable, but better for residents and businesses.
He said the need for a plan is even more evident when weighed against the mayor’s goal of growing the city to one million residents.
“Where are those 250,000 additional people going to live? There needs to be a plan.”
The benefits would be many, he said. Sewers, roads, new transit routes and amenities such as schools, recreation facilities, business districts and housing could be planned and budgeted years in advance, dispensing with the ad hoc nature of today’s development.
“How does development happen in Winnipeg? A developer does all the work and then submits plans for approval,” he said.
He also doesn’t accept the math that says existing homeowners subsidize new developments.
“If you look at a home in an older neighbourhood, that owner might be paying $800 to $1,100 in property taxes,” he said, excluding school taxes, careful to point out he’s not accusing those residents of underpaying. “In Bridgwater, an owner might be paying $5,000, and he’s the pariah?”
As an example of how improved planning is far from altruistic, Leinberger pointed to Denver, Colo., where a progressive mayor, who is now Gov. John Hickenlooper, pushed through a light-rail line. The result was to unleash billions in private investment along that line, which reshaped the city into a preferred destination for knowledge-based industries.
“I think Denver could disrupt Silicon Valley as the hotbed of innovative technologies,” Stuart Wall, CEO of New York-based Signpost, wrote in an article extolling the virtues of Denver’s transformation on politico. com. He recently opened a 30-person satellite office in Denver’s downtown, according to the article. “If I were to do it all over again, I’d consider having our headquarters here and our satellite office in New York.”
Denver’s past devotion to the automobile had residents invoking the term ‘Houstonization,’ referring to uncontrolled sprawl. Today, even Houston is rethinking the wisdom of sprawl.
While Winnipeg might be a bit behind the curve on promoting walkability, Lukes sees signs she finds encouraging. She points to Bridgwater Forest, which is dominating her time lately and it’s mostly due to sidewalks. People want to use the sidewalks, but the city has to co-ordinate with snow removal teams because the sidewalks are right next to the streets, and windrows pile up and block pedestrians.
“It’s such a walkable neighbourhood,” she said. “And I think you’ll see once we finish building it out, with its town square, we really are striving for a neighbourhood where you have that density, that collection of services to walk to.”
Bellamy, meanwhile, likes the idea of Bridgwater’s town square, but questions the logic of enclosing it between the two directions of a major traffic route such as Kenaston Boulevard.
Lukes also pointed to Phase 2 of the southwest transit corridor as evidence the development community is starting to warmup to the idea of building neighbourhoods and not house farms.
“I see it all the time, developers are buying up properties in the Parker and Byng areas. They know the corridor is coming,” she said. “I see it at the appeals committee, because all the neighbours are complaining.”
The Parker leg of the transit corridor has its share of critics, and none more so than Moore, even though his members would benefit from building new homes in the area. He said moving the leg to such a low-density area robs the city of many of the benefits the corridor was to provide.
Yet Moore said where 20 years ago, 80 per cent of all new housing starts were single-family, the pendulum has swung: now 55 per cent of starts are multi-family, a trend he thinks bodes well for walkability.
Whatever the challenges, Lukes agreed demand is starting to swing, and said the market will have the greatest impact on what developers and the city decide to build.
“I think people are realizing it’s good for your health and it’s good for the community.”
Today, Robert Keizer shares his apartment with his girlfriend, but said his love of a walkable community won’t end should his home life one day grow to include a family, or even a house.
“I don’t think I’ll ever live anywhere but the Village or Wolseley,” he said. “I love being able to walk to anything I need.”