Reopening Portage and Main dominates conference discussion
People first, not cars, says architect
MAKING cities livable requires planners and developers to focus on people rather than cars and highrise buildings.
That was the message from Danish architect Jan Gehl and several others speakers as the city’s business, development and planning communities gathered at a half-day conference hosted by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.
Gehl, 82, established an international reputation as a city planner who “pedestrianized” some of world’s major cities, including Moscow and New York City. He incorporated design and planning that removed vehicles from downtown areas and returned public places to pedestrians and cyclists.
He is the author of several influential books on planning, including Life Between Buildings; Public Spaces, Public Life; and one of his most recent, Cities For People, which has been published in 31 languages.
During a 50-minute talk that was liberally sprinkled with humorous stories from his 60-year career, Gehl explored the evolution of city planning through the 20th century to today.
After the Second World War, Gehl said, city planning was dominated by a preoccupation with the automobile and concrete buildings. Planners didn’t consider how people interacted with their surroundings.
“The needs of the car became themajor thing,” Gehl said. “I hear the cars in Winnipeg are the most happiest cars in the world because you have three, four, five parking spaces for each car and that’s fantastic. I would love to be a car here.”
Gehl was critical of architecture schools and professors who emphasize design and esthetics at the expense of people.
“We knew nothing about what effect this had on people and people’s desire to go outside and use public spaces,” he said, telling the audience that he had a professor in architecture school who said, “A good housing area is something which looks good from a freeway. That was my training.”
He credited the late city planner Jane Jacobs for sparking a revolution in urban planning by reacquainting planners and architects with the concept of designing streets and buildings for people.
The morning session was dominated by advocates in favour of reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians, including architect Brent Bellamy and former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray.
Other speakers talked about suburban and urban development, including Eric Vogan, vice-president at homebuilder Qualico and president of the Urban Development Institute of Manitoba; City of Winnipeg chief planner Braden Smith; Jeannette Montufar, founding partner and CEP of MORR Transportation Consulting; and Hazel Borys, president and CEO of Place Makers, a planning firm with offices in Winnipeg, Calgary and several U.S. cities.
Chamber president Loren Remillard said the event was held during the civic election campaign on purpose.
“This is the time we should be talking about what kind of city we want to build — not for the next four years, but for the next 40 years,” Remillard said. “Today was all about talking about the big-picture issues.
“Winnipeg is no different from any other city,” Remillard said. “Now is the time to ask the question: is Winnipeg for people?”
Borys said streets are important, but places and destinations, such as downtown and walkable neighbourhoods, make a community valuable.
“They are our cash cow,” Borys said. “I’m not going to be making the argument that we should do away with suburban development — that’s not going to happen in Winnipeg — but I think we need to get clear on the return to the city and how we can level the playing field so that both forms of development are enabled and fully supported.”
Borys said urban development projects generate greater value for communities than suburban growth. He pointed out suburban housing costs more than twice as much as the equivalent space in urban areas.
“While the suburbs are growing 150 per cent faster than cities in Canada, suburban dwellers pay only half the cost that city dwellers pay for roads” and other services, Borys said.
“We simply can’t keep building low return places without having some cash cows downtown and notably distributed through our suburban fabric to up the ante.”