Re-imagining the city

By Dorothy Dobbie

One of the lovely downtown Winnipeg buildings from the City Beautiful era.

There is a group of Winnipeggers who are busy re-imagining the city and its architecture to accommodate anticipated growth. Wonderful idea and kudos to all; it’s time we rethought some aspects of our city.

Apparently, lofty structures are at the top of the drawing board and that is not surprising, since many of the dreamers are architects. Sprinkled here and there in the discussion is the word green, but one wonders just what that means to those who use it with such passion and yet so casually.

One of the concepts, by the people who brought you the Cube in old Market Square, is a floating condominium project that would rise above Grant near Pembina and encompass public “green spaces”, all of it built on a deck high above street level. It’s free air space, after all.

But how free is it? Every time someone invades “free” air space, they block the view, cast a shadow, stop the rain and snow, stifle ground level growth and basically displace the freedoms of those living on the lowest levels, the green levels where things including people normally grow.

Another idea is to build a skyscraping steel communications tower at the corner of Portage and Main.  The first question is Why? The second is “How would a steel structure rising from Portage and Main really look at ground level where we mortals dwell?” For that matter, “Why would we need to build a set of condominiums over Stafford and Grant when there is land all around?”

It’s not that I’m against any of these “lofty” ideas on principle. It’s rather that I believe we need to ask questions. Case in point: the Cube in Old Market Square – a bad idea by good people and one that cost a fortune to build – was not properly thought through in any aspect of its design and is now shut down. As one performer put it after the fact,”I don’t think it was built with music and performance in mind. It succeeds as a piece of art, but it comes up short as a performance space.” I would question whether it “succeeds as a piece of art”, myself, but that’s a subjective matter that I leave for each individual to resolve for themselves.

The point is, nobody asked enough critical questions at the outset.
So while we are re-imagining the city, let’s take a look at what really needs to be fixed and planned based on things that have failed or succeeded in other cities.

The network of transportation arteries

Winnipeg may have saved itself a lot of headache by ignoring the rush to freeways when you look at the crumbling infrastructure of Montreal and Toronto, where millions are being spent or contemplated to be spent to dismantle some of the lofty sixties style road networks. It has been shown that the wider and bigger you make these arteries, the greater the traffic headache because they simply attract more traffic. They usually do this in conjunction with “calming” or slowing traffic on regular streets which simply exacerbates the problem by forcing traffic onto the freeways. There must be a better way. Winnipeg could set an example for the world in exploring the possibilities and applying new rules.

Dealing with “ugly”

At one time, Winnipeg was considered one of the prettiest little cities on the continent (this, when it was still the fourth largest city in Canada). Now, it’s hard to find a pretty street where the curbs are not crumbling, the boulevards aren’t choked with weeds and gravel, or where cracked cement-covered parking lots and garish signage don’t dominate the view. Our commercial districts are disastrously ill-planned with ugly little strip malls lining streets.

Let’s deal with ugly, create some harmonious design standards such as exist in some America cities like Sacramento where green space abounds and fast food restaurants look like country homes.

The old CP line

Discussion about the eventual removal of the rail lines that split the city into segments has begun. Much of that discussion has centred around building homes. I have no objection there, but let’s keep our eye on how this might be done. Why not have a beltway of beauty that straddles the city with green being the predominant colour. A major green artery, filled with trees, grass and wildlife sheltering new homes, with walkways for bikes and pedestrians, and wide tree-lined streets would be a boon to home owners and the city at large. Developers would also win as people would flock to these pretty neighbourhoods. Making this happen, however, will require strong political will against the greed of the short-sighted who often don’t serve even their own best interest in the rush for short term profit.

This is just the beginning of what should be a city-wide discussion by all citizens. (And, by the way, kudos to the people who have started the ball rolling.)

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