Put a stop to sprawl, and watch our city come alive!

What’s needed are legally enforced boundaries – and green space – around our city to restrict growth and push development inward.

Stefano Grande Downtown
Stefano Grande

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk about our downtown’s growth at a conference held by Winnipeg real estate brokers. One of the participants asked if Winnipeg’s downtown could become as vibrant as Vancouver’s. It could be, or at least close to it. All we need to do is develop a better understanding of the property-tax economics of density versus sprawl and the land-use tools needed to make it happen.

A busy place
Vancouver’s downtown is regarded as a hub for shopping and entertainment, and a place where people live and work, brimming with nighttime action. Tourism and convention-goers have also helped to drive economic development forward. Over the last decade, Vancouver’s downtown has helped to transform the area into a world-class destination. The addition of gourmet markets, luxury residences, fine-dining restaurants and high-end boutiques has helped to spur an increase in the residential population, bringing the density to about 100,000 people.

This growth is being driven by two market forces. First, growth is driven through offshore investment and immigration. Second, Vancouver’s downtown is finite, which forces a density and high-rise development that many cities wish they could have. Today, it is one of the most livable and walkable cities in the world. In essence, the ocean and the mountains are a boundary limiting sprawl, in turn creating density.

Winnipeg is not Vancouver. Our economy and immigration grow at a slower pace, and current land-use development patterns favour sprawl. That’s what happens when you have plenty of prairie and no mountains or ocean.

But imagine if Winnipeg was to better manage suburban sprawl, and in doing so created strong, resilient, walkable and vibrant neighbourhoods –- the type of neighbourhoods that are healthy for people and great for taxpayers.

The rationale for doing so was made even more clear when the Downtown BIZ and its partners invited Joe Minicozzi, principal of Urban3 in Asheville, North Carolina, and an expert who specializes in analyzing the economic potential of dense development, to talk about the issues.

His research provides ironclad data proving infill projects, revitalization of historical buildings and density have a much more efficient and significant economic impact than sprawl, leading to more sustainable cities and much less burden for the taxpayer. He was here to help Winnipeggers understand these principles.

Sprawl comes at a price
There are indeed major challenges and costs associated with urban sprawl in Winnipeg. Despite this knowledge, the same development approvals happen time and time again. So perhaps it’s time for the city to create a tool to recreate the oceans and mountains of Vancouver to force density, vibrancy and a more productive city.

Seriously, though, how about an urban limit line? A policy can be added for our city to create a better balance between infill and suburban sprawl. OurWinnipeg, the city’s land-development framework, points in this direction, but for it to work, it needs teeth. In cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Waterloo and Montreal, boundaries to restrict growth and preserve green space are enforced. This pushes the real estate market and development inward, creating stronger and more vibrant neighbourhoods and, ultimately, a more sustainable city.

Such an approach requires leadership from the province and the city, to educate the community about urban growth boundaries and its positive impacts. What if developers were allowed to build single-family homes on the periphery of our city, but only if they committed to multi-family and infill units in key areas within the city? Many cities use this approach. There is no shortage of ideas and solutions to help to continue renewing our downtown and inner city. Let’s get engaged and discuss how to move forward.

Stefano Grande is the executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

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