A sustainable city has a vibrant, dense core where people live, work, and congregate for daily activities.
Cities where things are happening, cities that draw people to them, and popular tourist destination cities all have this in common. If you go back in time, people congregated at trade posts and markets, and cities formed around those. There has always been a need for a central area where people go and where things happen.
This was even evident in Winnipeg, of course started as a trading post. Old photographs of Winnipeg show Portage and Main full of people, streetcars and horses.
Somewhere along the line we stopped doing that. That isn’t to say that nothing happens downtown, just that we stopped placing importance on making growth there self-perpetuating. It would make sense that people would want to live close to one of these congregation centres. We have a bunch of apartment towers, but none of the ones downtown were built recently. Did people stop wanting to live in apartments? Or was there some kind of avoidance in pursuing the construction of new apartment
Or was there not enough parking?
A self-perpetuating core has things happening in it. As places to work spring up, so would places to live. Residents have access to everything they need, so a car may not be something people view as a need. Transit downtown is great. Work may be a few blocks away. You don’t really need to “leave” your neighborhood.
At 13 000 residents, downtown Winnipeg has the amenities and resources to support a neighborhood of probably 25 or 30 000 people. Yet so much prime real estate is taken up by parking lots to satisfy the extremely demanding needs of those commuting.
We spend so much time trying to attract suburbanites downtown, when they have everything they need in their own neighborhood.
Every functional and successful downtown in every city has a fair share of people who do commute to work there. There’s no getting around that and in Winnipeg, it will only get worse with construction of new suburbs. This requires more road construction (…jobs! Jobs!) and in the long term, more road maintenance and ever-increasing pressure on existing roads in other parts of the city.
This is not sustainable, for many obvious reasons that one could deduce from just thinking about what kinds of additional infrastructure is needed for every new suburb.
All the sustainability benefits aside there is one more big, gigantic benefit to a vibrant, dense core: Identity. Isn’t this what Winnipeg is desperately searching for, something to unify the city? A soul? Something that says “this is what Winnipeg is.” Right now it’s hard to do that, our city is fragmented and people have allegiances to different areas. A lot of people seem to have a real identity crisis with the city, as evidenced by how many people proclaimed IKEA coming as making us a “real” city.
It will be hard to make this transformation but as with anything, you have to start somewhere. And I personally think we can start by changing our attitude towards downtown.
Downtown as a destination. And downtown as the single most important piece of the puzzle to start us down a road to sustainability.