Winnipeg’s ‘unhinged’ mayoral candidates are to blame, but so are we

It’s as if our mayoral hopefuls are standing atop those unsightly giant marbles that line Portage Avenue; their vantage points slightly higher up than the rest of ours, but not so elevated they can actually see the city en masse. The result: back-of-the-napkin proposals, unhinged from any sort of evidence-based footing, isolated from any sort of coherent, wider platform; populist, headline-seeking bumph unworthy of serious consideration were it not for the fact we now expect so little of our civic leaders, our standards for them so utterly diminished.

Those who vie for the Premier’s seat in the Legislature, or the Prime Minister’s chair in the House of Commons are held to a far higher standard. We demand from our provincial and federal leaders fully-costed, comprehensive policy platforms before we cast our ballots. Those journalists covering such elections scrutinize the parties’ platforms, and pillory those when their math doesn’t add up, or where their proposals don’t make sense. Surely, we should be holding those seeking municipal office—regardless of the absence of political parties—to that same level of scrutiny.

And yet. On public transit and policing, the downtown and aerial drones, grocery stores and garbage pick-up, red-light cameras and racism, our mayoral hopefuls have offered us little more than mush.

More cops! A downtown grocer! Fewer potholes! Smaller malathion buffer zones!

Absent from the endless stream of ethno-cultural selfies posted to candidates’ social media feeds, and the empty rhetoric of their campaign “announcements,” is a substantive discussion about the fundamental problem with Winnipeg: it is woefully unsustainable.

Over 50 years of unchecked suburban expansion—fuelled by the antiquated and wholly regressive property tax revenue model—has produced a city so terribly hollowed out at its core, so lacking in the kind of healthy density modern metropolitan areas require to be cost-effective in both maintenance and operation.

And yet. Our candidates seem determined to pave more roads, further and further afield, to service a seemingly endless outward expansion of the city’s suburbs.

  • Judy Wasylycia-Leis is promising to, “take a bite out of Winnipeg’s infrastructure deficit” by spending an additional, “$60 million in local and regional roads over the next four years.”
  • Gord Steeves, despite calling for a property tax freeze, wants to, “make sure 75 per cent of road construction [happens] 24-hours a day, seven days a week.”
  • Brian Bowman would, “invest an additional $10 million dollars each year, over the next four years, into the city’s infrastructure budget to improve Winnipeg’s crumbling roads,” by finding, “two per cent savings in [the city’s] annual operating costs.”
  • Robert Falcon-Oullette, with the most ambitious plan of the bunch, has tabled a, “$250-million plan to prevent and patch potholes, and pave Winnipeg’s worst streets.”

So much concrete. But don’t worry, our candidates also want a vibrant downtown, too!

Granted, not all candidates agree on what vibrancy actually looks like: Bowman, for example, has said, “our downtown needs to feel like a neighborhood for residents with similar amenities that many people currently enjoy in the suburbs.” That’s right, because what’s missing from downtown is the soullessness of the suburban wasteland, with its big-box stores, chain restaurants, eight-lane highways, and the near impossibility of actually getting anywhere on foot.

Newsflash: Winnipeg can’t have it both ways: city leaders and planners long ago sacrificed a people-centric urban community, for a car-centric suburban one. (The closure of Portage and Main to pedestrians was and remains a fitting metaphor.) We are now paying the price for their lack of foresight, and will continue to do so as our infrastructure crumbles more quickly than we can afford to replace it.

That’s not to say we should let our infrastructure crumble. However, any talk of spending money on improvements to existing infrastructure, let alone new construction, ought to be done with the recognition we can’t keep doing things like we have been doing them for the past 50-plus years.

And yet. Where is the moratorium on new suburban expansion; a realignment of civic planning around higher-density, infill development; a transportation plan that places a primacy on public transit, not private automobiles—and seeks out ways to make it more advantageous and affordable to choose the bus, a bicycle or one’s own two feet than the family sedan? At least when Gord Steeves calls for the cancellation of the southern BRT corridor, he’s being internally consistent with the rest of what passes for his platform. The other candidates seem convinced we can have it all. No, we cannot.

Are the costs associated with completing the southern transit corridor high? Absolutely. Consider, though, the distances that must be covered for the system to service so few people. Winnipeg’s urban density is nearly a third of Toronto’s or Chicago’s. Is this reason enough to cancel the project? No: a robust public transportation system is an essential mitigating measure to slow the sprawl and to begin the admittedly costly, but vitally important process of improving Winnipeg’s long-term economic and environmental viability.

And yet. Sadly, even a state-of-the-art rapid transit system won’t change prevailing attitudes. Is it any wonder our mayoral hopefuls don’t speak of sustainability, but instead talk of potholes? Winnipeggers are their own worst enemies: blissfully unconcerned with the implications of continuing to embrace an inefficient, unsustainable urban model, slavishly dependent upon concrete and gasoline.

Perhaps it isn’t just the candidates we need to be holding to a higher standard, but each other.

***

Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

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12 comments
  1. Tristen Foy said:

    I’m not sure that you are following the election and the candidates policies as closely as you put on Kris though I don’t disagree with what you’re saying in the article. I am an Ouellette supporter and he’s made many more policy announcements than just his road infrastructure one (as I know the other candidates have). In fact Robert-Falcon Ouellette has called for the cancellation of the southern BRT corridor as well as Steeves but unlike Steeves intends to invest more into improving our existing transit infrastructure by creating a Metro bus system (more busses citywide, research into creating better routes or increasing frequency of busses on existing routes, making transit more accessible, etc). Having said that I do appreciate the critical thought in your article as we should absolutely be holding our fellow citizens and politicians to a higher standard. Maybe I’m incorrect but based on Robert Ouellette’s proposed platform so far I would describe him as a candidate pushing for sustainability. More so than any of the other candidates.

    • Alastair McTavish said:

      Just because Ouellette is an outstanding candidate does not mean he is untouchable. Remember to always consider the possible deficits he has in his approach because it is 100% impossible to have a “full-proof” plan for improving a city’s profitability and social equities at once.

  2. bella Mater said:

    And yet. Despite your insights, your butchery of grammar made this painful to read.

      • bella Mater said:

        Why?

      • Great question. And one I saw coming. As incomplete as it is, I like the forced and unique pause of, “And yet.” And in the rest, I can hear the author’s voice, which is always a great thing, and something worth bending toward. If there’s more, perhaps that’s a lengthier conversation on usage and grace for a place outside of this article on Winnipeg’s upcoming municipal election. I appreciate your keen eye, and would love to keep chatting. While you’re right, butchery may be light hyperbole.

      • bella Mater said:

        Hyperbolic, perhaps, but if you want to convey dramatic pause, then I’d suggest you use a live medium: perhaps a podcast. Written down, it comes as clearly across as sarcasm, that is to say, not at all. As I mentioned from the outset: the insights are interesting on the merit of their content. To try to impose the voice in your mind seems to muddy it up a bit, besides, a comma would suffice (I have plenty to spare, as you can tell by my own ballistic approach to punctuation).

        Cheers

      • dealinfacts said:

        Hey – I understood you. Isn’t that what counts.

  3. Karl Weimar said:

    I lived in the downtown when I was younger and single, but moved away once I began to get serious about raising a family. I once held the thought of moving back in my retirement years, and I still hope that I may do that, but the Core would have to do some serious redevelopment to entice my wife and I back there. What was adequate for a single bachelor in his 20’s will not cut it for a married man in his 50’s and older. I looked into moving back in to the Core recently with my family, but found no residences large enough. (I currently have a household of eight, requiring a minimum of a four bedroom abode, preferably five. No such animal I could find in the downtown.) While strides have been made to make the downtown more pedestrian friendly, it is still designed with cars in mind, with foot traffic taking a distant second, if not third (behind buses). More foot-friendly areas, more greenery, more thought given to revitalizing buildings and attracting businesses back into the Core would all help. Who among the candidates have put forward a plan to deal with this? I could care less about potholes, if a viable public transportation option was available.

    • dealinfacts said:

      There is nothing in the core except old warehouses that need about a million per floor to retrofit. There never was any residential to speak of. Now if you are talking Osborne – Wolsely – St. Johns – River heights- that isn’t the core.

      Core must be defined – For me it encompasses about 10 blocks and is centered around the market and exchange districts. Very little historical residential.

  4. dealinfacts said:

    Robust public transportation system does not equate to BRT. Give me heated bus shelters, a comfortable ride through Diamond lanes, synchronized lights, better roads and I’ll be happy to use the bus. Spending a couple of billion on a BRT ignores the rest of a transit system that for many , works well but requires some sprucing up.

    And it is far from state of the art. Another roadway for buses only, isn’t very elegant or efficient

  5. Tbkb said:

    “Bowman, for example, has said, “our downtown needs to feel like a
    neighborhood for residents with similar amenities that many people
    currently enjoy in the suburbs.” That’s right, because what’s missing
    from downtown is the soullessness of the suburban wasteland, with its
    big-box stores, chain restaurants, eight-lane highways, and the near
    impossibility of actually getting anywhere on foot.”

    At what point did Bowman call for big-box stores and strip malls downtown? I do recall him calling for removing the barricades at Portage and Main.. hmm, I must’ve missed that first announcement tho..

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