Time for Winnipeg to park cars, create community with people-friendly pop-ups

Wins Bridgman and Rae St. Clair Bridgman say Winnipeg needs to rethink parking lots and "asphalt deserts" to pave the way for people-friendly pop-up cafés, green spaces and shops.

'Who goes to a city because they have great parking?': architect Wins Bridgman, planner Rae St. Clair Bridgman

A BridgmanCollaborative Architecture rendition of a pop-up social space, with shops, green space and picnic tables. (Submitted by Wins Bridgman)

Pop up, Winnipeg! For a lively city, a safe city!

We urbanites in Winnipeg love what our lively city has to offer. And we want our city to be safe.

We are speaking about how we, young and old, all have the right to enjoy walking on the streets, riding our bikes, sitting at cafés, sunning ourselves, doing our work in public places, celebrating with our friends and families.

Who goes to a city because they have great parking?

And yet … look how Winnipeg is peppered with empty lots and gravel or asphalt deserts — otherwise known as parking lots — that were once developed (and will in future be redeveloped).

Such asphalt plots dominate the urban landscape, privilege servicing cars over people, drain our city's creative energy, and make the city less safe for pedestrians.

When Danish architect Jan Gehl, author of several influential books on planning (including Life Between Buildings and Public Spaces, Public Life), visited Winnipeg in 2018, he told the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce "I hear the cars in Winnipeg are the 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."

Cutting humour indeed.

Nuit Blanche, an annual dusk-to-dawn pop-up celebration of contemporary art, takes place throughout Winnipeg's Exchange District. (CBC)

We here in Winnipeg are no strangers to the allure of the pop-up.

Several small-scale projects have helped to animate Winnipeg's downtown streets and turned parking spaces and sidewalks into people places, if only for a short time. 

In this vein, the Winnipeg Downtown BIZ's summer pop-up sidewalk parks come to mind. 

At a larger scale, over the last decade, the monthly First Fridays in the Exchange (5 p.m. to late) entice people downtown to tour galleries and artists' studios, and to enjoy eateries.

Then there's  the once-a-year all-night extravaganza Nuit Blanche, a dusk-to-dawn celebration of contemporary art in the city. 

What about the Table for 1,200, the outdoor pop-up dining event of the year featuring the longest table?

And in winter, there's RAW:almond, Winnipeg's unique pop-up restaurant on the frozen river, along with the welcoming warming huts. 

Chris Pancoe stands with Huttie, his psychedelic funhouse warming hut, which was one of the pop-up warming huts on Winnipeg's river trail this past winter. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

But there's so much more we can do! Movers and shakers in other cities offer food for thought.

Pop-up city

Pop-ups can help us reimagine our cities, especially with changes in the offing.

Cities around the world are rethinking their redevelopment strategies, and zoning and parking requirements.

They are excited about walkable cities, and eyeing potential opportunities, with the advent of autonomous vehicles and new transit options (alongside portended grand shifts in how we drive and park). 

What if … sites long vacant or stranded in limbo through drawn-out municipal approval processes could become something else?

Pop-ups respond to the call for a reformed sense of urbanism — flexible, adaptable, mobile, optimistic, inventive, surprising, delighting and yes, ephemeral. 

What if yearning sites, sites long vacant or stranded in limbo through drawn-out municipal approval processes could become something else? 

In Winnipeg, for example, there are some 32,000 parking stalls, and about 40 per cent of Winnipeg's land area downtown is dedicated to parking — half of that surface parking. Now there's scope for the imagination!

So what if pop-ups, even just for a year or two in any particular place, could create and pay for a three- or even four-season gathering place, market and workplace?

And then there's Stackt 

Stackt, a pedestrian-only marketplace in Toronto, is fabricated from shipping containers and designed by LGA Architectural Partners.

It's a two-block, 2 1/2-acre pop-up development at the base of Bathurst and Front streets in Toronto (opened 2019).

When the site is ready for a more permanent development, the shipping containers can be repurposed to a different site.

The sprawling complex contains indoor and outdoor event spaces, public washrooms, a popular craft brewery and some 20 curated, ever-changing shops.

There's a photo portrait studio (for pets), a tattoo parlour, a plant-based butcher shop, an on-the-spot podcast studio, deluxe doughnuts, and more.

The shipping container market on Toronto's Bathurst Street near Front Street west. (Mike Smee/CBC)

The space is playful and loose, in part, because the construction is so inexpensive.

Moveable potted plants, picnic tables and funky chairs add to the festive air. This is a place that generates more interest (both social and monetary!) than a parking lot, attracts tourism, and best of all, it's being enjoyed by thousands of Torontonians and visitors.

'Green desking' in Montreal

Another example, also on a site slated for eventual redevelopment, is the pop-up Aire Commune in Montreal's Mile End — designed by Îlot 84 (open May to September).

It is the first open-air co-working space in Canada, featuring "green desking" (working outdoors), and a myriad of opportunities to network, work, relax and enjoy events.

At night, under strings of lights, Aire Commune becomes a beer garden.

Imagine filling parking lots or derelict plots … with pop-up labs for offices.

Aire Commune opened as a one-month pilot project in 2017, and had nearly 90,000 visitors in its first season in 2018.

They spent $90,000 on their bar service, and generated the equivalent of $2.7 million in economic opportunities.

Did we mention both Stackt and Aire Commune have been deemed more useful than a parking lot?

Imagine …

Imagine filling parking lots or derelict plots in downtown Winnipeg, with pop-up labs for offices and commerce; each area replete with a coffee shop and public washrooms.

Imagine green leftover spaces near universities and schools, being filled with pop-up community learning hubs, gardens and greenhouses. 

We could also martial pop-ups by leasing and activating dormant municipal spaces. (See the top image, showing a mock-up rendering of a pop-up park and shops by BridgmanCollaborative Architecture.)

Bring events and people into our downtown in a way that generates more dollars per square foot than parking lots — and provides vibrant amenities for everyone.

We'll make Winnipeg a more joyful and safer place to live and visit.

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Wins Bridgman and Rae St. Clair Bridgman (a professor in the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba) co-direct the Winnipeg design firm BridgmanCollaborative Architecture.