Opinion

'You get the city you deserve': Winnipeg can, and should, do better at infill housing

Winnipeg's current approach to infill housing creates density without livability, argues Joanne Seiff.

Winnipeg's long-term vision for city infill creates density without livability, says Joanne Seiff

With the right regulations in place, infill development can work well in cities — but Winnipeg's current approach doesn't properly factor in neighbourhood character, infrastructure needs and livability, says Joanne Seiff. (TBaker770/Shutterstock)

Recently we walked past yet another century-old home being torn down for a brick-and-steel set of condos. I talked with the people with me. "You know," one said, "you get the city you deserve."

We remembered visiting other cities with gorgeous intact neighbourhoods, filled with lovingly restored historic homes. It struck me that yes, Winnipeg's long-term vision for city infill legislates something entirely different — we're getting what we deserve.

Infill without long-term vision is poor urban planning. It results in too many people with too many traffic jams, in a poorly planned space.

Winnipeg's recent public engagement on infill strategy recognizes that our city currently doesn't have a cohesive set of guidelines in place that would reduce controversy over this issue.

What does that mean? The city acknowledges that current neighbourhood plans in place don't preserve a neighbourhood's historic character.

A 2016 artist's rendering of a four-storey condo project now under construction at Harrow Street and McMillan Avenue in Winnipeg. While the city's stated planning strategy is to create infill in parts of the city with established infrastructure, the way this evolves doesn't serve residents well, says Joanne Seiff. (Ventura Developments)

It's cheaper overall to build a new set of condos than it is to carefully restore or maintain a historic structure. There are few publicized financial incentives in place to motivate someone to preserve instead of demolish a residential building. 

While the stated outcome of Winnipeg's planning strategy is to create infill in parts of the city with established infrastructure, the way this evolves doesn't serve us well.

On the ground, it means that developers buy up older buildings, apply for variances and adjustments to put in their new condo development, and tear down history.

The effort to fill the lots entirely to make more money reduces green space that may be on private lots, but which affects the neighbourhood.

Increased density, more conflict

What happens when the neighbourhood absorbs these new developments? It increases density and conflict. There's an increase in stressors: noise, light and air pollution are all bad for our health.

Further, we need green space — studies show that living near parks and trees can improve our health. 

What do we lose when we knock down parts of our neighbourhood? Well, in some cases, we get rid of local history.

A current project at 887 Grosvenor Ave. proposes to tear down a house that used to be called the "House of Rock" and was home to Roade Recording Studios.

Another part of an area's culture is architectural diversity. If each house was purpose-built originally, the area retains personalized quirks and interest. Renovations increase that diversity.

Yet developers seek to use similar building plans repeatedly to save money. This results in a whole lot of new modern buildings that look very similar but are out of place among their hundred-year-old streetmates.

Impact on neighbourhood culture, infrastructure

Condo developments can also affect a neighbourhood's friendly culture.

Several neighbours have remarked that the people who move into the "maintenance-free" condos aren't looking to interact with others or contribute. They spend a lot of money so someone else can blow snow, mow or keep up their homes.

While this is their decision to make, you can bet that those people aren't picking up snow shovels to help a senior citizen down the block, or to clear a school bus stop.

A 2014 infill project on Carter Avenue, in Winnipeg's Grant Park area, drew objections from some area residents, who said the multi-family dwelling changed the character of their neighbourhood. (CBC)

In new subdivisions, developers fund certain amenities like new splash pads, pools and soccer fields. Infill projects rely on existing infrastructure with no obligation to improve deteriorating or aging facilities.

Nearby roads, street lights, and a park or splash pad already exist, but the new owners' taxes don't go directly toward local maintenance or improvements to that infrastructure.

Critics argue that there is an effort toward historic preservation in the city and yes, that's true.

Recently, Winnipeg city council approved heritage status for a church that doesn't want it — but we have no shortage of old, poorly kept up public buildings.

It's family homes or older duplexes that are targeted through the infill process. Few of these are considered for historic heritage status for any reason.

Winnipeg needs a better approach

Can infill and urban planning make for good city living? Absolutely. With regulations in place, cities can do this well.

Consistent efforts to boost livability through upgrading pollution legislation, maintaining infrastructure and developing green space, new schools and more can make this work.

However, when one knocks down a single-family dwelling or a duplex and puts up condos, right now, developers only have to worry over trees, variances and adjustments to code.

Does the developer put thought into increased traffic, street repair, schools or green spaces? No. Is the city system set up to consider this? No.

This is a cause-and-effect narrative. We need to build and maintain infrastructure based on the infill we expect to see and plan ahead to improve livability for everyone (considering transit, pollution and more.)

With my windows open this summer, I breathe in that "fresh" Winnipeg air —​ full of the smell of car exhaust, firepit smoke and cigarettes from the nearby bus stop.

We hear parties on patios across the street. We hear the trash picked up at 3:50 a.m., because those emptying dumpsters aren't required to abide by the noise pollution bylaws. We see the lights left on all night long. That can't be sustainable city living.

Could we start planning ahead with a more robust effort to plan our urban future?  We need to think on it — because the current system offers infill without livability.

Increased density without accompanying protective legislation creates stress and health problems which tax our health care budget. The research shows density without green space leads to increased mortality, less productivity — and overall, a population that's less happy.

We can do better.

There's a reason many people who can afford it choose to escape the city to their cottages. Perhaps if our city prioritized livability in its urban planning, more Winnipeggers would enjoy staying home. 


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

Corrections

  • This column initially said developers pay for schools in new subdivisions. In fact, the provincial government pays for the construction of new schools, which are operated by publicly funded school divisions.
    Aug 07, 2018 1:56 PM CT

About the Author

Joanne Seiff

Joanne Seiff is the author of three books. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.