Reimagining Point Douglas: How the historic district could become a model for a changing Winnipeg

Winnipeg could lead with a new model of urban development in North and South Point Douglas, say Wins Bridgman and Rae St. Clair Bridgman — one based on inclusion, reconciliation and that recognizes the district’s history while speaking directly to currents of change in Canada.

City could lead with new model of urban development based on celebrating history, inclusion, reconciliation

Ross House in North Point Douglas is one example of the neighbourhood's rich heritage and history. The neighbourhood needs a plan to protect its valued features or characteristics, but that plan could also offer a new model, say architect Wins Bridgman and city planner Rae St. Clair Bridgman. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Winnipeg's Point Douglas area is one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods — one that has a rich history, but also faces its own challenges.

But as we look to its future, Winnipeg can lead with a new model of urban development in North and South Point Douglas. A model based on inclusion. A model of reconciliation. A model that recognizes the district's history and speaks directly to sweeping currents of change in Canada.

First populated by Indigenous communities, the Point Douglas area has always been defined by its geography, hugged on three sides by the waggish Red River. European settlers first came to the area in 1812, established Fort Douglas and divided the land into river lots. Soon after, Winnipeg's wealthy families began to build houses in the area.

The history of the area was forever changed by the introduction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1881 (this bisected the area into North and South Point Douglas) and the subsequent departure of the wealthy. Although the land uses were primarily manufacturing and workers' homes, the area perhaps became best known for its social activism, which continues to this very day.

Those living in North Point Douglas contributed to Winnipeg's General Strike of 1919. The Indigenous community returned to the Point after the Disraeli Bridge was built in 1959 and the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre began work on community plan called Neeginan ("Our Place" in Cree) — a vision to develop a centre for education, employment and housing.

A City of Winnipeg zoning map from around 1950 shows much of Point Douglas was zoned for heavy industry. The dark grey areas are zoned M2, which was second-highest industrial zoning level at the time. Point Douglas needs a new plan to rezone buildings and develop lands wisely, say the authors. (City of Winnipeg Archives)

The Aboriginal Centre in the former Canadian Pacific Rail Station, the Circle of Life Thunderbird House and Neeginan Village, all in South Point Douglas, grew from this work. Some 28 per cent of those presently living in North Point Douglas are Indigenous (compared to 12 per cent in Winnipeg as a whole) and 10 per cent are recent immigrants to Canada, according to Winnipeg Regional Health Authority data.

The community is diverse. Current-day activists have restored the Barber House — dating from 1862 — created the North Point Douglas Women's Centre, and developed Powerline (a community-based response to neighbourhood safety), as well as the Graffiti Gallery.

One magnificent district

One might think that in such a district — it's but one scant kilometre from Portage and Main, with more than 2.5 kilometres of public waterfront, key historic buildings, bike routes and a very active community — the housing prices would not be valued well below the average in Winnipeg.

With such amenities, imagine if the river transit, which currently only travels south from The Forks, started to venture north. Or imagine that after years of procrastination, the City of Winnipeg developed secondary plans for both North and South Point Douglas — an issue raised in a 2008 report.

In fact, picture treating North Point Douglas and South Point Douglas as one magnificent district. A secondary plan would protect the area's valued features or characteristics when current regulations won't do the job.

Interestingly, Point Douglas is just a little larger than Armstrong's Point, which features the same geography and is defined just as much by the river but is a few kilometres away from its sister, Point Douglas. And Armstrong's Point has very recently achieved the status of Winnipeg's first heritage conservation district, recognized for its grand old homes and storied history.

Armstrong's Point recently achieved the status of Winnipeg's first heritage conservation district. Point Douglas features the same geography and is defined just as much by the river, say the authors. (Google Street View)

With Point Douglas's own storied history in mind:

How do we include the North End as a part of a city we are proud of and want to show off to each other, and the world?

How does the Point become part of Winnipeg's future without a secondary plan — a plan to rezone buildings, develop lands wisely and heal the scars from the expressway, which in large measure serves urban sprawl at the expense of this vibrant downtown neighbourhood?

How do we allow for increased density and redevelopment in Point Douglas, without excluding residents already living there? Why not think about policies that won't push Indigenous building owners or renters further from downtown amenities, in the spirit of reconciliation?

Ways forward

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future states that "virtually all aspects of Canadian society may need to be reconsidered."

This is a time of Indigenous renaissance around the world, in Canada and in Winnipeg, itself. There has never been a better time to reconsider development patterns and planning processes in our city, and more particularly in Point Douglas.

We have made progress in the management of material assets, heritage structures and historic landscapes in mature, wealthy neighbourhoods. Now, what tools do we have at our disposal to manage change in less-wealthy areas, such as Point Douglas — an area as rich with history as any in Winnipeg?

The Point Douglas Residents Committee recently endorsed a five-year strategic plan, with ideas for sustainability and equitable growth in the future (full disclosure: BridgmanCollaborative Architecture worked on this strategic plan).

Imagine a city where we lead by example. Building on the precedent set by Armstrong's Point and strategizing about the work to be done in Point Douglas is a good place to start.

One approach, based on the work of recent city planning graduate Lissie Rappaport in her master's thesis, suggests that inclusionary zoning can help ensure the percentage of demographic groups remains constant, even as the population increases in a particular area.

Other approaches, such as land trusts and the protection of existing non-profit housing (when property values increase), were also endorsed in principle.

Let's reimagine what's possible for our city with a renewed sense of hope. Let's ask ourselves: how do our neighbourhoods and districts celebrate our collective histories, built heritage, cultural legacies and future prospects?

How should we manage change?

Imagine a city where we lead by example. Building on the precedent set by Armstrong's Point and strategizing about the work to be done in Point Douglas is a good place to start.

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.


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