Manitoba·Opinion

Winnipeg air, light, sound pollution bylaws fall flat

Winnipeg writer Joanne Seiff says the city’s current bylaws, and Winnipeggers’ energy habits, fail to convince her that we’ll be able to live together in a harmonious, eco-friendly way.

Winnipeg writer says there should be more checks and balances regulating citizens' wasteful habits

This bird's eye view of Winnipeg, taken at by NASA's Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, shows the city glowing with light at night. (NASA Johnson Space Center)

City planners imagine that in the future, Winnipeg's dense urban population will need good public transit and the chance to walk, bike or bus to meet our everyday needs. These eco-friendly plans encourage us to preserve green space, take care of the environment and each other. To do this, we'll need to create the homes, neighborhoods and the physical city that will make living more pleasurable.

Yet, the city's current bylaws and the residents' habits fail to convince me that we'll be able to live together in harmony. 

Densely settled areas work best if there are regulations in place to allow people the respect and space to make daily experiences "liveable." Cities faced with significant air quality issues, light and sound pollution should create legislation that allow people to cohabit without difficulty. Populations without this urban planning become unhealthy, aggressively unhappy places in which people fight for basic needs — things like clean air, sufficient light and low noise levels.

We can't always contain air pollution. When winds blow smoke from a forest fire in our direction, or we all smell the manure spreading from a farm far outside city limits, we can't control it. Some issues will always remain part of our geographic environment, just as we struggle with spring flooding and –40 C winter temperatures.

Smoky homes

Yet, imagine a house, with open windows, on a warm summer night. Without warning, those windows act as a chimney flue. Smoky air is sucked right into the house from outdoors. Inhabitants suffer burning eyes, coughing, and distress — and when the house fills with smoke, it's too late to close the windows. Why?

It's currently legal to build wood fires in fire pits in Winnipeg. Since many Winnipeggers built homes close together, this results in either a smoky household or a sweltering one, since many of us also don't have air conditioning. Aside from wandering the neighbourhood to track down the offending fire and beg folks to put it out, we have no option but to shut our windows and sweat.

On a calm night, other concerns arise when motorcycles without mufflers race up and down nearby streets. Exhaust fills the air — and the motorcycles' noises are so loud they keep us from talking inside our house.

While some feel yearly auto-inspections (and basic regulations, including emissions and safety checks) are an annoying chore, many people elsewhere undertake these as a matter of course. These inspections vastly improve air quality by monitoring emissions. In some cases, inspections include sound regulations, such as requiring mufflers. In areas that regulate emissions, motorcyclists still rev their engines, but the noise doesn't wake up children, either.

Noise pollution 

Winnipeg's bylaws partially regulate noise pollution, but the city observes these laws in the breach. When you attend a street concert, it's fabulous, but if you live several blocks away, you'll likely hear it loud and clear, even if you stay home with the windows closed. 

While theoretically the city regulates noise, if you call in a noise complaint, you'll hear that it is last on law enforcement's list — and you're forever seen as the party pooper. If there is anyone in your household who suffers from the noise, such as children, the elderly, or the unwell, you're the party pooper every time.

It may be too much to have to keep calling the authorities for help. None of us should be made to feel badly — except for the law-breakers.

Middle of the night dumpster noise is a frequent infraction that the city allows, according to an enormous loophole in the bylaws. While other big places, like New York City, legislate against middle-of-the-night noises, Winnipeg insists that dumpster refuse can't be removed during daylight hours when making noise is legal.

These scheduled noises aside, if you live in a busy area, when the bars close, expect a wake-up call while revelers sing, talk, or argue below your windows. It's unlikely the cops will catch somebody "in the moment" as they sing on the way home. Even drunk, maybe Winnipeggers could remember that others, sleeping nearby, need to work in the morning. Thinking about our neighbours' well-being seems to be a rare thing indeed.

Light pollution

The bylaws also regulate light pollution and signage, but again, this bright waste of energy seems hard to enforce. Imagine light pollution as very bright LED or halogen lights that shine directly through a neighbour's windows. Of course, we all want to leave outdoor lights on occasionally. When guests visit or we're coming home late, it's safer to leave a light on.

Yet, what about legislating against egregious light pollution: the lights left on day and night, so bright that even several layers of drapes don't block them out? What about a neon sign, left on all night long?

Living comfortably at high-population density is all in the details. If the city tightens up and enforces these bylaws, it could earn more in fines and gain a lot of respect from its citizens. We need reminders about how to behave toward one another if we're living in close confines.

 A good night's sleep, breathing easily in a quiet, dark space, goes a long way toward being a nicer, more productive person in the morning. Maybe we should work on reducing pollution to help get us there.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.

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