City Profile | Winnipeg
City Profile |
Brian Scott said it best on his website, Winnipeg Love Hate : This city is filled with passionate people who either have a profound love for it, or can’t wait to move on to a ‘bigger and better’ place. At first glance, Winnipeg may fall short of the topographical and urban standards set by other provincial capitals. Canada has such vast and beautiful landscapes that tend to overshadow the subtleties of the prairies. Appreciating Winnipeg’s unique mid-western vibe requires you to take notice of these subtleties and understand its nuances, making it more of a ‘hidden’ gem than most.
This is most obvious when traveling abroad and attempting to justify to other travelers why they haven’t heard of this one particular capital city. For example, identifying yourself as a Winnipegger to the Australian staying at your hostel (because you know there will always be at least one), the tendency is to say things like, “Winnipeg… it’s really small, but the people are fantastic”, which sounds like you're compensating for a date you plan to send your friend on, “…but she’s got a great personality!!” After extending the polite Canadian invite for them to visit you one day and ending the conversation with the obligatory, “aussie aussie aussie!”, you continue on with your evening always knowing full well that this global traveler has in fact NOT added Winnipeg to his bucket list. But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss this conversation with the Australian. Perhaps it’s time we shake this belief that we constantly have to compensate for and excuse our city’s quiet charm. We are more than flat lands, farming and big skies, more than our cold weather and more than just a group of really nice people.
There is a unique engagement with the spaces in Winnipeg, where local designers, entrepreneurs and artists inhabit in-between spaces within the city core. Because Winnipeg is so small, it forces the multi-purpose use of limited existing spaces downtown, helping to create dense hubs of activity and resulting in strong social and public engagement within urban neighbourhoods. While there is an influx of programming that has been successful in bringing more people downtown, the housing and infrastructural development is still lacking.
Winnipeg is approaching dangerous territory as suburban growth quickly rises while developing infrastructure struggles to keep up. This expansion into the periphery of the city further propagates a vehicle-oriented city that inherently excludes a large number of people who, by choice or necessity, do not have access to a personal vehicle. If we continue to develop in this way, it creates a greater need for highways and road infrastructure, rather than a need for investment in civic spaces that directly reaches and improves a larger population. Winnipeg would be better suited to invest in public spaces, urban families, and public transportation, to list a few examples. Journalist and urban theorist Jane Jacobs explores this inherently exclusionary system in her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities . She states, “Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effect of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building”. A city that invests in its people through programming, spaces, and accessibility encourages a closer relationship to the urban environment.
The emphasis on suburban development further disperses the population, which in turn further fragments our city. This is a pattern that can be seen in many Canadian cities due to the vast amount of land that our country has. Because Winnipeg has never had to deal with issues of overpopulation or rapid expansion, we are falling into patterns of poor development by focusing on quick and easy fixes rather than a long-term urban plan. These cookie-cutter neighbourhoods continue to pop up around the city and are accepted because they are affordable and convenient for the average middle class family. This is what is familiar, and this is what has become the norm.
The shaping of the city’s urban fabric is now in the hands of the developer who is responsible for the construction of these suburbs. If Winnipeg continues to develop without a comprehensive urban plan, these issues of class, accessibility, infrastructure, and decentralization will only continue to grow.
But while the architecture of the city moves steadfastly in this direction, we can also see people pushing in opposition, creating a greater demand for a more habitable and connected city center. In recent years, there has been evidence of a strong underground movement of people trying to expose Winnipeg’s charm by investing and participating in urban life. Winnipeg is the smallest, big city where everyone knows everyone. It is for this reason that our local businesses, art, architecture and cultural scene have become so successful. Community support and general enthusiasm has been crucial to the shaping of our downtown within the past decade. This increased engagement in the public dimension has enhanced the quality of life within the city of Winnipeg. Perhaps this is where the unique and intangible Canadian, mid-western vibe really comes from. While the cultural identities of some cities are geographically bound, Winnipeg constructs its place identity through its people and their engagement with the local culture.
It is an exciting time to be a Winnipegger as we see many changes occurring within our city. Now is the time to think about how these changes are influencing and reflecting our identity, especially now, when considering the impending mayoral election. With an expanding population, a shifting political scene and an ever-influential arts and culture community, we as Winnipeggers can have a direct impact on the national, if not global, perception of the City.
The 204 Design Collective introduces #WinnipegWednesdays which is dedicated to the continued discussion of ideas and issues related to our great city.
 Scott, Brian. Winnipeg Love Hate. Winnipeg, 2014.<http://winnipeglovehate.com>
 Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.