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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

People before parks

City's population needs affordable housing more than green space

By: Mary Agnes Welch

Posted: 06/15/2014 1:00 AM

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The land at The Forks known as Parcel 4 would be best dedicated to dense and affordable housing.

SARAH TAYLOR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

The land at The Forks known as Parcel 4 would be best dedicated to dense and affordable housing. Photo Store

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No more parks. Add housing.

With a little softening and room for compromise, that should be Winnipeg's rule of thumb. Instead, our knee-jerk response is usually the opposite. When it comes time to build on a vacant bit of land, we nearly always want parks and green space, to be used by a privileged few nearby rather than the kind of residential development that will benefit us all.

Put simply, we don't need more parks. We need more housing, especially dense, affordable housing. Now and badly.

Winnipeg is a city of nearly unbridled urban sprawl. It is also, in most neighbourhoods, a city with a significant amount of green space -- small, neighbourhood tot lots, school playgrounds and fields, big regional hubs such as St. Vital Park, river trails and bike paths. Infill development, the kind that creates vibrant neighbourhoods and saves us all money over time, has been slow, small and often stalled by Nimbyism.

Whenever there is a vacant parcel of land slated for redevelopment, the neighbourhood cry is usually for a park instead of more housing. And, God forbid developers propose anything other than respectable single-family homes. Apartments bring riff-raff and loogans. A seniors complex brings traffic. A condo tower casts a shadow on backyards.

This trend has stymied sustainable urban development for years, and it popped up again last week.

In River Heights, arguably the neighbourhood where opposition to infill development has been the loudest and most effective, some residents around Lanark Street are opposing plans to build houses on a former school site that's now a big, open park, one of many green spaces in the neighbourhood. Some residents want lower-density houses clustered around a large bay similar to the ones elsewhere along Lanark, where homes face onto a park.

And last week saw a spate of letters to the Free Press proposing a forest on the so-called Parcel 4 lands at The Forks, the big gravel parking lot across from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights that's slated to become a combination of housing, retail, parking and public space.

 

Letter-writers have said the parcel ought to be a forest of reconciliation, a reclamation of Treaty One land that memorializes the catastrophic legacy of Indian residential schools. This sounds like a lovely idea, and anything symbolic or practical that nudges us toward a new relationship with Canada's first peoples ought to be considered.

Except a forest at The Forks is probably bad urban planning. The Forks has ample green space of various kinds -- open spaces for huge public events, walking paths, the kids' adventure park, the river walk, new landscaping around the museum and even the remarkable Oodena Celebration Circle, which stands in quiet celebration of nature.

What The Forks needs -- indeed, what the downtown needs and the city as a whole needs -- is dense residential development. We need it in established neighbourhoods such as South Osborne and Fort Garry, especially along underdeveloped corridors such as Pembina Highway. We need it in poorer neighbourhoods such as William Whyte and Weston, where finding a decent pad is nearly impossible. We desperately need it downtown, where the commercial renaissance now underway depends on it.

We need dense, affordable housing for three main reasons -- people, the environment and your tax bill.

Most middle-class Winnipeggers don't realize how serious Winnipeg's housing crisis is, and how badly the shortage of safe, clean, affordable units stymies people trying to claw their way out of poverty or back from a mental illness or addiction. For nearly 30 years, there has been virtually no federal money for housing, and the province has largely stepped out of the business of building affordable units and has instead helped fund community groups to do it. What's resulted is nowhere close to the need, and the vacancy rate has barely flickered. Very few rentals of any kind have been built in Winnipeg, and hundreds have been lost to condo-ization. This is a human problem that trumps trees.

Dense residential development is also better for the environment. Climate change, water conservation, energy efficiency, transit and bike use are all helped by density, by the kind of compact, walkable neighbourhoods we almost never build in Winnipeg.

And, it's better for your wallet. Cities across North America, but especially Winnipeg, are in the midst of an infrastructure crisis that is simply unsolvable if we keep doing what we've always done. If we needed any more proof, this past winter was it. There is simply not enough money to fix existing roads, sewers, water mains and community clubs while also building and maintaining new stuff. Building out instead of building up spells financial doom for the city.

Putting housing before parks is not to undercut the value of green space. Well-planned, parks with lots of amenities such as play structures, free-use green space and even splash pads are vital, especially for low-income families who may not have big backyards. They keep us fit. They improve our mental health. They help build communities.

But Winnipeg is doing pretty well at parks. We've spent millions improving Assiniboine Park, where I took my parents one sunny morning recently and was again struck by how busy and lovely and diverse it is. Central Park, recently overhauled, has become the courtyard gathering place for a neighbourhood of new immigrants. And it seems the province announces a new play structure or splash pad in the suburbs every few days. Just three weeks ago, a cabinet minister was at Ecole Viscount Alexander School announcing cash to improve its field.

We're good at parks. We planned for them early on, they're the backbone of our neighbourhoods and we've maintained and expanded them. It's long past time we got that good at density.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2014 A8

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