Categories
Winnipeg

On Winnipeg Urban Planning

Late last week I wrote the following tweet that generated quite a bit of conversation:

https://twitter.com/ohryan/status/1545172902097698820

Unfortunately, the original intent of my tweet was partially lost in the conversation. So I thought I’d clarify here on my blog.

The two main knee-jerk reactions that I had upon visiting Sage Creek were essentially:

1. It is (a) so far away from the city centre (b) that it should not be part of Winnipeg.
2. “Why are we still building suburbs like this?!”

For those of you from out of town, Sage Creek is one of the most recent suburban developments in Winnipeg. It doesn’t seem to have a Wikipedia entry so here is a link to the developer’s sales page.

It’s Really Far Away

My route to Sage Creek took me down to the very far edge of Fermor Ave and then south down Lagimodiere Blvd past Bishop Grandin Blvd. Most of this drive was completely desolate, I passed a “power centre” style retail development, The Royal Canadian Mint and a bunch of empty nothingness. Most Winnipeggers would consider this drive to have already taken them “out of town” but low and behold, you take a left turn on Sage Creek Blvd and there you are heading into a self contained “Qualico Community.”

My initial reaction was just a kneejerk to my boring drive, so let’s take a quick look at the numbers.

I’ll use the intersection of Sage Creek Blvd & Edward Turner Dr as the “centre” of Sage Creek – since this appears to be the midpoint of housing development and compare this to Portage & Main – the defacto (and literal?) centre of Winnipeg.

The straight-line distance is 10.27km. For comparison, the west Perimeter Hwy bordering the city is only 13.15km from Portage & Main. The northern perimeter is only 10.47km. East is 12.82km.

Sage Creek is demonstrably on the edge of the city.

A screenshot of a google map of Winnipeg showing a ruler measuring the distance between Portage & Main and Sage Creek
Straight Line Distance to Sage Creek

For comparison, by car it’s 12.8km.

A screenshot of a Google Map showing driving directions from Sage Creek to Portage & Main, in Winnipeg, Manitoba
The Drive From Sage Creek

At 13.1km, the ideal bike ride is slightly longer than by car. I suspect this is a fairly pleasant bike ride as it runs through some nice parks and quiet streets. But TBH keeping track of all those turns would be challenging and I would be surprised if Winnipeg has the way-finding to simplify this route.

FWIW if these suburbs are going to exist, I would love to see prioritizing bike freeways over car infrastructure and SE Winnipeg would be a good place to start (but that’s a topic for another post).

A screenshot of a Google Map showing cycling directions from Sage Creek to Portage & Main, in Winnipeg, Manitoba
Cycling Distance From Sage Creek

“But it’s quick!”

A few people in my Twitter replies mentioned that the distance doesn’t matter because the drive is quick.

This is entirely missing the point.

First, it means that you absolutely need a car to leave your neighbourhood.

Second, you’re still driving further, burning more gas, wasting money and needlessly polluting.

Third, supporting infrastructure on the fringes of the city is completely unsustainable.

It shouldn’t be part of Winnipeg

If you’ve ever played Sim City 2000, you should have a pretty good sense of just way this suburb is unsustainable. In the game, every segment of water/waste pipe, power line and road costs $10 (plus upkeep). If you build a mini-town on the edge of your simulated city you end up running out of money very quickly! Often before you even have a chance to build schools or provide fire and police services.

Now, the infrastructure for Sage Creek almost certainly isn’t being piped directly from Portage & Main, it’s not technically as isolated as my Sim City losing strategy. The pipes and power are likely connected to Island Lakes (the suburb directly to the west of Sage Creek).

But get a load of this satellite picture:

A Satellite Image of Island Lakes and Sage Creek
A Satellite Image of Island Lakes and Sage Creek

It doesn’t look like Qualico have really taking advantage of their proximity to Island Lakes. They haven’t built a bunch of connecting paths, parks or streets. They haven’t packed the dense developments right next to the existing infrastructure for maximum efficiency. It’s mainly unused land, parking lots and parks.

It’s fine for you

Many people on Twitter assumed that I was “slagging” Sage Creek.

This was not my intent. I understand that people like living in developments like Sage Creek. My general attitude is “that’s fine for you.”

The problem is – as illustrated in Sim City 2000 – every new low density development decreases the city’s ability to provide services efficiently.

Take a look at the bus routes as an example.

A screenshot of a Google Map showing bus directions from Sage Creek to Portage & Main, in Winnipeg, Manitoba
Bus directions from Sage Creek

A minimum of 67 minutes! If public transit was operating efficiently, this travel time should be in the same ballpark is the travel by car. Not 3.5x!

But with Winnipeg’s dozens of suburbs on the sprawled out on the periphery this becomes an impossible problem to try to solve efficiently.

Don’t ask me to subsidize it

Let’s take a quick look at some generalized math.

Since all parts of the city expect similar levels of city services and all parts of the city pay similar property taxes, the basic math of it is that higher density areas subsidize lower density areas.

If each suburb was its own town, they would each have their own tax rates that make sense for their specific concerns.

They could still benefit from city services if they chose to but the big difference would be that The City could make a profit from those agreements.

Rather than each suburb stretching the city’s budgets or making things like efficient transit service totally impossible. Suburbs could be a profit centre!

It’ll be the centre of town soon enough

A few replies on Twitter suggested that building suburbs on the edge of town is how we’ve always done it and after a few decades the city will fill in around it.

But this is just totally backwards! Cities should be built from the inside out. Again, if this is not obvious play some Sim City 2000.

Why Are We Still Approving Car-Centric Suburbs?

A screenshot of a Google search ad for Sage creek. The title reads "South Winnipeg's Sage Creek - Live in Sage Creek". The body reads "A completely walkable new community with a variety of homes for all lifestyles. Learn more. Contemporary design, lasting materials & the highest construction standards. Come visit! Over 9Km of Trails. Home Styles for All. Vibrant &..."
Qaulico’s Ad For Sage Creek

I’m quite uncertain how Qualico came to the conclusion that their new community is “completely walkable.” It’s got to be a joke, right?

Wikipedia defines walkability as:

…a term for planning concepts best understood by the mixed-use of amenities in high-density neighborhoods where people can access said amenities by foot. It is based on the idea that urban spaces should be more than just transport corridors designed for maximum vehicle throughput. Instead, it should be relatively complete livable spaces that serve a variety of uses, users, and transportation modes and reduce the need for cars for travel.

Walkability – Wikipedia

Sage Creek simply does not have any mixed-use, period. The retail is a good distances away from the apartments and both are segregated from the expensive single-family homes by wide parkland.

A more generous (and perhaps more realistic in the North American context) definition of “walkability” might be the idea of a “15-minute city.” i.e. the idea that nothing should be more than 15 minutes away (without a car).

But here again Sage Creek fails. Since they’ve positioned the retail sector at the entrance of the development almost none of the single-family housing is within a 15 minute walk (I’ve used the Tim Hortons in this calculation).

A screenshot of walkscore.com highlighting the area within Sage Creek that can reach the Tim Hortons within a 15 minute walk.
From Walkscore.com

The Biggest Sin of Them All!

If that wasn’t bad enough, Qualico has the audacity to call this neighbourhood “walkable” without even providing sidewalks to walk on!!

As you can see from the City of Winnipeg’s sidewalk clearing map, they have only built sidewalks on the main thoroughfares. This is absolutely not a way to encourage walking!

A screenshot of the City of Winnipeg's sidewalk snow clearing priority map for Sage Creek.
Side snow clearing priority

I do not understand why city hall continues to approve this garbage.

In all seriousness, by “walkable” I think Qualico actually means “there are parks where you can walk your dog only a 2 minute drive away!” Qualico certainly is not committed to walkability in any common sense of the word.

But we’ve always done it this way

A few commentors on Twitter mentioned that Sage Creek is just like many other suburbs in Winnipeg and that I shouldn’t be singling them out.

I actually agree. All of the post WWII suburbs are pretty terrible.

In Conclusion

City hall needs to do better!

We can bite bullet and stop approving new developments. They’re a ponzi scheme that has to end, the sooner we rip of the band-aid the better.

We can retrofit existing neighbourhoods with sidewalks and infill housing. We’re already doing a decent job on the latter. I would like to see a candidate in this upcoming election suggest building sidewalks. Hell, we could just steal Edmonton’s 15-minute city playbook, it seems like a good one.

Oh and we should probably at least consider breaking up Unicity before it’s too late.

Categories
Winnipeg

Winnipeg COVID-19 Controversies

…and other associated weirdness.

Winnipeg is weird at the best of times. Coronavirus is bringing the weirdest of the weird.

Here is a chronological list of all the controversies and other we’re occurances that have unfolded in Winnipeg during the ongoing self-quarantine period:

March

12: First case of COVID-19 in Manitoba.

15: Zillionaire owners of the Winnipeg Jets refuse to continue to pay their employees (well except for their Millionaire players). Redditors vow to stop chanting “TRUE NORTH” during the anthem when the NHL season starts back up. It takes them 5 days to reverse their decision.

I’m sure everyone will forget all of this when sports are back in 2023.

20: Provincial Government briefly threatens pull childcare providers’ operating grants if they choose to close during quarantine.

I’m glad they “corrected the record.”

25: Government liquor stores cite serving alcoholics justifications to stay open.

I guess that makes some sense, but sounds bad when you put it that way.

26 — notable non-Winnipeg mention: Workers ‘bunkered in’ at water treatment plant in Brandon, to ensure service during pandemic.

This is when it really started feeling like a zombie apocalypse to me.

30: Shindico exploits a loophole to increase rents during COVID rent freeze.

Assholes. I didn’t see a follow up to this so I assume it actually happened.

April

11: Owner of water park Fun Mountain accuses medical workers of being actors.

archive

18: Police shot 3 people in 10 days.

oof

26: Local St. James ice cream shop — Sargent Sundae — re-opens for the summer. Only accepts cash to the ire of reddit.

Extremely gross an unacceptable IMHO.

27: Firefighters alleged to have broken social-distancing rules.

30: Chainsaw-wielding man threatened arborists and others. 36-year-old charged with six offences, including assault with a weapon, uttering threats, theft.

Ooohkay

May

8-9: Ice cream shop BDI opens an illegal drive-thru in a residential area. It doesn’t go over well.

archive

9: Winnipeg saw a US-style anti-lockdown protest.

MCGA?

10: Director of Operations of Manitoba Jewelry Chain Appelt’s Diamonds – Sarah Appelttweets a QAnon slogan. Turns out that’s the the first time she’s posted wacky stuff.

What’s next unfriending diamonds?

Categories
Culture Winnipeg

The Portage & Main Debate

Debate surrounding the referendum to reopen the Portage & Main intersection to pedestrians has been dominating my social media so much so that I feel compelled to comment.

My feeds are filled entirely with #VoteOpenWPG proponent and in my humble opinion they could be doing a much better job. I’m not even strongly opposed to opening the intersection. Yet I’m not finding the arguments very compelling at all.

Here’s Why

I’ve organized the main points I’ve seen online into a few categories and put on my contrarian hat to illustrate how they could be seen as flimsy and irrelevant.

History

“The intersection was open to pedestrians for much longer than it has been closed.”

This argument has little weight because change is the inherent nature of history. A lot has changed since the intersection was founded in the 19th century. Modes of transportation are vastly different, horses and buggies are nowhere to be seen, streetcars have come and gone; skyscraper exist, etc. The fact that the intersection was once packed with pedestrians 50 years ago has little baring on what might or might not happen if the intersection was open again in 2019.

Accessibility

“People with mobility issues cannot cross the street because they can’t access the underground.”

This is true, but the argument is not compelling. Winnipeg’s downtown is relatively small. Taking a route that does not cross Portage & Main does not add significant distance to the trip. (Unless you need to get directly between the 3 buildings directly at the corner of Portage Ave E.)

The Underground Sucks

“The underground feels unsafe, poorly lit, the entrances smell like urine, etc.”

Again, this may be true, but if true it’s just not a compelling argument for opening the intersection to pedestrian traffic. It is an argument for spending resources on improving the underground.

“Good for business”

Making the argument that opening the intersection will be good for business automatically lumps this issue in with many other downtown revitalization projects that have been presented as magic bullets to “fix” downtown. With arguable success.

It’s also one of the only points that seems objectively false. For one, the intersection is dominated by office towers, there are literally no street-level businesses within the scope of that block. For another, if pedestrians stay above ground, the underground concourse would certainly suffer. If more pedestrians travel above ground, fewer will travel underground.

Future of the city

“It’s about what kind of city we want to be in the future.”

Do we we want a city that’s progressive and pedestrian friendly? Or do we want to live General Motors Utopia of the 1950s? As someone who grew up in the suburbs, current lives and works in the far flung reaches of St James, I get the sense that a vast majority of Winnipeggers are perfectly happy living in an autopia. If this is the argument the “yes” side is depending on, I am afraid they will be disappointed.


I think that sums up just about everything I’ve see in favour of re-opening the intersection. And to be fair (as Alyson Shane points out in her post for a few weeks ago) the arguments against opening the intersection are quite weak as well.

However, we are not being asked to vote in favour of not doing something. We are voting on investing tax dollars in a project that many Winnipeggers see as frivolous or of dubious value at best.

Status Quo Is Free!

Unless it’s not.

According to a July 24th, article in the Winnipeg Free Press by Dan Lett

All told, the city is committed to spending about $3.5 million on street-level upgrades and planning the re-opening of the intersection. We do not know the final cost of tearing down the barriers. However, the existing barriers are falling apart and removing them could very likely be less expensive than rebuilding them.

If true, this is the only point that matters. People of all political persuasions are motivated by dollars and cents. If it’s going to cost more money to keep the barricades up, taking them down should be a nobrainer. Moreover, $3.5M is well under 1% of Winnipeg $1B+ operating budget.

Lett goes to point out:

There is also the fact that private land owners at Portage and Main need to do repairs to the underground infrastructure that supports Winnipeg Square, the underground shopping mall. That work will require the removal of some of the barriers. Rebuilding them seems a pointless endeavour.

I couldn’t agree more.

The fact that we’re debating this, let a lone having a referendum is the most Winnipeg thing ever.

Categories
Winnipeg

Cause and Effect and IKEA

With the fervor surrounding the grand opening of IKEA’s Winnipeg store (their first new market in Canada since 1982, btw), the media, Twitter, bloggers, internet-trolls, your mom are all giving IKEA way to much credit.  They are confusing cause and effect.

IKEA this year and The Jets return last year are not revitalizing our fair city. They are proof that we are once again a thriving “world class” city. A city Winnipeggers can be proud of, a city that is once again One Great City.

Obviously IKEA and The Jets are two huge milestones. But there is a lot of other developments underway. Almost 2 years ago I wrote a post on /r/Winnipeg about how great I thought 2013 would be. As examples of the city’s progress I listed:

  • IKEA
  • 5 Target stores
  • An NHL team (cross your fingers)
  • Canadian Human rights museum
  • At least, two more awesome buildings downtown (Avenue building and Royal Bank renovations)
  • New Airport
  • A bunch of completed infrastructure projects (Disraeli, Osborne St Bridge, West Perimeter upgrades)
  • Phase 1 of BRT
  • alcohol in grocery stores (hopefully)
  • New Bombers stadium at the U of M
  • Renovated Children’s Museum
  • New area code (431)

I’m sure there are tonnes and tonnes of smaller projects that could be added to the list.

The classic Winnipeg apathy and self-loathing that has been such a part of the Winnipeg zeitgeist for as long as I can remember is no longer relevant.  The proof is in the lingonberry pudding.

Categories
Winnipeg

Winnipeg is a Freelance Town

After being laid-off from my job as an interaction designer at Think Shift earlier this year, I exchanged some emo IMs with a good friend and former-Winnipegger. I told him that I was looking at getting into freelance full-time, to which he replied “Winnipeg is a freelance town.”

He was right.

I’ve spent the majority of my 10+ year career working as a remote freelancer. I’ve spent less time at “real jobs” in “real offices” than I have spent working in my “home office.” I took the interaction design job at Think Shift partially to see what I had been missing and partially because I believed the myth of job security.

I’m sure some people would be unhappy working from home without co-workers or face-to-face interaction; and others would be inherently unhappy working for a boss in an office. I’m not one of those people. I don’t know whether I prefer one to the other. There are pros and cons to each. But most of these factors could be lumped into a “soft” category: offices have face-to-face interaction, group collaboration. Home offices have more time with families, optional clothing, shorter commutes, better coffee. With the exception of health benefits and different tax rules, none of major differences have much of an affect my bottom line. They don’t affect my ability to pay the bills, which after-all is the whole point of a job.

When it comes to salary, “real jobs” in Winnipeg cannot compete with freelance. Based on my limited experience most Winnipeg employers live in a stereotypical Winnipeg bubble. They seem to worry endlessly about dealing with stereotypically “cheap” Winnipeg clients. They’re more likely to try to compete on price than quality and seek out clients who are more interested in price than quality (or vice versa, maybe it’s chicken and egg). Even the larger web shops seem hesitant (with typical Winnipeg insecurity) to compete for work nationally, let alone internationally. For all these reasons, Winnipeg web shops are completely unable to compete for salaries nationally.

(And for the most part that’s seems to be OK with Winnipeggers.)

The hourly rates I’m able to charge are completely unreasonable for any full-time salaried position in town – I know because I’ve had job placement agents (that’s the PC name for “headhunters” right?) tell me as much. At the same time, my rates are entirely acceptable to clients in larger markets. Local businesses are also willing to pay my rates because they are still significantly lower than the hourly rates a full on web shops needs to charge to pay the bills.

Some of the most talented designers and developers I know run successful freelance businesses or work remotely for companies like Automattic,  Shopify (I believe Shopify has a local office now) and Black Pixel.