Urban intensification in Winnipeg: policy barriers to social equity

by Trevor Wideman

Transformative AreasIn the current era of neoliberal urbanism, cities around the world have been searching for “quick-fix” solutions to urban problems, and a common issue in many cities is providing housing for growing populations.

One contemporary method of housing development is known as “intensification”, which attempts to create higher-density residential development in inner-city locations. Intensification developed as an alternative to the low-density suburbs that have been the primary development process in North American cities throughout the 20th century and into the present. Planners and scholars have debated the merits and disadvantages of intensification fiercely over the past 30 years, with many advocates claiming social, economic, and environmental benefits for cities willing to adopt policies that promote high-density neighbourhoods. The City of Winnipeg, in its current master planning document entitled OurWinnipeg (along with its companion document, Complete Communities), has embraced this planning methodology, stating that intensification can be used as a tool for “smart growth” that will allow for economic and demographic growth while keeping the city socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. Despite these noble goals, an important question arises when examining the claims made by the OurWinnipeg document: is intensification truly being used as a tool to promote inclusion and improve resident well being, or does it serve the much different purpose of transforming the city into an instrument of capital generation?

The neighborhood creation process in Complete Communities is full of critiques, because the goals are relatively vague. For example, in a complete community, the necessities of life must be “within reach”, however, OurWinnipeg does not outline how far this is, or address the challenges faced by the elderly or the disabled. Additionally, it doesn’t say how accessibility to services for low-income, elderly, or disabled people will increase in an intensified neighborhood, or how affordable housing will be implemented for people with specialized needs. Communities will be stabilized through increased financial investment, suggesting that higher volumes of commercial activity will make for safer streets. However, this has the potential to create areas of exclusion for people without the resources to access these services.

One of the major dichotomies in the OurWinnipeg plan relates to the division between “transformative areas” and “areas of stability”, which are both sites within the city that can, according to the document, be transformed into complete communities through intensification. The language and policy surrounding these two areas is very different. “Transformative areas” (also known as “Major Redevelopment Sites”, “Regional Mixed Use Centres”, and “Regional Mixed Use Corridors”, shown in the map above) are stated to have a great capacity for change, and require market-generated “reinvestment”, “revitalization”, and “promotion”, while intensification in “areas of stability” will be suitable to the

context and enhance the “unique character” of the neighborhood. Though this language is respectful to established communities, with the exception of Downtown (a traditionally low-to-middle income area), there is no specific neighbourhood that is identified as a “transformative area”. Unfortunately, it is possible for the development of transformative areas to be prioritized at the expense of community development, thereby ignoring the needs of many low-income residents who could benefit from improved housing and infrastructure in their own communities. For example, building new communities with market-rate housing on brownfield sites within the city will not necessarily improve the lives of people living in the surrounding communities, it may merely serve to siphon money from projects that could be used to improve the social capital of existing neighborhoods, thereby perpetuating income inequalities in the city. Winnipeg’s North End and West End are impoverished neighborhoods (see map of Winnipeg household income below) that have a pressing need for improved social infrastructure, yet they have not been specifically identified in the OurWinnipeg plan as areas that need assistance.

Average Income By Census Tract 3Careful analysis of shifts in local governance and policy adoption are needed in order to address the inequalities that can arise through planning processes, and new policy directions such as intensification must be thoroughly understood in order to build strong communities. Community involvement, education, and mobilization can challenge the dominant social process and create a new type of urban dynamic, one based on fairness, not exclusively on economic forces. The fact that Winnipeg has only recently adopted a more neoliberal planning policy gives hope that the trend can be reversed, because the policies and ideals that can be embedded in a process such as intensification have not had as much time to fully entrench themselves, thereby giving space for resistance.

Contact: trevor.wideman(at)cehe.ca