Thoughts on Urbanism & Community
Recently my colleague Matt Allard (St. Boniface) wrote a piece declaring himself as a proud “urbanist”. An actual attempt to start intellectual debate at City Hall – kudos to Councillor Allard! I agree with much of what Councillor Allard said, however it has got me thinking about the challenges of balancing “community” with “infill housing” applications.
As Councilors, we get rebuked almost daily for not doing enough to promote infill housing, loosely defined as housing construction that does not go into greenfield areas, but rather fills in gaps in existing, developed areas. Articles appear telling us that the city must “build up, not out”, and that to vote against infill applications is to “pander to NIMBY (Not in my backyard) residents’ groups”. The reality of the situation is, of course, much more complicated.
I first got interested in civic politics when I walked past a re-zoning poster in a park near where I lived in Toronto. I decided that a very large condo in the park was not a great idea, and that I should go to a public meeting on the matter. As it turned out, I spent much of the next two years getting involved in a couple of fights to downsize condo applications in Toronto. Interestingly, the local City Councillor who worked with our group was none other than Jack Layton – before his days in federal politics. I say interestingly, because in the current climate around Winnipeg City Hall, I think Layton would have been criticized by planners for not being sufficiently “pro-density” and for “caving in” to those community residents who wanted reduced height and density for a condo.
After five years as a Councillor, I have concluded that it is dangerous to simply worship at the shrine of densification. Some recent city documents further raised my concerns about this issue. The subject of infill housing was treated much like sunshine or vitamin C – something inarguably good for you, without complexity, ignoring the enormous community opposition that often comes with infill applications. Additionally, some of the city documents take the position that infill is always cheaper for civic governments because “it doesn’t require new pipes or new roads”. The reality is that infill CAN be cheaper, or conversely where there are ancient pipes, or other outdated infrastructure, it CAN be very costly.
We also need to be aware of the environmental balance when engaging in discussions about infill – certainly the drive in from say, Guay Avenue to downtown is shorter than from Sage Creek, and taking the bus from Guay is also far easier. Points in favour of infill in that regard. However, the rush to infill can also threaten green space. Several city officials over the years have told me that the “responsible” thing to do with the Canoe Club lands would be to sell them off for infill housing. Well, I’m not buying that. We are looking at re-inventing the golf course (lease expiry April, 2019) into some other use such as park/tennis/soccer etc, but the vast majority of St. Vital residents do not favour losing the green space over to infill housing.
Finally, I fear that if we simply accept that densification is the only “responsible” option we overlook the importance of community and community groups. I first got involved in city politics through a residents group (Toronto). We should be pleased when people are passionate about the future of their communities. This does not mean that I always vote with the “objectors” to any densification proposal. However, I do think that we have to look past some of the media critics who characterize any resident as “NIMBY” types. The communitarian movement in the United States has talked about the need to balance the interests of the community with the interests of the “supra community”, or in this case the interests of neighborhoods with the interest of the city as a whole.
And so while Councillor Allard labeled himself an “urbanist”, I might be a bit more cautious. (This is not meant to criticize my colleague, who has skillfully dealt with several difficult infill applications already). I will adopt the label “new suburbanist” – reflecting that we while we need to accept some infill in the suburbs; we also need to balance the interests of community.