Let’s Pretend We’re a Big City

November 28th, 2018 by Emma Durand-Wood

When I was a young adult, and still living in Alberta, I visited Vancouver with my mum and sister, where we stayed with old friends of my parents’ at their beautiful home in Kits. One afternoon, we were getting ready to go out shopping when I was caught off-guard by our friend saying we’d take the bus.

I don’t remember if there was any context given to this fact–whether it was to avoid parking, or something?– but I do remember feeling a tiny bit surprised and maybe even a bit annoyed. Public transit? Really? Why wouldn’t we drive?

Whatever that little flicker of surprise was, it soon passed. We walked a block or two, hopped on a trolleybus [Stop the presses. Turns out there’s a TransLink store where you can buy t-shirts, etc., with retro trolleybuses and system maps on them. Merry Christmas to me!] and minutes later, hopped off on W4th where we found an amazing stretch of little shops, restaurants, and general loveliness.  When we were ready to come home we did the reverse. It was fun, and kind of novel, and uncomplicated.

I share this anecdote because I recently realized that this was the moment I came to understand that people in Vancouver didn’t use public transit because they were forced into it or because they had no other option. They used it because it was easy and it worked!

Our friends were not millionaires or anything, but they were comfortable and employed and owned at least one car. Clearly, they could afford to drive and park whenever they wanted. But they chose transit a lot of the time because, I subconsciously got the impression, that’s what people in big cities do.

This memory came to me a while ago, when I was turning a particular phrase over and over in my head, when thinking about Winnipeg and the forces that conspire to keep our city broke and sprawling and regressive and uninspired. The phase was this: “Let’s pretend we’re a big city”.

Because we actually are a big city, but in so many ways, we don’t act like one. OK, so we have an Ikea and an NHL team–those might be one barometer. We have the only national museum outside of the Capital Region–another measure.  We’re the biggest city in our province, by quite a lot.

But do we act like other cities our size? Do we lead in any particular way? Do other cities look to emulate us?  That’s what I’m wondering.

I look at Calgary and admire the cycle track they installed so quickly and effectively. I admire Montreal’s green lanes, Saskatoon’s progress towards relocating the rail lines outside the city, and Edmonton’s kick-ass waste management system.

On what basis could Winnipeg become the object of envy? Here’s one idea that I’m passionate about.

Our elm tree canopy is the largest urban elm forest in North America. That’s a stellar superlative. Mature trees are beautiful, to be sure, but they have a multitude of tangible benefits beyond the aesthetic, all of which are ultimately beneficial to the economy, the environment, and human health. Trees:

  • Serve as a visual cue to calm traffic
  • Ease the burden on stormwater systems
  • Improve property values
  • Remove carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air
  • Lower air temperatures
  • Improve health and mental wellness

Last year council approved some extra funding to provide more resources to fight Dutch Elm Disease (DED) — but it’s still not enough. Our Urban Forestry Department is doing an exceptional job at keeping the elm deaths at bay, and I recently learned that the fight is really only limited by resources, i.e., money.  What if we decided to give our tree program as much as it needs so that our city foresters can honestly say “We did everything possible to preserve this important city asset”?

That’s just one idea. I don’t think it’s that crazy.

As a city and province, we’re moving up in the collective esteem of travelers, and that’s kind of exciting. But I’m not sure anyone travels to see a city-wide “World’s Largest Urban Elm Forest” just like (almost) no one travels to see “A Public Transportation System That Works Really Well” or “Look Ma! No Rails!”. These things may never draw the attention of travel and tourism writers, but they sure do make life a lot better for locals.

So while I reluctantly admit that doing things because they’ll make other cities envious isn’t a good strategy in and of itself, I think if we do the right things, that’ll be the natural outcome.

On the other hand, Winnipeg seems so averse to anything bold and efficient that maybe we should be asking ourselves, “Is this something that would make people in other places jealous?” when making decisions about the direction of our city. That might be a better plan than a knee-jerk reaction that we can’t do certain things because (wait for it…) “we’re not Paris/Montreal/Amsterdam/Copenhagen, etc.”

Winnipeg’s a big city. Let’s start acting like one.


p.s. After my opening anecdote, you could be forgiven for thinking this post would be about public transit in Winnipeg. That post is coming. I have many, many thoughts!

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