Another Way To Fix Downtown

Commentary, Urbanization, Frontier Centre

Property values in rural Manitoba, especially in southern parts of the province and around Winnipeg, are booming.

We owe it partly to a strong agriculture sector. Maple Leaf’s world-scale processing plant rises on the flat prairie near Brandon, prompting rapid growth in the expansive hog industry. The farm economy has diversified, thanks to a helpful push from Ottawa’s termination of grain transport subsidies. The sinking dollar, perversely, keeps commodity prices stronger than they should be.

Most interesting is the strong demand for housing on land encircling Winnipeg. Settling just beyond the perimeter offers a more relaxed lifestyle, bigger lots and lower property taxes.

Some folks deride the spread of the city into surrounding rural areas as "urban sprawl", but it’s a relatively recent development. Only a few decades ago, most cities had densely populated cores.

Limited mobility created a natural tendency to live close to employment and stores. Small lot sizes, row housing and apartments were the product of high land prices downtown. Tramlines allowed many to escape to "streetcar suburbs", but those areas were themselves densely populated by commuters who wanted to be able to walk to car stops.

Then a new technology came along – the automobile. Since people could go wherever they wanted, suburbs blossomed around urban centres. When jobs, shopping, and cultural facilities shifted outwards, city downtowns began declining. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright wrote in the 1920s that cars and telephones had made downtowns obsolete. Coincidentally this was the same time Winnipeg’s massive downtown building boom ended.

We now see lifestyles beginning to evolve rapidly around powerful Internet technology, massive big-box stores and shopping malls in the suburbs. Few city centres today employ more than 15 to 20 percent of urban workers. Their jobs are dispersed throughout the community, not centralized downtown.

To the consternation of traditional urban planners, the suburbs get along just fine without the central city area. The decline of the downtown is seen as a crisis that justifies spending millions on core renewal projects. But the money has little effect.

A bias in urban policy towards the centre doesn’t help either. Winnipeg’s bus routes maintain a downtown orientation, so transit customers riding from suburb to suburb are forced to head downtown. So fewer do, and ridership falls. Ambitious schemes like Winnipeg’s Centreplan have tried fruitlessly to preserve and build up the downtown in the face of the relentless technological forces that are dispersing economic activity. Again with little effect.

Suppose we broke out of the box and tried something new?

Downtown could be an interesting and dynamic place to live. Much of the Exchange District will bustle like an upscale European neighbourhood, with street level shops and restaurants catering to residents and "wired" business people who live in condominiums and apartments above.

For this to happen, we need to pitch our obsolete zoning rules. They prevent non-traditional uses of buildings by ballooning up conversion costs with unworkable requirements for parking, elevators, sprinkler systems, and fire protection. A deregulated environment will make old structures viable, preventing their destruction.

The parking meters that drove customers away from downtown will have disappeared, along with the self-made nightmare of 1970s traffic planning: one-way streets, absurd turning restrictions and special lanes for buses. Downtown cannot support major entertainment and art venues unless their patrons feel welcome.

The city can lick the dreaded "sprawl’ only by tying service provision costs to a localized system of user fees. It would see higher cost, lower density areas pay more for their services. Denser areas, less expensive to service per capita, pay less. This makes them an attractive place to live.

Stay tuned for more.