Let’s Worry about Stagnation, not Sprawl

Backgrounder, Municipal Government, Wendell Cox

Executive Summary

  • Winnipeg’s ranking in size among Canadian metropolitan areas has declined from fourth in 1951 to eighth in 2001.
  • Winnipeg’s rate of population growth is far below the other top ten metropolitan areas, except for Sudbury, and the disparity is increasing over time.
  • Despite this lack of growth there is a view in the community that Winnipeg suffers from “urban sprawl.”
  • Concerns about the negative effects of urban sprawl – absorption of farmland, traffic congestion, reduced density – do not have much validity in Winnipeg.
  • The Portland, Oregon urban area, employs stringent anti-sprawl policies, but Winnipeg is denser than Portland.
  • Urban sprawl is not a problem for Winnipeg, but anemic growth is. The Province and the City should reject trendy anti-sprawl policies that have been introduced in U.S. centres with fast growth known as “smart growth” policies, because they will throttle what little growth there is.

  • Manitoba needs to focus on a pro-growth policy direction that can revive economic and population growth in Winnipeg. An aggressive agenda to promote urban expansion – competitive taxes, deregulation of planning, the revamping of building and zoning codes, the removal of rent control to build residential density in the core, transit reform, an aggressive immigration policy – should receive priority, not more regional planning.


The 2001 census data confirms what many have known for some time. Winnipeg’s ranking in size has fallen far behind its peers among the nation’s metropolitan areas. Back in 1951, Winnipeg was the nation’s fourth largest metropolitan area, smaller than only Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. As late as the 1976 census, Winnipeg ranked fifth and had been passed only by Ottawa-Hull. But 25 years later, Winnipeg has fallen to number eight, having been passed by Calgary, Edmonton and even comparatively slow-growing Qu¨¦bec (see Figure 1). From 1951 to 2001, Winnipeg had by far the lowest rate of population growth in the ten top metropolitan areas, more than one-quarter below ninth-ranking Montreal¨ – Winnipeg gained 88 percent, while Montreal gained 122 percent.

And worse, Winnipeg’s growth has deteriorated in the last 25 years (see Table 1).

  • From 1951 to 1976, Winnipeg grew by 61.9 percent, 59 percent of the average of the top ten metropolitan areas (105 percent). Only one of the top ten, London, grew slightly slower than Winnipeg.

  • From 1976 to 2001, Winnipeg’s growth dropped to 16.1 percent, only 32 percent of the average for the top ten metropolitan areas (53.1 percent). Slow-growing Montr¨¦al and Qu¨¦bec grew faster than Winnipeg. Halifax and St. John’s, in the economically depressed Maritimes and Newfoundland, also grew faster. Even Saskatoon and Regina grew faster. Indeed, among the nation’s top 20 metropolitan areas, only Sudbury grew slower (it actually declined).

If the growth rates of the last ten years continue, Hamilton will force Winnipeg into ninth place well before the 2006 census begins.

The data indicate that Winnipeg faces a significant competitive challenge to its relative importance in the national economy. Given that, further regulation of what scant growth exists in Canada’s most anemic metropolitan area might seem counter-productive.

The Province of Manitoba’s Capital Region Committee is working on a regional planning framework for the capital region area: Winnipeg and surrounding municipalities. One of its objectives is “to promote a healthy and equitable growth pattern in the Capital Region” 1

A recent trend in regional planning has been to aggressively control and regulate growth along the edges of major urban centres in the United States. Best known as “smart growth” or compact city measures, these policies place strict growth controls on urban development, for example, urban growth boundaries, to prohibit residential and commercial developments beyond a certain point. These policies are controversial and are being pushed in fast growing urban areas where the urban form is seen to be “sprawling” over greater areas beyond city limits.

Exploding the Arguments Against Urban Sprawl in Winnipeg

There is no strong case for such regional planning policies in Winnipeg and the capital region, especially since this area is the slowest growing major urban area in Canada.Proponents of “smart growth” and the compact city would strengthen the already too restrictive requirements on development, hastening the day when London and Kitchener will make the top ten but a memory for Winnipeg.

No Threat to Agriculture – To some, any urban sprawl is an evil in itself. Never mind that humanity has been sprawling for as long as it has become more prosperous, or that some European urban areas are sprawling even as they lose population. Concerns about the urban threat to agriculture are groundless. After nearly 150 years of development in Manitoba, less than 900 square kilometers of the province is urban, only 0.14 percent of the province’s area (see Figure 2)2. From 1951 to 2001, Manitoba added 4.5 times as much farmland as it did city territory. In 2001, farmland in Manitoba occupied 85 times more space than to urban land (see Figure 3).

Traffic Congestion Less a Problem in Canada – Opponents of urban sprawl use arguments about the quality of life to support their position, for instance that the more compact, less sprawling urban area will have shorter travel times and less traffic congestion. Yet, average travel speeds in the denser urban areas of Western Europe and Asia are slower than in Canada, while the intensity of traffic, measured in urban vehicle kilometers per square kilometer, is greater. Europeans spend 1.6 times as much time in traffic per square kilometer as Canadians, and Asians 2.6 times as much (see Table 2).3

Winnipeg Denser than Many Cities – Further, Winnipeg is not sprawling as extensively as some have suggested. Among the nation’s top 10 urban areas,4 Winnipeg ranks in the middle, at sixth in population density. Not surprisingly, much larger Toronto is nearly twice as dense, but the gap compared to others is much smaller. Montreal is 1.3 times as dense as Winnipeg, while Vancouver, Ottawa-Hull and Hamilton are 1.2 times as dense. On the other hand, Calgary is only 0.9 times as dense as Winnipeg, while Edmonton and Quebec City are 0.7 times as dense (Table 3).

When compared to the Portland, Oregon urban area, Winnipeg sprawls less (see Figure 4). This fact is both surprising and significant because Portland is the self-acclaimed anti-sprawl leader of the world. Its restrictive planning policies, including a strong urban growth boundary, densification requirements that can prohibit rebuilding a fire-lost single family house in an area where planners prefer apartments and an expensive light rail line, have received considerable attention in professional urban planning journals. Overall, Winnipeg is 1.14 times as dense as Portland and densities in the core area of Winnipeg are considerably higher than in Portland. The densest one percent of Winnipeg is 1.9 times more compacted than Portland’s, while the densest 10 percent is 1.6 times that in Portland (see Table 4). Portland’s defenders have faced embarrassment before – the 2000 US Census indicates that Los Angeles, with its reputation for sprawl, is more than twice as dense as Portland. Meanwhile, with its higher densities, especially in the core, and without light rail, Winnipeg’s transit ridership per capita is approximately the same as in Portland.


The evidence of Winnipeg’s relative decline in size over the last half century indicates a policy direction that discourages, not encourages economic growth. The interest urban policy makers have in models that restrict urban sprawl miss the point. “Smart growth” and “compact city” measures are an unnecessary prescription for a problem that doesn’t exist in Winnipeg. Even more restrictive land use regulations will further stunt what little growth there is. An aggressive agenda to promote urban expansion – competitive taxes, deregulation of planning, the revamping of building and zoning codes, the removal of rent control to build residential density in the core, transit reform, an aggressive immigration policy -holds more potential for the reversal of Winnipeg’s obvious relative decline. These issues are addressed in other Frontier Centre work, and together represent a pro-growth policy direction that can revive economic and population growth in Winnipeg. The burden of existing anti-sprawl measures in Plan Winnipeg should certainly not be increased by expanding their reach or intensifying their regulatory power. Winnipeg’s been there, and done that. It doesn’t work.

1. Strengthening Manitoba’s Capital Region – General Principles and Policy Direction, from Province of Manitoba website, http://www.gov.mb.ca/ia/capreg/reports_docs/reports/recent/2002strengthening/2.html

2. Manitoba’s land area is 554,000 square kilometres.

3. Calculated from data in Jeffrey R. Kenworthy, Felix B. Laube and others, An International Sourcebook of Automobile Dependence in Cities: 1960-1990 (Boulder: University Press of Colorado), 1999.

4. Unlike census metropolitan areas, urban areas include only developed areas and exclude rural areas. They are thus the best census geographical unit for measuring the extent of urban sprawl.

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