November 26, 2019

Just how walkable is Downtown Winnipeg?

Smart Resilient Communities

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I moved downtown over five years ago. My first apartment overlooked Assiniboine Avenue in a mostly residential area with luxe modern condominiums and townhouses built between 100-year-old heritage buildings.

The best part about my apartment was the ability to walk to basic amenities like the grocery store, green space and entertainment spots. I could even walk to work. These aspects of downtown living were not available to me, growing up in Charleswood. I had to drive everywhere or beg my parents for a lift.

I suddenly felt very spoiled living downtown. I didn’t have to drive, I didn’t have to convince someone to take me shopping or drop me off somewhere—I had the autonomy to walk wherever I pleased or, if necessary, take the bus.

While I no longer live on Assiniboine Avenue, I still reside in the neighbourhood. Moreover, in the past two years working at Nadi, I have come to recognize how fortunate I am to live in an area where owning a vehicle is not necessary. However, I have also become aware of how far Downtown Winnipeg still needs to come, especially in terms of walkability and the principles of people-first places.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term walkability, it’s “a measure of how friendly an area is to walk around in. Walkability has health, environmental, and economic benefits.” Walkability also includes a myriad of other factors, including “the presence or absence and quality of footpaths, sidewalks or other pedestrian rights-of-way, traffic and road conditions, land use patterns, building accessibility, and safety, among others.”

There are many benefits to walkable cities: people “are more active, healthier, have more time to spend with family and friends, and report higher levels of happiness and subjective well-being.”

In fact, the American Psychologist published a new study that looks at the effect of children growing up in a walkable community in correlation to the economic mobility of children. “Their data covered more than nine million Americans born between 1980 and 1982 and gauges the probability that children households in the bottom fifth of the income distribution will reach the top fifth by age 30.”

Psychologists at Columbia University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found “The more walkable an area is (as indexed by Walkscore.com), the more likely Americans whose parents were in the lowest income quintile are to have reached the highest income quintile by their 30s. This relationship holds above and beyond factors previously used to explain upward mobility, factors such as income inequality and social capital, and is robust to various political, economic, and demographic controls; to alternate specifications of upward mobility, and to potentially unspecified third variables.”

This is huge, but it also feels unsurprising. The psychologists studied communities that were much denser (no urban sprawl), meaning the use of a vehicle wasn’t necessary. Children had the opportunity to explore their neighbourhood, build community connections and increase their sense of belonging to the city they grew up in.

However, to create this environment includes more than just the ability to get from point A to point B by walking. It requires our streets, avenues and roads to be an enjoyable environment to step into. In other words, dead city blocks—like the cityplace parkade or the block between Portage and Graham on Fort are neither interesting to look at nor interesting to engage with.

This may feel overtly critical, but it’s a symptom of a more significant issue in Downtown Winnipeg. We need to make walking, biking and public transit a superior option to driving. This means we need more storefronts, awnings, trees, land art, lighting and safer barriers between pedestrians and cyclists and drivers.

As an avid walker, I see how little the pedestrian experience is given thought to. Many times, a vehicle or bus has disrupted the crosswalk, forcing pedestrians onto the road to cross the street. Construction takes over sidewalks with no thought as to how someone—especially someone who is not able-bodied—is supposed to manage this obstacle course.

One of Downtown Winnipeg’s most significant criticism is its crime. As a downtown resident, I’ve never experienced any crime myself. However, I’m not arrogant enough to pretend the threat is not there. Even though I’ve never experienced crime, it doesn’t mean I won’t. But walking at night is never as joyous as it is during the day—and that’s because often, I feel like I am the only person walking downtown.

Safety is imperative to a walkable city, but it also requires people to use our city sidewalks. In a study by the University of Louisville’s John Gilderbloom, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo’s William Riggs, and Georgia Regents University’s Wesley Meares, they argued, “walkable, denser neighborhoods benefited from “eyes on the street,” or the natural surveillance that occurs in neighborhoods where people are frequently coming and going at all hours of the day.” Whether we like it or not, as a community, we keep each other accountable and safe, but it’s only possible if we take to the streets. There’s a significant correlation between walkability and safety.

To make Winnipeg more walkable requires a change in culture, whether it’s driving, land development or infrastructure regulations. In Vancouver, developers are required to include engaging and entertaining facades on their building, i.e. no first-level parking or private spaces. We need to implement similar rules in Winnipeg. As I have mentioned in a previous article, we are giving up our public areas and public walkways to private businesses. Skywalks and underground concourses are not available to people 24/7. Therefore, these can’t be acceptable options for people to move around downtown.

I enjoy the intimacy of walking. It pumps me up on my way to work and in turn, relaxes me on my way home again. However, I can see why more people don’t view walking the way I do. There are blocks of nothing on my commute home—whether it’s walls or surface parking lots. I genuinely believe we can change this and become a healthier city because of it.

There are many benefits to walkable cities, including housing, health, and addressing climate change. However, my favourite aspect of walkability is its inclusivity and encouragement of community bonding. I imagine it’s similar to how dog owners feel at dog parks: a sense of belonging, these are my people.

How do you think we can improve Downtown Winnipeg’s walkability?