Let’s talk about design

Winnipeg Design Festival takes an inclusive approach to an important conversation

Urban planning and design are an essential part of how a city defines itself. They’re also issues that have arguably been given short shrift in Winnipeg.

Growth and development are speeding up rather than slowing down, but the conversation surrounding design seems like a relatively small part of the broader climate in our city.

The Winnipeg Design Festival is doing its part to make design an integral part of Winnipeg’s identity.

“The fest’s goal is to make design more accessible to the general public,” saysMonica Derksen, festival coordinator.

The festival, now in its fourth year, runs from Sept. 17 to 22. It involves dozens of events throughout the city aimed at bringing design to the masses.

“The majority of the events in the festival are initially proposed by outside groups or individuals,” Derksen explains, “and then we curate it and put it all together into a festival.”

Many of the events take a fun, interactive approach to public art and design.

“One of my favourites is PARK(ing) Day,” Derksen says. “It’s a full-day event along Portage Avenue where people reinvent parking spaces. It can be anything from putting up a little mini park to anything else you can imagine. If it wasn’t a parking space, what else could it be for the general public?”

PARK(ing) Day is one of several events where people can participate in large scale collaborative art projects. Others include the Chalk Walk street art mural and the Joinery collaborative structure.

The Fest also includes seminars, exhibitions and lectures including a forum on design with Winnipeg’s current mayoral candidates. It’s a conversation some feel our city needs to have.

“I think it would be interesting to raise these questions with the mayoral candidates,” says Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

“To ask them, ‘How much do you plan to spend on public art? How much money do you plan to spend on good civic design? What’s your vision in terms of the culture of development and planning?’

“Right now, if you think about the culture that you see at City Hall, our current mayor had a very close relationship with developers,” Distasio says. “But there hasn’t really been a discussion of, say, the design of the new police station.”

Distasio thinks we can do - and have done - better.

“Our previous mayor, Glen Murray, took a lot of flak for building the [Esplanade Riel] pedestrian bridge,” Distasio says. ”We had the prime minister calling it a million-dollar toilet. And now, if you look at imagery of Winnipeg, postcards, backdrops for news, that bridge has become a symbol.

“I think Winnipeg has struggled over the years to create a culture of good urban thinking.”

And he thinks the Winnipeg Design Festival has the potential to make a positive impact.

“Any time we talk about urban issues in a collaborative way, whether it’s design or social issues, the more the better. Including this event. It’s a wonderful event.”

Published in Volume 69, Number 2 of The Uniter (September 10, 2014)

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