More urban parks and public squares

Dylan Hewlett

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It’s one of Winnipeg’s most prized public spaces - coming alive each summer with hundreds of thousands of people looking to dabble in some international jazz or fringe theatre, or to grab a slice of street meat and catch a free lunchtime concert.

But is Old Market Square living up to its potential?

Some Exchange District business owners and urban policy experts don’t seem to think so.

While Old Market Square serves as the hub for summer events like the Winnipeg Fringe and the International Jazz festivals, the Exchange District Walking Tours and noon-hour concerts, the park is largely ignored throughout the rest of the year, says Jino Distasio, director of the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies.

“During the winter, they don’t do much,” said Distasio, pointing to the Exchange District Business Improvement Zone, the agency that serves as keeper and events booker of the park and its concrete and metal stage, The Cube.

“We’re a winter city. It’s really a shame when we can’t make use of these kinds of spaces throughout the year.”

Located at the corner of King Street and Bannatyne Avenue, Old Market Square lends some greenery to the rows of historic buildings lining the Exchange District streets and stands as a piece of preserved Winnipeg history.

Old Market Square is a reference to a farmers’ market that occupied a corner near the park between 1889 and 1964, and served as a centre for public discussion during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

“It’s an attractive part of the Exchange,” Distasio said.

“People are actually now looking not only at keeping these kinds of spaces, but also keeping them active.”

However, Winnipeg has always struggled to provide an adequate balance of parks and public squares in urban areas, Distasio said.

For Distasio, this is an area in which the city needs to improve.

“These kinds of spaces are vitally important for the mental health and well-being of a city,” Distasio said, adding the challenge is that parks cost money to maintain and improve.

Kathy Hudson, one of the three owners of Smoke’s Poutinerie, wants to see the Square buzzing with activity during the winter.

“I’d like to see a skating rink,” she said.

“The Exchange District BIZ has done a really good job bringing people down, but not in the winter.”

However, making use of the square during the nine cooler months of the year may be easier said than done.

“It isn’t built for winter,” said Stephanie Scherbain, marketing and communications coordinator for the Exchange District BIZ.

The Cube is not designed to protect sound and musical equipment during Winnipeg’s winter weather - yet.

Outfitting the venue to do so may require some out-of-the-box thinking, but it’s not impossible.

(Parks and public squares) are vitally important for the mental health and well-being of a city.

Jino Distasio, director, Institute of Urban Studies, University of Winnipeg

Toronto’s Echo Beach hosts a two-day outdoor electronic music festival in February.

Despite the city’s short summers, Scherbain says Old Market Square is an important historical greenspace in downtown Winnipeg.

“It’s important for people to have the opportunity to experience that kind of greenspace in the centre of downtown,” said Scherbain.

Philip Mikulec, an owner-member of Mondragon, believes using the park simply as a greenspace for commuters to experience as they drive by is not enough.

In addition to a need to re-brick the pathways in the square, Mikulec says the urban park would be used more if the surrounding area was more pedestrian friendly.

“Mondragon and other businesses in the building have gone to the City to try and make a portion of Albert Street a pedestrian zone,” Mikulec said.

“They’ve been met with a cold shoulder - no one will really consider it.”

In 2009, the City of Toronto implemented a Walking Strategy that sought to introduce both temporary and permanent walking streets within its downtown. Calgary and Ottawa have also designated downtown streets as pedestrian zones.

Even Regina converted Scarth Street, alongside its Central Park, into a pedestrian mall with seasonal outdoor entertainment.

When comparing Winnipeg to Montreal, Mikulec says Winnipeg falls short in providing spaces that encourage pedestrian traffic.

“Montreal closes down parts of streets for four or five months starting in the spring and the street becomes a pedestrian zone,” said Mikulec.

“This area, it’s a small spot, but the idea is to make Winnipeg a more pedestrian friendly city.”

Chuck McEwen, executive producer of the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, credits designating Albert Street as a pedestrian zone as part of the festival’s success in creating a vibrant public space.

“It’d be great to have more walking streets,” said McEwen.

“I’m a big fan of other cities that have success in making walking streets. The Fringe is a great example of how dynamic the downtown area can become.”

Part of the series: The Urban Issue 2013

Published in Volume 67, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 28, 2013)

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