Urban or suburban? The final frontiers

Where we live says a lot about who we are. Though Winnipeg’s unicity planning has resulted in a variety of unique neighbourhoods, there is still a strong dichotomy between the downtown core and sprawling suburbs. The slow revitalization of the core has not put an end to residential neighbourhood growth on the edges of the city limits. And with sporadic decisions about which parts of the city receive further funds and plans for growth, it looks as though we’re undecided as to which matters more.

Two regular Uniter writers make the case for their neighbourhoods in an effort to determine which is really the best place to live.

Devin Morrow is blogging over the summer at www.uniter.ca/blog.

Downtown shines for convenience and culture

by Will Dumont

When I tell suburbanites I live downtown, often the first question people ask me is, “Aren’t you afraid?” I’m always surprised at this reaction, as it is so detached from the reality of downtown living in Winnipeg that I cannot believe the amount of discomfort or fear some suburbanites still have of the beautiful core of our fair city. It isn’t like I have blinders on when it comes to the staggering issues that face downtown either – especially things like violent crime. But I’ve also lived in a downtown apartment for the past five years, and on top of having never felt threatened, I’ve seen our city grow and prosper, if only in small steps. This fear or distaste of the downtown core is unjustified when presented with the many conveniences downtown living has to offer.

Firstly, the way downtown is set up is extremely pedestrian friendly. Owning a car is an unnecessary luxury when you live within walking distance to many Winnipeg attractions. I can hit the museum, art gallery and my favourite local pub all in the same day. My workplace is scarcely a 15 minute walk from my apartment building. The university is only two blocks in the other direction. I mentioned all of this first, because quite frankly, the convenience of residing in the downtown core cannot be topped by anything else, and not owning a car presents my next point: the environmental factor.

What bothers me most about suburbs is the lack of foot traffic available – so many of our newer suburbs out near the perimeter lack sufficient sidewalks as a means for getting around the neighbourhood, forcing people into their cars. As a consequence, more and more cars get on the road and belch their exhaust into the air. Compare this to downtown where it is sometimes faster to walk and the dirty, noisy downtown core suddenly seems a lot more environmentally conscious than the pristine, green suburbs.
Of course, suburbanites need these cars to get to their favourite stores, like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and any number of American-owned big box stores. Over the past five years, one of my favourite aspects of downtown living is how much it has enhanced my ability to support local Winnipeg businesses.

I don’t go to big, mass-produced clubs owned by a single corporation, I hit up the local pub, owned by a Winnipeg family. While I could go get dinner at a big, corporate owned tavern, I’d much rather try something different at one of the endless small restaurants on Ellice. I shop for clothes at small boutiques and believe it or not, it feels really good to know my money is going to Winnipeg-dwelling business owners. I’m not saying I only buy local, but I try to make the effort where I can and I recommend more people do it.
Lastly, for all the talk of how downtown needs to be revived (and it does), much still happens right here in the heart of the city. The music festivals, the Fringe Festival, the big concerts at the MTS Center (five minute walk from my place – haven’t showed up too late for tickets in five years) and all of Winnipeg’s big events still go down here, or in one of the old neighbourhoods that border it like Osborne or St. Boniface. What it boils down to is, if you think downtown is dangerous, scary, or even just plain dull, you suburbanites are the ones missing out on culture, convenience and the best the city has to offer.

Will Dumont is a University of Winnipeg student. Look for him in your downtown neighbourhood.

Suburbs prioritize families and good old fashioned values

by Steve Currie

Listen up Uniter readers: I’m here to serve up a big drink from a poisoned well. In an urban-themed news journal, to a proudly urban university – during a populist urban culture movement – I am taking it upon myself to advocate the suburban lifestyle.

I feel your attention waning, your antagonism soaring. I can tell you picture me in a gas-guzzling SUV, looking fearfully over the walls of my gated community while drinking flavoured instant-coffee. But there is more to this story than our society, carried away by the marketability of urban and/or counter-culture movements, makes known.

That urban centres are beacons of culture while residential suburbs are stagnating ponds is a pervasive myth. Historically, it falls: many iconic cultural centres had their beginnings as outlying suburbs; Harlem and Montmartre are just two examples. Urban centres are never built to create cultural revolutions – they are almost exclusively designed around business, finance, and cold hard cash. If they are successful in this venture, you get Wall Street (pre-recession). Stunning and intimidating, yes; cultural haven, no.

When downtowns fail to turn profits – as they have so many times in Winnipeg – culture doesn’t fill in the gaps. Poverty, crime and freefalling education and health care do. The fact that many cultural phenomena today are linked to urbanity is a statistical by-product of the population density in these areas, and the low standards of living which make them active. No direct cause, just a correlation to the fact that too many people are being forced to live in areas unable to support them, for the simple reason that they were built with the wrong intention: the economic bottom line.

Now, let’s consider the suburbs. Obviously the intention behind suburban landscapes is family and community togetherness. And while this may seem a little bland, you must agree it is a more spiritually substantive purpose than the financial tribulations of downtown. And while environmentalists jump on the two-vehicle garages, I would suggest my urban opponents count the number of multistory parkades downtown before putting the blame for the car culture entirely on suburbia’s shoulders. While we’re chalking up building counts, try tallying the number of local libraries and community centres in the bleak suburbs. Then count the number of pawnshops and payday loaners downtown. Now argue which one makes for a culturally active populace.

Downtown has failed Winnipeggers. Even the vaunted Exchange District is a symbol of the high financial hopes Winnipeg once held dear, with each building torn down showing how those dreams have evaporated. Downtown has failed its people because it was never built to serve them. Like all urban centres and almost entirely unlike the suburbs, it was built to concentrate business, value efficiency over leisure and work over intellectual stimulation. If there is hope for our city’s core, it is only if it is re-imagined under the idealization of the suburbs which are built to bolster family and community ties, to encourage aesthetic and environmental beauty, and to provide for its citizens lives beyond the narrow sphere of a pay cheque, rent, and profit quotas.
Steve Currie is a University of Winnipeg student who incidentally loves his downtown home.

Published in Volume 63, Number 26 of The Uniter (April 2, 2009)

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