It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in Winnipeg, and I suspect many other cities: Is downtown safe?
If it’s NOT safe, then what can we do to make it safe? If it IS safe, then how do we change the perception that it’s not?
A casual forum was organized this afternoon to discuss a related issue at a new downtown microbrewery, Little Brown Jug. Under the banner of Urban Brew [a fun, open and informal hub of civic discussion], the subject of tonight’s discussion was “Planning a Safer Downtown in Winnipeg” and featured guest speakers Theresa Oswald (Women’s Health Clinic, former MLA) and Bob Somers (Principal, Scatliff+Miller+Murray Inc.).
There was some discussion about the impact of urban design and planning on safety, but there was also a sentiment that safety is not an issue. Some attendees including CBC radio host and former mayoral candidate Kaj Hasselriis “called bullshit” on the notion that downtown was not safe and lamented that events such as these only perpetuate the myth.
Is there a safety problem?
Look, I have spent a lot of time downtown and have never been assaulted. There have been a few times when I have felt a little uncomfortable, but I have never been in a situation where I truly felt in danger. BUT I know a handful of people who have been threatened or assaulted in one way or another, and it has generally happened downtown. If you were to calculate the probability of an assault or something worse, it would be small, but is there a greater chance of it happening downtown than in the suburbs? YES.
Even if the probability is small or negligible, it is still relevant because people tend to inflate the importance of small probabilities. We over-estimate the likelihood of rare events occurring. This is the way our brains work. A Nobel Prize was awarded not long ago to behavioural economists who wrote about this very thing. Until the relative safety of downtown is indistinguishable from River Park South, this will continue to be a problem.
What do we do about it?
One option is to launch a series of assaults and muggings in River Park South. Let’s call this “Plan B”.
I’m not a urban design expert (although I pretend to be sometimes), nor am I a crime or poverty expert, or really an expert in any related field now that I think about it … but I can tell you this: downtown is much safer than it was 15 or 20 years ago. Or at least I perceive them to be. In particular, the Exchange District and Central Park are dramatically improved — Central Park through redesign mostly, and the Exchange District through economic development. The simple answer is: we need more of this!
Maybe there are some planning solutions that can help, and certainly there is an education component that needs to be addressed as well as poverty, affordable housing, racism, classicism, and a whole host of social issues. But the main point I’m trying to make is that we can’t ignore the problem, and talking about it is a start.
Most people will agree that there is a perception that downtown is not entirely safe, but that perception is rooted in a kernel of truth.
a) Kudos to Paul Bell et al for organizing. I think it went pretty well, and it’s a great concept. Many of the best ideas, after all, are hatched over a few beers.
b) Theresa Oswald was engaging and, at times, funny. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, having only seen her in action politically (and not being a big fan).
c) I *am* a big fan of Little Brown Jug. It was my first visit to their tap room, but I’ve had their 1919 Belgian Pale Ale a few times and it is excellent.
d) I was able to return to my pickup truck parked a block away without incident and am now in the safety of my suburban bungalow.