Trees and greenspaces in Winnipeg

One Million is a nice round number. It is the unofficial population benchmark of a Big City. It is also the number of trees that Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman once pledged to plant. But between destructive bugs, an underfunded tree program and infill development, it may take a million years to get there.

How do we grow our city without reducing our tree canopy and park space?

Population growth and growth of greenspace are fundamentally contradictory things. It is not impossible to have both, but it is difficult. It requires thoughtful infill guidelines and decisions that will probably make people unhappy because it means building up instead of out. It may “ruin the character of the neighbourhood” or infringe on peoples’ privacy in their back yards or increase traffic on their streets and back lanes.

There is general (though not universal) recognition that infill of some kind is important. We must create more population density in Winnipeg because our geographic growth is unsustainable, both financially and environmentally. However, it may come at the cost of trees.

Elmwood Guy argues that infill development is a least harm strategy: “if we don’t build infill in the middle because we are trying to preserve greenspace, we will still end up destroying greenspace on the periphery.” He is right. And even if most of our “greenfield” development is on agricultural land with no trees, it still contributes to the sprawl of the city with long term consequences.

So let’s accept that infill is needed (whatever the guidelines may be) and that it may come at the cost of sacrificing a few trees on 40′ lots in mature neighbourhoods. But, will that be enough, or are other infill options needed? If so, where do we do it, and how do we do it in a way that maintains or improves parks, greenspace and tree cover in Winnipeg?

Are Winnipeg’s greenspaces being threatened by development?

There is a great deal of concern (among people who are tuned in to these sorts of things) about parts of proposed key Winnipeg planning docs OurWinnipeg 2045 (pdf) and Complete Communities 2.0 (pdf). In particular, the Major Open Spaces section which comes right out and says that public open spaces including Winnipeg’s parks and golf courses are “attractive for development” and sets out specific conditions for potentially doing just that.

The conditions include things that most people can agree on, including “Maintaining access to waterways, riverbank lands and their associated habitats” without caps on the proportion of land that might entail. Okay, that’s good. But should we develop any of it? Only 6.2% of Winnipeg is defined as public park land according to Municipal Benchmarking Network Canada, and golf courses represent about another 1% of the city footprint.

Winnipeg’s draft Parks Strategy Executive Summary opens by claiming that “Winnipeg is often described as a prairie oasis, earning its name from the beautiful network of parks and open spaces distributed across the city.” I did not know that, and am somewhat surprised. I checked Google and found “the culture capital of Canada”, “Gateway to the West” and “Colder than Mars” but not prairie oasis.

If you ignore Assiniboine Forest and Park, there is not a lot of dark green on that map, and a good chunk of what’s left is golf course. If development of major open spaces is going to happen, it is likely to happen on what is now a golf course.

Should we allow development of our golf courses?

Some will say “sell them all … the city should not be in the golf business.” The City seems to think that up to 30% of them can go. Both takes have something in common with each other, and all previous schemes to sell golf courses: a lack of detail. Which golf courses do you propose we sell and why? What becomes of them?

What we need is a Golf Course Master Plan, similar to the Transit Master Plan, that looks holistically at Winnipeg Golf Services and creates a vision for it. Not just how many golf courses we need but what kinds of golf courses. Easy courses / tough courses. 9 holes / 18 holes. Privately run / publicly run. Should we reformat or invest money in any of them to make them better? Should we have city owned courses that are leased out to private operators and are not even accessible to the public — like the 3 best courses currently in the City’s portfolio? Aside from John Blumberg golf course falling into disrepair, the golf landscape is virtually unchanged from decades ago. We need to start with a blank slate, look at our assets, and figure out how to maximize their benefit to the city.

Importantly, if the review determines that a golf course does not fit the vision, WHAT BECOMES OF IT? That needs to be defined. None of this “we’ll just sell it off” business. Keep 8% of the green space Mr. Shindico, and do what you want with the rest. That’s not good enough. You need to show how it benefits the city and why it makes sense.

I designed a mock plan for development of the east half of the Winnipeg Canoe Club a while ago, to provide an example of what I’m talking about. (I can see councillor Brian Mayes rolling his eyes already.)

Anyhow, I am not suggesting we should develop our golf courses necessarily, but the logic of doing so in this case is overwhelming. This is a hill I will die on. There is nowhere else in the city you can drop hundreds of families into a walkable neighbourhood near schools, a library, a YMCA, major bus routes, shops, stores, golf courses (yes golf courses), parks, etc. with the infrastructure right there to make it happen, all while increasing park space — yes increasing. Hear me out …

The developed half would be the east half, integrated right into the surrounding community with pocket parks connected to the adjacent AT network. other half could be turned into actual full, usable, park space, potentially adding thousands of trees to Winnipeg’s canopy and giving people new access to the Red River. That’s not all:

If the City can be compelled to add the incremental $0.5 million or so in annual property tax revenue to the Land Dedication Reserve Fund, it can be used to expropriate property like this space in Point Douglas to turn it into another park, or this space that could connect the Taché greenspace with Whittier Park. A half million dollars per year every year can do a lot of good.

Doing this will also diversify the availability of greenspace in the city. Not all areas are equally endowed with parks, and lower income areas tend to be less so. This is one avenue to incrementally fix that.

Speaking of private properties …

There has to be better protection for trees and natural areas, whether it’s from a large developer bulldozing acres of aspen forest or a pharmacy building an unauthorized parking lot on the riverbank. There seem to be no repercussions.

source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/parker-lands-tree-removal-1.4862341

There should be rules .. with TEETH. For example, Leila Pharmacy should be forced to tear up that parking lot and remediate the land. If they refuse to do so, they should lose it, or get fined triple the value of that land. Or something. There has to be a deterrent.

The good news is: Leila Pharmacy did remediate the land — sort of. They closed the parking lot extension and planted a single tree that will probably die. But that was only after neighbouring condo owners Beverly Anne Sabourin & Peter Andre Globensky repeatedly lobbied the city to take action.

There is room for improvement as well in the way land is set aside (or not) with new developments. The City’s land development agreement requires 8% of land set aside for greenspace of some kind, but that 8% is really 0% because developers can, and often do, pay cash in lieu of the land dedication. That needs to be tightened up. If there are natural areas worth protecting or, say, a nice groves of trees, there should be a mechanism to protect that even if it’s more than 8% of the area; and the option to buy out the land dedication needs to be restricted.

How do we grow our park space?

Small community greenspaces, like those that the land dedication are meant to create, are important. So too are our formal parks.

Winnipeg has a parks strategy, cleverly named the Winnipeg Recreation and Parks Strategy. The recent consultations skew heavily towards amenities: what do you want to see in our parks? Skating rinks? Sports fields? Play structures? Natural spaces? That’s all fine. However we also need a strategy for growing our park space.

Pocket parks, dog parks, connecting greenspaces with trails — all these things are important, and in short supply in some areas of the city. If we want to truly have a “beautiful network of parks and open spaces distributed across the city” like the Strategy boasts, we need to work towards that, and the Land Dedication Reserve Fund is a tool to do that. The city’s power of expropriation, though it should be used carefully, is another tool.

Key locations for potential greenspaces should be identified and prioritized. The city should also have a goal to not reduce greenspace. If 6.2% of the city is currently park space, that should be the floor. As the city grows, our park space has to grow too. Throw the golf courses into the mix too. Much of the opposition to developing Winnipeg’s golf courses is not so much that we’ll have fewer golf courses, it’s that we’ll have less green space.

To summarize:

We need integrated plans:

  • We need a Golf Course Master Plan that defines a new comprehensive vision for Winnipeg Golf Services. No golf course should be redeveloped until that is complete.
  • Any revenue from a potential private development on a city-owned golf course or park space should be set aside for acquiring additional park or recreation space.
  • Strategic locations for parks should be identified and prioritized. Useful riverside property and connecting spaces should be snapped up when possible, utilizing the Land Dedication Reserve Fund or other funds if available.
  • The land dedication component of new developments should be reworked to limit buying off the dedication and to more closely resemble the conditions in the Major Open Spaces strategy. That is: maintaining key natural areas without caps.
  • Infill development guidelines should be reasonably flexible so that existing neighbourhoods can increase in density and reduce the need to build on parks, golf courses or greenfield spaces in the first place, or on the periphery of the city.

What are the odds of all of these things coming together? Hopefully better than one in a million.

*****

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have made it this far into the blog post, you should register for the OurWinnipeg 2045 Public Engagement and Mobilization Forum on May 6 hosted by OURS Winnipeg and Save Our Seine -> LINK.

I can guarantee that most if not all of the people on that call will disagree with certain things I’ve said above (“Canoe Club” was mentioned several times in the last forum) but they have real concerns about the City’s commitment to maintaining greenspace and it should be a good discussion.

*****

Somewhat related: The City of Winnipeg should properly fund tree maintenance. The City is modestly increasing the tree budget by 6% over 4 years, but some folks like Trees Please Winnipeg argue that it’s not enough to stay on top of the dutch elm and emerald ash borer bugs that are tearing through our tree canopy. Oly Backstrom provides evidence HERE.

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