Twenty Urbanist Observations From a Trip to Winnipeg

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Recently I went to Winnipeg for a weekend to visit a relative. I’m a dual citizen of Canada and the USA and it was fun to go up north and hang out. For the record, Winnipeg is a the capital of the province of Manitoba, and the metro area has a population of around 740K while the city itself is about 680K. The City of Winnipeg dominates that part of Canada, which is a foreign country with like completely different currency with all these crazy coins and colors on their paper money and everything. It’s a seven hour drive from Saint Paul and you have to cross a national border.   

Here’s what I observed:

1. Winnipeg is super-duper flat- flatter than Minneapolis, even

Wow is Winnipeg flat! The highest point in Winnipeg is the landfill.

This city used to be part of glacial lake Agassiz and it’s flatter than flat. It’s one of the reason why the river flows north (!) which when you stop and look at it and think about it is sort of a bizzaro mind-warp situation, like watching water swirl down the drain in Argentina or something.

Which means that single-speed bicycling must be a thing up here! There are no topographical barriers to riding a bike, that’s for sure.

The view from the top of the Brady Road landfill.

2. No freeways in the city is a real thing

I’ve occasionally heard it said that in Canada they did not make the same mistakes that we did here in the USA when it comes to building grade-separated limited access freeways through (instead of around) cities. Apparently this is true! In Winnipeg the freeways become more like boulevards as they enter the city and they stay that way until you again reach the urban boundary. I suspect there are bypass ring roads, but I am also guessing there are more land use controls about how the area near them is used because the low density development seems less widespread here.

“Strategic road network” map. Note the lack of thick lines through the center of town.

3. There are lots of wide boulevards but they have stoplights

The corollary to the “no urban freeways” thing is that, because there are still a ton of people driving all the time, there are a ton of wide medium-speed roads through the city. In Winnipeg streets like Main Street, Broadway, and Portage Avenue, often look and feel a bit like a cross between Phalen Boulevard, Hiawatha Avenue/55, or Olson Memorial Highway.

These roads are barriers, they detract from the sidewalks and public spaces, and getting around on them can be pretty hectic. But at least they have stoplights and crosswalks every few hundred feet, and compared to American urban freeways they seem like a much better situation for walkability and urban design.

An eight-lane Main Street.

4. Skid row is still there

In Minneapolis and Saint Paul they obliterated their old skid rows and short-term hotel parts of the city without much thought. In Winnipeg, so it seems, the old skid row is still there along Main Street in the North End of town. Pawn shop. Hotel. Bar. Pawn shop. Hotel Bar…

The North End has block after block of this and during the day the sidewalks are well peopled with groups of (mostly) men hanging out. It’s kind of interesting to see a real life skid row of the sort that you see in, for example, the Minneapolis’ Down on Skid Row documentary. Of course I’m sure that people living in Winnipeg might feel a bit differently about this part of town but it to me it is historically and socially interesting to see.

Pizza place, SRO hotel, pawn shop. Note the pedestrian barrier.

5. Winnipeg has longest city blocks I have ever seen

Speaking of blocks, Winnipeg has insanely long city blocks.

In her critical planning masterpiece, “Death and Life of Great American Cities”, noted American-Canadian Jane Jacobs has but four key rules for sidewalks and one of them is to keep city block size to a minimum. Small blocks, she writes, encourage spontaneity and flexibility for people on foot because of their, “fabric of intricate cross-use”, whereas long blocks, “in their nature, thwart the potential advantages that cities offer.”

It’s not one of her more important arguments, but she has a great point to make. She uses the long and relatively boring blocks of New York City’s Upper West Side as a whipping boy.

Well, Winnipeg has the longest residential blocks I have ever seen! They are about twice as long as Jacobs’ west side examples. They go on and on without a break, especially in the city’s West End. It’s really quite stunning, and certainly bad for urbanist vitality and walkability.

From left to right: New York City (Upper West Side), Minneapolis (South), Winnipeg (West End). A half-mile block!

6. This place is industrial, holy moly

Like much of Canada, and especially the prairie provinces, Winnipeg is really industrial. Lots of warehouses, rail yards, and other symbols of a resource/extractive economy. Industrial signifiers, like guys having lunch wearing a blazer and jeans and sporting Barry Melrose mullets, are fundamental to the culture. There are a ton of railroads, constantly in motion. Farm fields stretch to the horizon. A huge part of Canada’s economy and society is based simply on making money directly out of the surrounding land. Note that this is true in the US, as well, especially in places like North Dakota. But with the population density so much lower in Canada, the industrial extractive vibe is far more obvious than it is south of the border.

Apparently this was an “industry” somehow, back in the day.

7. They have curb protected bike lanes

Winnipeg has a small system of legit concrete-curb-protected bike lanes, and the curb extensions are particularly apparent at the intersections. (This is the opposite of how they do it in Minneapolis, for example, where the protected bits disappear at the intersections, the places where you most need them.) I am certain they have more snow in Winnipeg than in the Twin Cities, so the whole “but winter!? what about snow plows?” anti-bike-lane argument seems to be proven false up here.

In other words if they can have concrete curb protected bike lanes in Winnipeg, they can have them in Saint Paul.

Three pics of concrete protected bike lanes.

8. They have their version of skyways, and they suck

The main intersection of downtown Winnipeg, their version of Nicollet and 7th, is called Portage and Main. It’s surrounded by the nicest skyscrapers in the city, and you can’t cross the street. That’s right, the main corner has concrete walls between the sidewalk and the street, and people on foot are forced into an underground climate-controlled tunnel system that immediately disorients any newcomer.

It’s like a tiny crap underground skyway, filled with office-y shops that close after 5pm, abandoned escalator strewn hallways, and staffed by a single bored security guard.

9. There is a horrible pedestrian-blocking downtown street mistake

Following the previous point, the city is now contemplating re-opening the intersection to pedestrians, but it would be expensive and likely involve no little tweak to traffic engineering. Here’s a recent article on it:

To make Winnipeg more walkable, Halldorson says the cement barriers need to come down at Portage and Main.

“There’s obviously a line of desire that I’d like to walk through that intersection as a pedestrian, but I can’t,” said Halldorson.

Now a long awaited report and traffic study have been made public on reopening the intersection to pedestrians. The project is one of Mayor Brian Bowman’s key campaign pledges.

“It is in the end a commitment to the heart of our city,” said Bowman.

That commitment comes with a huge price tag.

The study says puts a cost to tear down the barricades, upgrade sidewalks and curbs, do repairs in the underground concourse and maintain the same level of transit service: $11.6 million.

(Psst: that’s not a huge amount of money for the center of your downtown… Minneapolis just spent $25M on a superficial makeover for Nicollet Mall.)

Still it seems like, if Winnnipeg ever wants a walkable downtown (and it’s no given that they do), re-populating the sidewalks at the absolute center of the city would be a good start.

Anyway people are talking about it now. They hired one consultant who did a report, but then hired another consultant. There are some car-only haters blowing smoke. Seems like a game of sidewalk budgetary chicken!

[Seriously check this out, it’s crazy!]

10. Enclosed bus shelters and people

I once saw a study that measured how quickly people walked in different cities around North America. There’s a common assumption that people walk faster in big cities and slower in small towns. Well, at least according to this metric, people walk faster in the coldest cities. Winnipeg was at the top of the list, with the fastest pedestrians on the continent.

The point is that winter in Winnipeg is brutal! It gets colder and windier in Winnipeg then it does in Minneapolis by a significant margin. It’s one of the few places that can legit boast that they have worse winters than we do here and thus the fully enclosed bus shelters make a great deal of sense. Too bad we don’t have many of these and even our “nice” shelters still have room for the wind to whip around your ankles.

Picture a cold day in Minneapolis, only colder and more windy.

11. Much higher bus ridership

By the way, mode share in Winnipeg is something like 14%. That’s the metro area stats, by the way.  

Are those numbers in metric or Canadian dollars or something, because that is far far higher than Minneapolis?

The equivalent numbers for Minneapolis are something like 9% city-wide and 5% metro-wide. In Winnipeg, they are doing something right with the transit planning. I suspect its a complicated series of land use, planning, and financial incentives that create this more transit-friendly environment. Whatever the reason, it makes me jealous!



12. WTH is a “Parkade”?

Certainly the dumbest regional cultural difference in North America is the distinction between parking terminology. As certain coastal journalists are fond of pointing out, the Twin Cities is one of the few places that calls non-surface parking a “parking ramp” (as opposed to “parking garage”, “parking deck”, or “parking structure”).

Well if you think that’s dumb, check out what they do up in Manitoba. That’s right, it’s called a “parkade.”

“Parkade entrance” is this way. “Sorry for asking, but can you direct me to the nearest parkade?” Etc.

Parkade façade.

13. Seemingly ambitious Federal support for cities

Canadian politics is generally outside my ken, but it seems to me that the Federal government is not waging an all-out war on urban funding streams and populations as they are doing in the United States. (Are Provincial governments different? Maybe.)

In Winnipeg, the biggest sign that this might be true is the massive new museum in the middle of downtown, which was made possible by a huge grant from the Federal government. It’s called the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and it’s wildly idealistic, at least viewed from my eyes. This is the kind of liberal utopian project found only in Star Trek narratives, and in the US would be nothing but right-wing talk show fodder. Anyway, it’s an interesting museum and it dominates the new Winnipeg skyline in a very particular way. It’s kind of like if the Vikings stadium had been built, not for football, but for the history of labor struggles and/or modernism or something more noble than concussions, advertising, and death to migratory birds.  

Views from the top of the Human Rights Museum.

14. Their skate park is 10X better than anything in the Twin Cities

As the good folks at City of Skate are fond of pointing out, the Twin Cities suck when it comes to cutting edge skate parks. Lo and behold, in Winnipeg, right in the center of the main tourist destination, and in the shadow of the Museum of Human Rights, there’s a massive excellent skatepark. No fences, just awesome places to [insert skateboard lingo].

It’s a great public space! Our skate parks suck, and its clear that Winnipeggers have figured out how to transcend the the skaters stigma of and short-sightedness of downtown boosters worried about “kids today” or whatever. At least in this regard…

A few views of Winnipeg’s amazing downtown skatepark, a centerpiece of The Forks neighborhood.

15. People appreciate their sunlight

Walking along the river on a nice October day, boy howdy do people really get out and bask in the sun. This time of year, there’s a gloom in the air. People are well aware that their sunny days are numbered, and even when its a bit chilly, you see young and old alike out in the park benches and patios of Winnipeg. 

Canadian sun worshippers.

16. Trees are smaller

It’s only a few hundred miles (XXX kilometers) north, but you can already tell that you’re in a different climate. Light is lower in the sky, and the trees are small. Mostly aspens or poplars, few oaks. The difference in climate and biogeography is subtle, but always in the back of your mind.

17. River access is seemingly everywhere

The Red River is a major river, folks, and it flows north right through the heart of Winnipeg. It’s not nearly as wide as the Minnesota / Mississippi / St. Croix river basins, and it’s creepily flowing backwards like you’re in a David Lynch film set in Australia, but it does make for some lovely urban space at the heart of he center of Winnipeg.

The main tourist attraction in town is called The Forks and it’s the thousand year-old trading site where the Assiniboine River meets the Red River. Indigenous people have been meeting and trading at that place for as long as anyone has records, and today it’s still a park, café, river boat, and trail space where lots of people hang out. Because of the lack of topography the rivers are pretty accessible to people on foot and they seem like a big part of the urban imagery in Winnipeg.

(There’s even a weird suburban-ish neighborhood called Kingston Crescent that’s basically on an oxbow in the middle of the river!)

One of the Red River bridges has this cool historic marker, only visible from the parallel ped-only bridge.

18. People seem more comfortable with diversity

So the Forks and the Human Rights Museum and the diverse places in the North End like the Nishi Market (a Native-owned co-op) are only part of the picture. Walking over the Red River from downtown, you enter the traditional French area of the city, and I was legitimately wandering around there and happened across a funeral being performed in the old Catholic church cemetery where everyone was speaking French. The most famous person in this part of the culture was a guy named Louis Riel, who was a Metis man who got pissed at the British-Canadian government and started a small but failed rebellion in the 1860s.

In one way, he was an equivalent of someone like Little Crow, who was very central to Dakota identity in the mid 1800s, got swept up in the small and failed Dakota conflict of 1862, was exiled, had his remains desecrated, and today is almost completely forgotten in Minnesota. On the other hand, in Winnipeg, Riel has become a central part of the narrative of place and the fact that he fought there is a big part of the identity of Winnipeg in general and the French speaking community in particular.

The point is that it seems to me that Canada is more multicultural than the United States in general, and especially Minnesota in particular. This is true generally, for immigrants, refugees, and different White ethnicities, but it’s especially important when it comes to Native American cultures (“First Nations” in Canadian parlance). There are certainly a great many persisting problems in Canada but one feels like most people are at the very least conscious of them. You notice this in many small ways.

View from the ruins of the St. Boniface Cathedral, in the traditionally French speaking part of Winnipeg.

19. Exurbs disappear

It’s the weirdest thing that there’s this massive ring road/grade-separated highway surrounding Winnipeg but there’s hardly any development along it. Meanwhile, in the center city, you can’t find a freeway.

Yet there are lots of small towns/cities in Manitoba. The Canadian side of the border is more populated than the American side, for example, and there are little town centers you can find scattered around the periphery of the city. 

At any rate, this one graph says it all. Imagine if the Twin Cities metro population was 90% within the borders of the core city. How would that change municipal governance conversations?

20. West Saint Paul / East Saint Paul map makes sense

What the heck? It looks weird to me!

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.