Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Density Is Not the Answer

Dear Winnipeg,

I’ve been hearing some (ok, one) of our councillors talking up density lately. About how it is seemingly the answer to all our problems. And while I welcome this breath of fresh air in comparison to the same-ol’-same-ol’, I have some news for you:

Density is not the answer. [Insert sound of collective gasp from the urbanists.]

At least not if the question is “How do we prevent this city from continuing its descent into bankruptcy?”

The answer to that is to build more productive places. Places are productive when they generate more money than they cost. And they do that when they are built in a way that requires as little infrastructure as possible.

And they require very little infrastructure when as many people as possible can get around without a car. Because over 85% of your infrastructure is just roads and pipes. [Yes, we can lump in roads with pipes. Because roads go to the places. And the places usually have a toilet. So reducing the need for roads reduces the need for pipes.]

When we expect everyone to get around by car all the time, it turns out we need an obscene amount of roads. And as we’ve seen, roads are soooo expensive. [Like, bankrupting expensive.]

So what does that mean in real life? Let’s take a look!

Here is where you can get, without a car, within 15 minutes from three different neighbourhoods: my neighbourhood of Glenelm, and “smart growth” suburbs Sage Creek and Bridgwater Forest.

Map by Mapnificent.net, with data from Winnipeg Transit.

Look how huge my blob is!! [Not that size matters…]

Now, a lot of that is due to the grid pattern of our pre-war streets, as opposed to the cul-de-sacs of the post-war neighbourhoods, and the high-frequency transit it enables. [Yay #11!]

For comparison’ sake, here is where you can get in 5 minutes without a car, from the same three neighbourhoods (basically on foot):

Map by Mapnificent.net, with data from Winnipeg Transit.

Look at that, my blob is still bigger than the others. [Again, not that size matters…]

But, even more important than the size of the blobs, is what you can find inside the blobs. What are the things you can get to from your house without a car?

Here’s what’s in the Sage Creek 5-minute walk blob:

  • A school
  • A park

And for Bridgwater Forest:

  • A park

Now here’s what’s in mine:

  • Bakery
  • Walk-in clinic
  • 2 pharmacies
  • Coffee shop
  • Bike shop
  • Massage therapist
  • 2 dentists
  • 2 chiropractors
  • Medical lab
  • 2 used book stores
  • 7 restaurants
  • Car rental agency
  • 2 insurance agencies
  • Dance studio
  • Curling club
  • Laundromat
  • Lawyer
  • 2 tax preparers
  • Jewelry store
  • 2 print shops
  • Witchery boutique
  • Sportscards and collectibles shop
  • 2 hair salons
  • Optometrist
  • Bowling alley
  • Guitar store
  • Tailor
  • Flower shop
  • Ice cream store
  • 3 parks
  • Several churches, schools, and more…

I can basically live and die within 5 minutes of my single-family house. Literally. Because there’s also a funeral home and a cemetery.

[See? I told you size didn’t matter!]

Now do I still need to drive places? Yeah, sometimes. But not often.

Someone in Sage Creek or Bridgwater though? Basically for every trip. [No wonder the roads are never wide enough…]

The important take-away here is simple: a mix of land uses is key to building productively. When you put all the houses in one spot, and all the businesses in another way over there, no density in the world is going to take away the need for your residents to drive everywhere. And that will require you to merrily keep building and widening roads… all the way to bankruptcy.

[What is that, like the third time I use the word ‘bankruptcy’? Where’s my thesaurus?!]

Even worse, is that you CAN build very dense places that aren’t productive at all (like this apartment). And then you’re no better off. Or probably even worse off because you THINK you’re doing the right thing and so you do more of it.

Now does this all mean that density is bad? Of course not. Just that we shouldn’t be chasing it for its own sake.

Productive neighbourhoods tend to be dense, but not all dense neighbourhoods are productive.

If we strive to make our neighbourhoods productive, neighbourhoods with a mix of land uses that you can get to easily without having to get in a car, density will tend to happen on its own. [If you let it.]

So let’s stop chasing density, and start chasing productivity.

Ever lovingly,

Elmwood Guy