Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Variety Is the Spice of Life

Dear Winnipeg,

I’m starting to get a little worried about you. All the conversation you’re having around infill seems to be headed in the wrong direction.

No, not that direction.

I’m talking about the direction of preserving sameness.

Don’t get me wrong, uniformity can be really beautiful. There’s really something that catches the human eye when everything is the same, and, well, ordered.

But sameness tends to be very fragile.

Let me give you an example. What’s better? A local economy built on 1,000 different businesses each employing 10 people? Or one with a single business employing 10,000 people?

Cause here’s the thing… politicians tend to fall over themselves to attract these large employers. [Remember Amazon’s HQ2?]

And why not? Politicians can concentrate their efforts for a small time, throw in a couple tax breaks, and bam! Instant economic development. A beautiful thing.

But what happens when that one employer follows the tax breaks and leaves town for greener pastures, or else goes out of business entirely? Well, as we’ve seen, your sister Oshawa isn’t too thrilled with GM anymore.

We’re better off cultivating a large variety of small local businesses, who won’t ever leave you in a lurch all at the same time. More difficult, yes. But equally beautiful, and in the end much more resilient.

Need another example? Let’s talk trees. There’s nothing quite like a street lined with beautiful mature elms. Or ashes. Or cherry blossoms. Gorgeous! I know, ’cause I live on one of those kinds of streets.

But when you only have one type of tree, all it takes is one or two freakin’ invasive species of insects to destroy a large chunk of your urban canopy, leaving your streets looking more naked than some parts of Beaconia Beach.

[I’m looking at you, Elm Bark Beetle and Emerald Ash Borer!]

The solution of course is to plant a variety of tree types. A different kind of beautiful for sure, but at least you don’t leave yourself vulnerable to an end-of-days style tree-thrashing. [Say that five times fast!]

So what about housing?

You keep talking about preserving “character”. About not wanting newer houses where there are currently old ones. About not wanting duplexes where there are currently single-family homes. About not wanting two-storey single-family homes where there are currently single-family bungalows.

You’re seeking sameness. Because sameness looks beautiful.

But at what cost?

I know this is usually where I whip out the math, but today’s your lucky day, no math! [Woo-hoo!]

I’m just going to share some stories, and my feelings, with you. [Bwahaha! That’s even worse!]

You see, my neighbourhood was mostly built up between the 1910s and 1940s. Back then, zoning wasn’t really much of a thing, and so stuff got built according to needs, rather than according to some “sameness” plan.

That’s why, although predominantly single-family homes abound in my neck of the woods, you’ll also find several duplexes, triplexes, even four-plexes and five-plexes! Plus small and medium apartment buildings. Places to buy, and places to rent. A real smorgasbord of housing choices. [Which is apparently somehow different from a buffet.]

And if you look closer, even the single-family homes provide variety. There’s everything from 600 sq ft bungalows next to 2,000+ sq ft two-and-a-half storeys.

Why is this good?

Let me introduce you to a few of my neighbours. All the names and some of the details have been changed to preserve their privacy, but otherwise, these are real people living in my neighbourhood that I’ve gotten to know over the years, real people I’m happy to call my friends. [Or, if you prefer, my F ‧ R ‧ I ‧ E ‧ N ‧ D ‧ S.]

Monica

Monica has lived with her husband in a 650 sq ft bungalow for the past two decades. Unfortunately, the two of them recently separated, and they sold the house.

Monica now lives a single-income life, so she needs to downsize. She has also decided she wants to use part of her share of the house proceeds to help her daughter pay for post-secondary education. That means she is looking to rent.

Lucky for Monica (and for us!), she was able to find a place in an apartment building which is literally at the end of our block. And since she was able to stay in the same neighbourhood, her commute to work doesn’t change, and best of all, her friends and support network are still all close by. Because divorce is already enough of an upheaval…

Phoebe

Phoebe lived in a 3-bedroom, two-storey house she bought several years ago. She rented two of the rooms out to her cousins to keep life affordable.

But as much as Phoebe is a people-person, there sometimes comes a time in your life when you want to ditch the roomies and have your own space.

Luckily for Phoebe (and for us!), she didn’t have to leave the neighbourhood to meet her new housing needs. She was able to buy a small bungalow directly across the street from her old house. And with the extra equity she built up in the bigger house with roommates, she was able to buy her new smaller house with all cash. Hurray for mortgage-free living!

Rachel and Ross

Rachel and Ross were empty nesters looking to downsize in their retirement. At the same time, their adult daughter, a single parent of a lovely 2-year-old boy, was looking to buy her first home.

The daughter was able to buy a duplex in the very neighbourhood she grew up in. She rents the other suite to her parents, who are all too happy to be living so close to their grandson.

Chandler

Chandler has lived in the same house on this street his entire life. He was actually born IN this house. He is now in his 80s, and he admits the house is a bit much for him to take care of. He’ll probably be selling next year to move into an assisted living facility.

Luckily for Chandler (and for us!), there is such a facility just walking distance from his current house. He gets to stay in touch with the network of friends he’s built up over his life, and he’ll stay walking distance to his dentist, pharmacist and hair-stylist.

A lot of his day-to-day life won’t have to change that much, which makes leaving his lifelong house at least a little bit less daunting.

Joey

I haven’t met Joey yet, he just moved in over the weekend. Sorry to disappoint.

I count myself really lucky to have all these people in my life. In a neighbourhood of “sameness”, not one of this cast of characters could have continued to live here.

Because if people can’t find the right kind of housing in a neighbourhood as their needs evolve over the course of their lives, then they will leave.

And a neighbourhood where people leave is a neighbourhood in stagnation, if you’re lucky. Or it’s a neighbourhood in decline if you’re not.

A variety of housing options in a neighbourhood is what provides resilience to a place. And that’s also beautiful.

But you see, I’m a little worried for my neighbourhood. Because many of the housing that provides this variety is now illegal. [Duplexes, and triplexes, and four-plexes, oh my!]

This is a zoning map of my neighbourhood.

Zoning Map of Elmwood – 2019

Notice how it’s almost all zoned R1, meaning single-family homes ONLY. The duplexes, and triplexes, and four- and five-plexes that exist in that space are all “grandfathered” in, since they were built before this zoning took effect. If they burn down, or get blown over, or someone accidentally drives into one, they can’t be rebuilt. My neighbourhood could be ever-so-slowly marching towards sameness.

But it wasn’t always that way. Here’s a zoning map from 1981.

Zoning Map of Elmwood – 1981

Notice that what used to be R3 (multi-family or less) is now mostly R2 (two-family or less), and what used to be R2 is now R1 (single-family ONLY). It used to provide flexibility: just because something is zoned R2 doesn’t mean you HAVE to build a duplex. You could still build a single-family, but you had the OPTION of building (or converting to) a duplex at any time with no fuss, if that’s what the neighbourhood needed.

Unfortunately, for reasons only known to the planners and politicians of yesteryear, we went backwards over the past 40 years. And instead of continuing to allow variety of housing to be built, according to the continually evolving needs of the people of the neighbourhood, planners clamped down and started heavily restricting what could be built.

As a result, not a lot of new stuff got built. People moved away. Businesses struggled. But somehow, the neighbourhood plowed on. [Resilience, remember?]

So if you’re out there advocating for sameness in this infill conversation, I want you to know that I’m advocating for the reverse.

I’m advocating for a return to the zoning from 1981, because the flexibility and variety that zoning provided is what made my neighbourhood and gave me my neighbours.

And if you love your neighbourhood as much as I do mine, you should advocate for the same, lest you be forced to move away from it some day once it can no longer meet your housing needs.

R2 or bust, baby!

Love,

Elmwood Guy