Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Soylent Greenspace Is… People?

I’d kill another, different tree for you!

Dear Winnipeg,

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of trees. It’s also no secret that I am a huge fan of infill development. And no, those aren’t mutually exclusive. You might be surprised to learn that they actually go hand-in-hand.

[No, I haven’t been eating mystery berries off the shrubs in the park… why do you ask?]

I am of course referring to the recent webinar hosted by OURS Winnipeg and Save Our Seine about the City’s newly proposed draft planning document OurWinnipeg 2045, and its sister document Complete Communities 2.0. Their main concern is that these two documents contain wording that seem to indicate that a door is being opened to residential development on land that is currently designated as “Major Open Spaces”. So basically on parks, golf courses and the like.

Now, for the record, I completely support the basic position of these groups. The City should NOT allow ANY development to reduce the size of our current public greenspaces, and that includes golf courses. If we feel we no longer need a golf course, it should be converted to a public park or returned to a natural state, not sold off to the private sector. Same goes for any City-owned baseball diamond, soccer pitch or football field.

As the groups shrewdly point out, the 2020 Park People Canadian City Parks Report ranks Winnipeg tied for 18th out of 27 Canadian cities for the amount of total city land that is parkland (only 6%!). We certainly shouldn’t allow ourselves to reduce that even more.

Although, it should also be noted that the same report says that at 36%, we are above average in percentage of parkland that is under special policy protection for sensitive ecosystems. So there’s that.

But here is where we start to miss the point. We start to think that saving public greenspace means saving everything that’s the colour green.

It ain’t easy bein’ green!

But just because it’s the colour green, that doesn’t make it greenspace. For example, your neighbour’s lawn is not greenspace. Setting aside the fact that traditional manicured lawns are not very good for the environment, the real question we need to ask is how upset would your neighbour be to find strangers setting up a picnic on his front lawn? Well, how about in a park?

Exactly.

Parks are greenspace. Your neighbour’s lawn is just “green space”.

That difference, albeit subtle, illustrates the need to be careful not to let “green space” become weaponized simply to prevent infill.

If you don’t think it’s already happening, think again. I’ve heard drainage and permeability of large lawns used a lot as an excuse against infill development.

Allowing taller buildings could house more people with smaller building footprints — leaving more yard available for permeability to rain. But apparently, we don’t want “tall houses” either… so is this really a fight for the environment, or just against infill?

And what about your neighbour’s trees? Well, now we’re getting to the juicy stuff!

First, we should talk about the problematic trend towards the privatization of greenspace — the City’s million tree challenge, the lack of funding for our street and park trees, and the mandating of all kinds of very specific landscaping requirements for infill development are all examples of a shift in responsibility for greenspace from the City to the private sector.

It should go without saying that if something is critical to the well-being of your city, then that something needs to be publicly-owned and controlled. We’ve seen the downside of not doing that too many times already.

But beyond that is something called the “beach problem”.

[I think it’s called that? Or maybe I made it up? Or did I read it somewhere? I can’t remember…]

Anyways, imagine a beach with a bunch of cottages, each having their own access to a private slice of that beach.

Now imagine we want to add more cottages.

Yeah, we have to reduce the size of each cottage’s slice of beach. And as you keep adding cottages, eventually, you get to a point where each cottager’s slice is so small as to be effectively unusable. The total amount of beach is still the same, but now no one can truly benefit from it.

That doesn’t happen when access to the whole beach is made public. It’s the same for greenspace… we can slice up little private portions into ever smaller pieces until none of it is useful or enjoyable by anyone, or we can focus on protecting and caring for our publicly-accessible greenspaces: parks, parklets, street trees.

Level-up bonus: the second way is better for City revenue too!

The other reason for doing it that way requires looking at the uncomfortable, dark truth we’d rather avoid.

And here it is: all human housing is bad for nature.

The reality is, 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. Still a net loss in greenspace. And that’s even before we consider the effects of all the new roads and induced driving that creates.

We just don’t feel guilty because we don’t have to hear much about it.

[Probably due to the fact that the squirrels and raccoons who currently live there haven’t learned to use a microphone, so they never make a stink at a public hearing.]

Ignorance is bliss, I guess.

Although, we should know… I mean, it’s right there in the name: greenfield development.

Plus, the first thing you learn in developer school is how to name a new subdivision. You pick a few of the things you just bulldozed over and put them together: Aspen Pines, or River Oaks, or Birch Creek Meadows.

[I’m kidding. Sort of.]

But seriously, we must accept that all human housing is bad for nature, no matter whether it is greenfield, infill, or even if it was built 100 years ago.

Think about it. Doesn’t it seem a little rich to be trying to prevent others from cutting down mature trees to build themselves a place to live, when your own place to live not only sits on land that was also cleared of mature trees at some point in the past to make space, but is LITERALLY made from other cut-down mature trees?

[If you live in a wood house, don’t throw, uh, sticks.]

It should come as no surprise that the City is looking at developing parks and golf courses… we can’t keep building outward without going bankrupt, but too many people still resist making better use of land we’ve already set aside for housing. Land that is already zoned residential, where we’ve already destroyed nature (even if it was decades ago).

There’s an old adage that says if you love nature, you should stay away from it. Nowhere is that more true than when it comes to housing construction.

If you love nature, if you love greenspace, then you should want to make the best, most judicious, most efficient use of whatever land we have already dedicated to housing. That is the path of least harm. We need to recognize that humans are a destructive species, and that whatever we choose to do with respect to housing will cause harm to nature, so we should act to minimize that damage as much as possible, by using as little land as possible for it.

And that means infill on lots where housing development has already taken place, so we’re not squandering land. Turns out, that’s not only a financial argument, it’s an environmental and ethical one too.

At the same time, we must care for existing consolidated public areas of greenspace, in a variety of sizes and locations, and keep adding more when we can. That means not only large park spaces like Assiniboine, Kildonan and St-Vital Parks, but also medium ones like Elmwood, Provencher and Bernie Wolfe Parks, and small ones like the Simcoe and Talbot Tot Lots, not to mention that one park in Wolseley that is literally just a single 30′ residential lot.

And of course, street trees on every street. [Which, as urban foresters will tell you, means protected bike lanes on streets like Henderson, Portage, Main, and Provencher, obviously. Don’t worry, I’ll get into that one another time…]

Truly being an environmental steward requires supporting infill on existing residential lots, while caring for our public greenspaces. Doing otherwise is simply squandering our most precious natural resources, and bankrupting the City in the process.

Recognizing that a city is a complex organism, often with many unintended consequences to our actions, is the first step towards the humility required in building a truly sustainable city. The best path forward won’t be perfect, but nothing ever is.

Tree Hugs,

Elmwood Guy