The Esplanade Riel Pedestrian Bridge in Winnipeg crosses the Red River, joining two historically French and English quarters: St. Boniface and The Forks. Photo © Lance \ Fotolia.com

WINNIPEG STARTED as a city that had a huge sense of the possibilities. The first people that arrived there were trying to attract the railroad, so they built grand railroad stations. They built beautiful Carnegie libraries and splendid boulevards with elegant tress. There was a sense that beauty had to be necessary, and necessity had to be beautiful.

When you walked down the main street of your city, what things looked like was a reflection of your values, your sense of civic pride and identity – a celebration of the intellect, the imagination, the culture, the success and prosperity of the community. You wore it on your sleeve.

Sometime in the middle of the last century, however, Winnipeg, like so many North American cities, abandoned its value-added quality investments. It began building utilitarian kinds of places. It moved from a city that was connected and integrated, to one that was diffused. We came to value what was homogenous, what was standardized, what was easy to build. We lost the sense that anything that we had that was unique or authentic had any importance or value.

The problem with this approach is best described by James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere. He says, “When every place looks the same, there’s no such thing as place anymore.” I add: there’s no economic development either.

One of the ways that we can sustain our planet and our nation is by living in communities that have better connectivity and higher density. This means we have to find status in smaller cars and in walking. A good pair of shoes has to take on the same sexiness as a Lexus.

It’s the integration of land use, transportation, economic and cultural planning that generates wealth. We normally think about these things – our investments in culture and our built environment – in terms of dollars and cents. We build them into our budgets. But what we fail to account for are the revenues, the new jobs, the export, the investment, the property value and the costeffectiveness of not having to build new things because we’ve invested in existing neighbourhoods.

Bus stops are cultural institutions. Subway stations are economic developers. In Toronto, there’s a huge battle over subway stations. There’s a group that argues that we should make them cultural places, explode these new art institutions out into the subways so that stations are full of public art. They are beautiful places. They are aesthetic cultural places. When you go through them, you hear opera music and see violins being played.

But in order to do these things, you can’t have an economic development plan here, a cultural plan over there and a land-use and transportation plan over yonder. If you don’t force them all onto the same page through the same process, you get bad decisions.

Right now, public policy is driving away the capacity and the ability of cities to generate wealth. We are really destroying many of the underpinnings that make cities work. If you listen to municipal politicians during election campaigns, you get a sense of the problem. Rather than present plans to make our cities culturally rich, exciting metropolises, they argue endlessly about transfer payments from their provincial counterparts and tweaking city hall budgets.

The problem is, if you want to be successful in politics and be elected mayor of almost any city in Canada, you have to run on the three “Ps”: police, pavement and pipes. You promise more police officers, you promise to fill the potholes and you promise to fix the leaky pipes. If you say you will keep taxes down, close the deficit, and give people a Wal-Mart and a community centre, they’ll love you and they’ll elect you forever. And you’re leading your community nowhere.

I propose that we start doubling arts funding, and we build on housing initiatives in downtown renewal programs – really kick those things up. Ultimately we should lay out a whole cultural, creative strategy for the city based on “cultural renewal,” “creative economy,” and the idea of developing an ecologically sustainable city – one that is a magnet that retains and attracts creative people who drive the knowledge economy.

A creative economy isn’t about people making macramé in one room and another group coming up with crazy things with pixels on a computer screen in another. It’s the qualitative ability to apply technology and creativity to different designs. We are not a high-volume, low-cost labour economy that produces widgets that can compete with what’s being produced in China or India. Our great advantage is the intellect and the design and the quality of products. Where technology is important is in differentiating between mediocrity and excellence, and in producing new ideas and quality products – how we design them, how they work, how they use energy.

So how do cities start encouraging human creativity and the human imagination, the most important resources in this global economy?

Consider this: you get more people through the turnstile on a beautiful subway system that’s interesting and in itself a destination, as opposed to one that is just someplace you go through.

This article was adapted from Glen Murray’s remarks at the Amazing Possibilities Conference, University of Guelph, May 5, 2006.

 

Glen Murray has been the mayor of Winnipeg, chair of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus and chair of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, and is currently the MPP for Toronto Centre in Ontario.

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