Explained: Winnipeg’s sprawl problem

The above graphic shows the extent of urban sprawl in Winnipeg over a nearly 40-year period. (Paragon/City of Winnipeg)

By Tyler Searle

A tour of Winnipeg’s perimeter reveals a city expanding on all sides — at all times.

Turned earth, slats of construction materials, and large steel machines rest in open fields. Tyvek sheets billow from wooden frames. Vacant homes, awaiting drywall and a fresh coat of paint, stand as symbols of looming suburbia.

Winnipeg is growing too big for its britches. This is urban sprawl.

Urban sprawl describes the uncontrolled and unsustainable expansion of residential neighbourhoods, a burden the city, and ultimately municipal taxpayers, must shoulder.

New developments require road maintenance, transit routes, snow clearing, sewage, waste management, and emergency services.

As a city already saddled with a nearly $7 billion infrastructure deficit, many believe Winnipeg cannot afford to continue growing.

‘It’s not helping us,’ expert says

Financial efficiency is related to population density because the closer people are, the easier it is to provide them with services, Gina Sylvestre, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, said.

 “(Urban sprawl) is thinning resources of the city. It’s not helping us,” she said. “We keep just kowtowing to the suburbs and (there is a) lack of power (within) inner-city Winnipeg. There’s no one to stand up for them.”

Sylvestre points to Winnipeg’s homeowner and commuter culture as a potential culprit. The result is an economically and environmentally inefficient city, she said.

Winnipeg is a low-density city. Here, less than one million people occupy nearly 500 square kilometres of land. Despite the fact almost 50 per cent of Winnipeg’s jobs are located within five kilometres of city hall, only around 30 per cent of the entire population live in this range. These numbers have likely grown since the federal government collected them in the 2016 Census.

Worse, of the roughly 345,000 commuters surveyed in that year’s census, nearly 80 per cent opted to drive themselves rather than take active or public transit.

This number has alarming environmental implications, as evidenced by a 2018 report from Manitoba’s Climate Action Team, which revealed 42 per cent of the province’s emissions come from transportation.

Last year, city council drafted the Our Winnipeg and Complete Communities plan, a document outlining how the city will grow, reduce poverty, and meet climate change targets over the next decade.

Among other things, the document proposes combating urban sprawl by promoting infill housing.

Advocates call for renewed focus on infill

Infill housing is the practice of creating new homes or redeveloping older homes in existing neighbourhoods.

If done correctly, infill housing could increase population density in the city’s core neighbourhoods (those within 5 kilometres of city centre) and allow people with diverse economic needs to cohabitate, Sylvestre said.

However, the practice is not without its challenges.

In general, it is more expensive for developers to build on or refurbish existing lots. Developers specializing in infill housing often place two homes onto a single lot by constructing slim, tall houses with shallow yards—a process known as lot splitting. These builds can clash with a neighbourhood’s existing aesthetic and encroach on adjacent properties, Sylvestre said.

While the city has prepared general guidelines to govern how developers construct homes in mature communities, a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best way to implement infill housing. Locals need to be involved in a consultation process before developers break ground in their neighbourhoods, Sylvestre said.

Beyond that, she believes council should implement an expansion tax or zoning bylaws that discourage developers from building on the city’s limits and incentivize infill housing.

In 2017, the city tried and failed to curb urban sprawl by imposing an impact fee. The tax required developers to pay an additional $54.73 per square metre on new builds within the city’s outskirts. The fee would cover the cost of infrastructure required by new developments, it said at the time.

Developers contested the tax in court and in 2020, a provincial judge struck it down, ordering the city to refund roughly $37 million to developers and homeowners.

There have been musings at city hall about a similar kind of fee being drawn up and imposed, this time one that meets legal requirements.

Twitter: @searlety

May 1, 7:08 p.m.: Corrects typo


  1. “But what my neighborhood? It needs stuff too. So that one shouldn’t get anything before I get mine!” While this pointless argument goes round and round, people look at old housing with rundown services and roads, consider paying more for infill shaped like a Red River settler’s riverside plot than for a new build, and then quietly move to the suburbs. And then are herein accused of directly ruining the earth (in this article, anyway) and for causing urban sprawl. Not everyone/hardly anyone shares Brent Bellamy’s dream of stacked tiny boxes downtown. The fact that developers run things at City Hall is a different matter. I spoke to the city council in an in-person meeting in favour of keeping that charge. Let’s fix our politics before vilifying the tens of thousands of people who have looked at downtown and older neighborhoods and said no thanks.

  2. That $37 million could be doing so much right now. The growth fees requirement should have been drafted so that there were zero loop holes.

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