‘If everybody has to get into a car and drive six kilometres to get a jug of milk, you haven’t achieved anything,’ Michel Durand-Wood says.
By Tyler Searle
Winnipeg’s Glenelm community sits nestled in a quiet cove of the larger Elmwood neighbourhood. The area covers little more than a dozen blocks, bordered to the west by the rounding Red River and the east by Henderson Highway.
Many of the homes here predate the Second World War. They are older and well-lived in, but no two are the same.
The diversity is a testament to decades of natural, unregulated growth. It is what makes this neighbourhood special, Michel Durand-Wood says.
Squat bungalows, yawning multi-stories, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and townhouses smatter the streets. A church and an elementary school stand randomly among the varied homes.
Some lots boast spacious front yards, fences, and porches. Most are stacked atop each other with nearly no side yards to separate them.
“What’s the same about this neighbourhood is that it’s different. It doesn’t feel wrong, it’s just, that’s how it grew—that’s how it developed, and that’s how we should want our city to develop,” Durand-Wood says.
While he holds no formal education in urban development, infrastructure, or municipal finance, has studied these subjects for close to a decade.
His blog, Dear Winnipeg, features nearly 80 posts lamenting the city’s approach to property taxes, zoning restrictions, parking, and climate change. Last year he reached roughly 45,000 readers.
Guidelines freeze area development
Durand-Wood believes the city has made a harmful overcorrection in how it allows Winnipeg neighbourhoods to develop.
Durand-Wood wants to see his community grow but says the city’s Small-Scale and Low-rise Residential Development guidelines—which dictate everything from zoning to building aesthetics and lot frontage—have essentially frozen development.
City council approved the guidelines last year, but unfortunately for Glenelm locals, many of the houses here do not comply.
Some stand too tall, while others sit too close to their neighbours or too far from the curb — in the eyes of city planners, this is a neighbourhood full of illegal builds, Durand-Wood says.
The rules are now so restrictive that it is cheaper for a developer to buy a duplex and convert it to a single-family home. Homeowners who might renovate space for rental properties or businesses are intimidated, disincentivized, or outright prohibited, he says.
The result is a less varied, less productive, and more expensive neighbourhood.
“In neighbourhoods like mine, where we don’t conform to the new rules, you end up with no development, or you end up with displacement … so the people that used to be able to afford to live here no longer can,” he says.
For many years, residential growth in Winnipeg continued largely unfettered along city’s outskirts, leading to urban sprawl and an ever-expanding need for infrastructure in the form of roads and public services.
The result is a city stretched thin of resources and desperate for regulatory intervention. The city revealed a nearly $7 billion infrastructure deficit in its latest budget.
Last year, city council drafted the Our Winnipeg and Complete Communities plan, which outlines 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—the practice of creating new homes or redeveloping older homes in mature neighbourhoods like Durand-Wood’s.
In general, increasing an area’s population density increases its financial efficiency because the closer people are, the easier it is to provide them with services, says Gina Sylvestre, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.
After decades of encouraging urban sprawl, the city realized the substantial future-facing cost and began to push developers to focus on infill housing in mature neighbourhoods, she says.
In response, developers began placing multiple homes onto a single lot by constructing slim, tall houses with shallow yards in a process known as lot-splitting, she explains.
When these new builds went up in neighbourhoods like Glenwood (not to be confused with Glenelm) and Tuxedo, people complained they clashed with the local aesthetic and encroached on adjacent properties.
Their ire prompted the city to implement the residential development guidelines, which Durand-Wood adamantly opposes.
In an apparent attempt to satisfy Glenwood, the city restricted development of single-family homes and duplexes to lots larger than 32 feet, in turn shackling the development of neighbourhoods like Glenelm where, based on data from the city, 41 per cent of lots span less than 32 feet, Durand-Wood says.
Worse, zoning restrictions and parking requirements make it difficult for businesses and residences to co-exist, bringing about the death of small-scale, local retail, he adds.
“What we’re aiming for are productive neighbourhoods,” Durand-Wood says. “It doesn’t matter how dense your neighbourhood is with residences. If everybody has to get into a car and drive six kilometres to get a jug of milk, you haven’t achieved anything.”
Community needs to be heard
To prove his point, Durand-Wood strolls up Cobourg Avenue, cuts across Beatrice Street, and stops at the corner of Hart Avenue — beating a rapid track around his community.
People greet him on the street as he walks, and cars beep their horns in passing. Durand-Wood answers each with a wave.
Snow crunches in time with his gait, the tempo slowing now and then when he raises his finger at buildings to explain their historical significance.
“A place like this,” he says, pointing towards a beige building on a corner lot, “which used to be a corner grocery store and a duplex on the back, is now just a single-family home.”
Similar buildings dot Glenelm streets, seemingly built in two sections, with a stout street-facing façade attached to a taller form.
They were once the lifeblood of mature communities, Durand-Wood says. He calls them mullets.
“Business in the front, party in the back,” he says, explaining the quip.
The city’s attempt to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to development guidelines has done more harm than good. The city needs fewer restrictions, not more, Durand-Wood says.
“Cities are most successful when they’re built by many hands,” he concludes. “We need to get involved at our neighbourhood level and be allowed to do the stuff that we want to do—be allowed to design our neighbourhood.”