Last week, Walk Score released a list of Canada’s most walkable major cities. Walk Score bases their ratings on the number of different services (schools, grocery stores, coffee shops, dentist offices) within a given walking distance in a neighbourhood. As the Seattle-based organization’s motto of “live more, drive less” suggests, they have an interest in promoting neighbourhoods that are easy to live in without the regular use of a car.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vancouver topped their list, with a score of 78 out of a possible 100. Following Vancouver were Toronto (71), and Montreal (70). Winnipeg ranked sixth among the nation’s major cities with a score of 53, and was top among the five large Prairie cities, narrowly beating out Saskatoon (52%), Edmonton (51%), Regina (50%), and Calgary (48%).
That Winnipeg comes in sixth on Walk Score’s list has much to do with the fact that so much of the city was built up before the proliferation of the automobile. In Winnipeg’s old neighbourhoods and suburbs, housing and commercial services clustered along streetcar routes. Neighbourhoods, even suburban ones, had to be walkable because everyone walked.
This general pattern continued well into the post-war period, even after the gradual demise of the streetcar (the city’s last routes were discontinued in 1955). Although neighbourhoods were built for lower population densities, and local commerce slowly moved into strip-malls, residential and commercial uses remained fairly close to eachother. This kind mid-century, semi-urbanism be seen along streets like Henderson Highway, St. Mary’s Road, and Corydon Avenue West; the general framework of traditional urbanism was still in place even as the physical form and population density had changed.
By the 1980s, suburban development had wholly abandoned this relatively fine grain pattern in favour of broad tracts of land, serpantine roads and cul-de-sacs, and separating commercial services from housing by ditches, fences, and prerequisite seas of parking lots. No one walked anywhere because neighbourhoods were not walkable.
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And so, while Walk Score gives 1950s-era North Kildonan a fairly high rating of 67, Lindenwoods, built up in the 1980s and ’90s, received a rating of only 30. (Bridgwater Forest, the provincial government’s poster child for smart growth, sits at 15.)
While Walk Score is an important and useful measure of cities and neighbourhoods, it fails to tell the whole story because it does not take into consideration the physical quality of public space. A neighbourhood can have a dense population and lots of services while still being tailored almost exclusively to automobile use. If it feels unsafe, unpleasant, or simply weird to walk there, people will use a car instead.
The physical form of Grant Park, for example, is not very walkable, yet it has a Walk Score rating of 85 — two points higher than the Osborne Village — because of the many services available in the neighbourhood’s eponymous shopping mall.
Walk Score’s ratings are also unable to accurately capture the diversity of human action. The Exchange District’s high concentration of restaurants, bars, and dress shops help give it a perfect rating of 100, but it still lacks many day-to-day amenities. (Where in the Exchange can one buy Tylenol or a newspaper on a Saturday morning?)
More importantly, neighbourhoods with high Walk Score ratings can have a lack of housing choices. Winnipeg’s Chinatown sits at a near-perfect 98, but unless you’re a senior citizen or someone willing to inhabit a warehouse illegally, there is nowhere to live there.
For a neighbourhod to be truly walkable, it needs to have four elements: density (lots of people); diversity (lots of different uses and housing options); connectivity (the ability to easily get around the neighbourhood on foot, and get to other neighbourhoods without a car); and good design (buildings and streets that are pedestrian-friendly).
On their own, each of these elements are blunt instruments that do little to create walkability if the other ones are not also present. Taken together, they form the essence of a great city neighbourhood.
The City of Winnipeg is right to promote the concept of complete communities in its new long-term planning document, Our Winnipeg. Complete communities are neighbourhoods that are able to support diverse housing and transportation options, and a mix of different services. How effectively these good intentions are able to work in the real world of Winnipeg’s erratic, politics-driven planning decisions remains to be seen, but all of the city’s neighbourhoods can and should incrementally move toward them.
Who knows, we might even beat Vancouver’s Walk Score rating one day.
Robert Galston likes to write about Winnipeg, urbanism, and other very, very exciting topics. Follow him on Twitter @riseandsprawl
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