Winnipeg street life: Dull by design?

That's not the Whyte way.

That’s not the Whyte way.

“You know in post-apocalyptic movies like I Am Legend, where the main character is walking through big-city streets, with skyscrapers towering on either side of him but there’s not a soul around? That’s what downtown Winnipeg is like after 6pm,” Cameron from the Cam Does Winnipeg blog wrote in a May 12 post, shortly after moving to Winnipeg from southern Ontario. “Because Winnipeg is so flat, you can see straight down all the streets you cross, as far as the eye can see, and see no one at all,” he continued.

Cam wasn’t the first visitor to get that strange feeling. Readers of this blog might recall the words of Ben Groundwater, an Australian travel writer, who likened Winnipeg to a “ghost town” in a Nov. 2011 column.

The “ghost town” feel is, thus, probably not beneficial for Winnipeg from a visitor’s or newcomer’s point of view. Can it be good from a property owner’s point of view?

Sometimes the answer is “yes”, suggested William H. Whyte, the U.S. urban planning consultant who wrote City: Rediscovering the Center in 1988.

Winnipeg got its ghost town feel through a series of choices over the decades that are now considered in some quarters — but still not all — to have been mistakes if your goal is to have a city that stands out from the dozens of midland North American cities that, like Starbucks franchises, all seem designed to ensure the visitor has roughly the same standardized experience from one place to the next.

(That’s why North America might never be able to support a Ryanair or EasyJet low-fare airline. Away from the coasts and a few unique interior cities, like Chicago, Toronto, Montreal and Las Vegas, most large interior cities are too much alike to be worth visiting for fun for even just $200 round-trip, except under very limited circumstances.)

Yet when Whyte wrote his book in 1988, it was still far from apparent that skywalks, tunnels, inward-focused convention centres, sunken plazas and other such street-life killers were mistakes. This makes his words all the more prescient:

. . . Cities that go for off-street systems, accordingly, have reason to make the regular streets less attractive than before. To protect their growing investment in upper- and lower-level systems, they go along with the dullification of street-level frontages — most effectively, by sealing them off with blank walls that are now no longer inadvertent, but deliberate.

Whyte cites Minneapolis as an example:

This has happened in Minneapolis. For quite a while the skyways complemented an active street level. The city’s chief pride was the pedestrian mall along Nicollet. The IDS Crystal Court was attractively transparent, and its street-level space a true meeting place. As the skyway system has grown, however, urban design at street level has taken a turn for the worse. Town Center, the newest link in the system, joins two department stores with a second-level walkway. Down below, most of the street scene is blank wall.

Then he turns his focus 625 kilometres (388 miles) northwest to Winnipeg.

Another Gresham’s law example is provided by Winnipeg. In the heart of its downtown is an underground shopping mall and concourse. Given the fierce weather up there, it is understandable that people use it. But they are a hardy bunch; even on the coldest days some people persist in using the sidewalks above. To induce them to go underground instead, the city has erected a concrete barrier on the sidewalk. This makes further passage at street level difficult, leaving the public stairway down to the concourse the alternative. Lest people evade this forced choice by walking across the street, police hand out tickets to those who do so.

The worst thing about dullification is the way people get used to it. They even get to like it. If there are no longer streets that are attractive to use, they will not use streets. They will forget there ever were any and, as in Dallas, say that culturally street life may not be suited to their city. So they take the choice that is given them: concourses and skyways. Like the blue cheese dressing of the salad bars, once you get used to them, you lose your taste for the real thing.

(All quotes above from pp. 204-205)

Let’s hope Winnipeggers haven’t lost their taste for the real thing.

Even after 25 years, William H. Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (New York: Doubleday, 1988) is still a great read for anyone with an interest in cities. It can be found at:

  • The Winnipeg Public Library, Millennium Library branch — 307.76 WHY*
  • The University of Manitoba, Architecture/Fine Arts and Elizabeth Dafoe libraries — HT 151 W55 1988
  • University of Winnipeg Library and the Institute of Urban Studies — HT 151 W55 1988

* – Currently signed out by me as of Sept. 14. Should be back on the shelves within seven days. But don’t let that dissuade you from reading the many interesting neighbouring books in the meantime.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to Winnipeg street life: Dull by design?

  1. johndobbin says:

    The only saving grace seems to be the festivals and special street events that remind people what it can be like. I don’t think we are getting rid of the skywalks anytime soon but more events and attractions do pull people out into the street.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    I’m also hoping that as more immigrants arrive, and more locals travel beyond North America and the usual southern resorts, they’ll bring new ideas.

    In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the single most successful downtown renewal strategy we’ve had so far has been immigration, particularly through the growth of a real community around Central Park, and the small businesses that appear to have been started by newcomers in inexpensive side-street space — e.g., Afritoba, FWYA, Taste of the Mediterranean, etc.

    The immigration strategy was never really intended to be a downtown revitalization strategy, but it has inadvertently turned into one, and has been as beneficial or even more so than any megaproject we’ve ever tried. Bring ’em in by the jumbo jet load from wherever people yearn for a better life as far as I’m concerned! 🙂

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