Winnipeg needs healthy and well-educated people, not Laser Pyramids

Jerusalem Hug's proposal for a laser pyramid over that city. (Click for source.)

Jerusalem Hug’s proposal for a laser pyramid over that city. (Click for source.)

A curious refrain in Winnipeg’s civic history has been the perception that we would rise up from our reputation as one of Canada’s grittiest and least-envied large cities if only we had more stuff. Usually this is either in the form of the arrival of a fashionable retailer, such as H & M, IKEA or Nordstrom, or a big-ticket construction project such as a vastly expanded Convention Centre, new arena or airport or Human Rights museum.

Yet those projects pale in comparison to the ideas outlined by former mayor Susan Thompson in a speech she delivered to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce on Friday. Thompson, who served as mayor from 1992 to 1998 and now lives in Vancouver, still has big dreams for her erstwhile hometown, as the Winnipeg Free Press‘s Bartley Kives reported:

What [the audience] wound up hearing was the funniest comedy routine ever delivered in the second-floor ballroom of the Fairmont hotel, where many a best man has failed miserably at the task of making a toast to the bride and groom. 

Thompson, who now lives in Vancouver, proposed a garish image makeover for Winnipeg that would make the Vegas strip seem as subdued as an industrial park on the outskirts of Estevan.

To announce itself to the world, Thompson suggested Winnipeg cover itself with a laser pyramid that would be visible from space. She said she suggested a similar idea to executive policy committee in the 1990s, only to see it get shot down on the basis lasers would interfere with airplane traffic.

Thompson also suggested Winnipeggers with no interest in going for a polar-bear dip on New Year’s Day could instead immerse themselves in hot tubs placed at Portage and Main, which would be decorated with fake palm trees.

She also surmised Winnipeg’s image routes could be spruced up by planting evergreens alongside major streets such as the drive in from Richardson International Airport. Since road-salt-tolerant conifers do not exist, she suggested someone develop a hybrid evergreen that could survive on Route 90.

Early reports on Friday suggested Thompson was merely trying to amuse her audience. But as Kives later discovered, this was no joke:

Except Winnipeg’s 40th mayor wasn’t kidding about anything. Winnipeg needs a laser pyramid, Portage and Main hot tubs and hybridized, Route 90-enshrouding evergreens in order to be a world-class city where people want to live, she insisted after her speech concluded.

This blog has already twice delved into the matter of what policymakers could do to make Winnipeg a more attractive place to live. Basically, it comes down to this: people mostly move from one city to another to seek or accept job offers, to enjoy a better lifestyle or climate than they would in the cities they are leaving behind, or for family reasons.

Since there is little policymakers can do about climate or family dynamics, then they must work on lifestyle issues (e.g., more walkable cities tend to have more pull for interprovincial migrants; automobile dependency and stressful living tends to repel them), and on creating the right kinds of jobs (business services, construction and the sciences tend to pull people in; but manufacturing-oriented cities seem to be distinctly unattractive).

One way to create jobs is to cultivate a more highly educated population. This is an area in which Winnipeg has long struggled. In the 2006 Census, Winnipeg ranked ninth among Canada’s 10 largest metropolitan areas in terms of the percentage of 25-64 year olds who had completed any form of post-secondary education (59%). This placed us just ahead of last-place Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo (58%) and well behind front-runner cities such as Quebec City and Ottawa-Gatineau (both 69%) and Calgary (67%).

An international 2012 study by two researchers at the Amsterdam Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Amsterdam found a strong link between a country’s educational performance and entrepreneurial success:

The vast collection of research into the drivers of entrepreneurship performance to date has rather convincingly shown that human capital is a main driver of performance (and education a primary source of human capital) . . . [H]igher levels of education lead to more productive business owners and thus to a steeper relationship between the business ownership rate and value creation. And since more-productive business owners run larger firms, they require, on average, more employees . . .

Statistics Canada has also noted that Winnipeggers with a university degree earned nearly $20,000 more annually than the average Winnipegger aged 15 years and over in 2005; and that Manitobans aged 25-64 with higher levels of education have higher employment rates.

Other benefits abound from higher educational attainment rates. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that U.S. college graduates could expect to outlive those without a high school education by more than five years on average, and were far more likely to describe their health as being “excellent” or “very good”.

Readers of this blog will recall from the previous post that both employment prospects and health are strongly associated with higher levels of satisfaction with life.

And a 2012 research report found that improving educational attainment is important in the fight against crime:

. . . [E]ducation policies can reduce property crime as well as violent crime. In both the US and Sweden, the estimated effects of educational attainment or school enrollment on property and violent offenses appear to be quite similar in percentage terms . . . Even murder appears to be quite responsive to changes in educational attainment and school quality . . .

Fifthly, higher wages increase the opportunity costs of both property and violent crime. Lochner and Moretti (2004) show that the estimated effects of educational attainment on crime can be largely accounted for by the effects of schooling on wages and the effects of wages on crime. This is important since it suggests that policymakers can reduce crime simply by increasing labor market skills; they need not alter individual preferences or otherwise socialize youth.

Both the former mayor and the Chamber of Commerce have encouraged Winnipeggers to be bold in terms of imaging the city’s future. Fair enough. Let’s be bold enough to aim for this goal: that 95 percent of the children born in Winnipeg in 2015 will finish high school on-time in 2033; and that 90 percent of the total will finish some form of post-secondary education by the end of 2040, the year of their 25th birthdays. All without lowering standards.

Sounds too ambitious for a city struggling with so many problems? Yes, probably so. But the closer to the target we get, even if a long way off, the better off this city will be.

And one more bold idea:

Let’s exorcise once and for all this perverse, parochial idea that the path to respectability and admiration for our city is the accumulation of more “stuff”.

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

3 Responses to Winnipeg needs healthy and well-educated people, not Laser Pyramids

  1. Sid says:

    If Winnipeg is such a shthole, why is the population increasing and new suburbs are springing up everywhere. Perhaps we should just give it all a rest. A manufactured panic.

  2. unclebob says:

    Nothing like voting a town dry and moving out !

    The Susan speech suggests to me that we need a new criteria for evaluating potential civic candidates prior to election. It should not be about how long you have lived in town but instead how long you will continue to live in town (and live with your own stupid decisions) after you have served your civic time. Maybe something like a contractual insurance commitment that costs $1,000,000 to break. Come to think of it, it may not be a bad idea for high end civic administrative folks as well.

  3. Julie K. says:

    The importance of tertiary education has been proven again and again and yet more educated people alone won’t elevate the respectability of the city. Bold ideas often need a change of perspective. Maybe one should focus on the values created by those who are not seen so often giving speeches about laser pyramids.

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