Winnipeg’s Sprawling Reputation

Winnipeg Sprawl?

Winnipeg has been deemed by some as a sprawling, low density city, consuming countless acres of land without caution or care. But where did this come from? In order to understand where Winnipeg got this “bad city” reputation, we first need to take a step back in time.

In 2001, Chris Leo wrote a paper for the Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives (CCPA) entitled “Stopping the Sprawl”. It contained two tables of information from other sources that appear seemingly contradictory.

Table 1: Hectares consumed per thousand population change 1966-86

CMA Rate of land consumption
Toronto 27
Montreal 35
Ottawa-Hull 47
Vancouver 34
Winnipeg 95
Edmonton 59
Quebec 51
Calgary 43

Source: Patterson, 1998. 761.

The first table shows that Winnipeg had a rate of land consumption more than twice of Calgary and three times of Toronto between the years of 1966 and 1986. This would mean that for 20 years we were developing at a density of less than 1.5 units per acre. Not dense!

However, when we examine Table 2, we see a completely different story.

Table 2: Population density changes in urbanized portions of selected CMAs

CMA Mean population density, urbanized tracts Per cent of population
in urbanized tracts
1996 Change 1971-96
Toronto 3,329 -4.43% 80.2
Montreal 3,255 -23.21% 77.6
Ottawa-Hull 2,478 8.84% 72.5
Vancouver 2,377 20.27% 78.1
Winnipeg 2,375 -16.96% 83
Hamilton 2,288 -7.86% 82.2
Edmonton 2,165 -13.45% 73.4
Quebec 1,962 -14.54% 69.6
Calgary 1,916 -4.26% 78.8

Source: Buntina, Filion and Priston, 2000.

Examining this table it would appear that Winnipeg was denser than Calgary during this time period and while not at the density of city’s like Toronto, certainly not as far off as the first chart would suggest. So, how does this match up?

In that 20 year period Winnipeg annexed 12 adjacent municipalities, including some 20,000 acres of farmland. During this time wenot only created neighbourhoods like Southdale, Maples, Waverley Heights and Fort Richmond at a density of at least 5 units per acre, we additionally built thousands of high-rise apartments in Osborne Village, Portage Avenue, Henderson Highway, St. Anne’s Road to name a few. A detailed examination of facts would have indicated that Winnipeg was much denser than Calgary in that era as shown on the table above.

How far did the story spread and how long did this perception last?

In February 2004, a committee chaired by councillor Gordon Steeves issued a report entitled Sustainable Winnipeg. It stated:

“Historically, Winnipeg has consumed more land per capita than many other Canadian cities…. Between 1966 and 1986 Winnipeg consumed 96 hectares per 1000 increase in population, compared to 34 hectares in Vancouver and 43 hectares in Calgary”.

In March 2004 at a national conference in Halifax, then Mayor Glen Murray was quoted:

“We actually thought that development, planned or unplanned – sprawling development – was a good thing in my city for 30 years. We’re even bigger than Alberta. I’m not kidding. Some people are very proud of this fact. To add 1,000 people to Winnipeg it takes 96 hectares of land.”

And finally, just last year, Sudhir Sidhu, the CEO of Manitoba Building Trades Union stated that:

“Amongst major Canadian cities, Winnipeg has experienced a terrible sprawl problem. Winnipeg has become one of the least densely populated cities.”

Why does this misperception matter?

It matters because how can we expect to plan for growth if the data we are using to drive our decision-making is flawed or incomplete? And, how can we expect to understand the choices that are being made if the relevant facts aren’t being presented accurately?

No one is arguing that Winnipeg’s approach to growth is always ideal. However, we need to have access to all of the facts and see them in context to be able to make the right growth decisions together.

As we continue to evolve Winnipeg and make room for its growing population, politicians and key industry stakeholders all need to take care when analyzing data and making public statements which can negatively shape public opinion.

In our next article we explore Winnipeg’s density as compared to other major cities in North America.