Connected? Walkable urbanism, active kids, and Olympic gold

Last Friday, our nine-year-old came home from school talking nonstop Olympics. He went on for awhile about 2010 medal counts, with Canada taking home 14 golds in Vancouver, the record for any country at Winter Olympics. The deep polar vortex we’ve been trudging through this winter has to have some silver lining, so perhaps being better at Winter Olympics is part of the payoff for our wintry country. #WeAreWinter. However, I couldn’t help but thinking about Suburban Nation’s account of Canadian urbanism, and wondering if there’s any cause and effect between walkable urbanism, active kids, and Olympic gold.

Medals.xlsx

With national pride at a global high everywhere, the spirit of celebration is infectious. So here’s to celebrating the city planning policy that Canada got right in previous decades, and taking a hard look at what we’re enabling today. As the United State’s largest trading partner, Canada experiences significant influence from south of the border. But in many ways, the two countries are distinctively different. City planning is one of those ways, partially rooted in “peace, order and good government” versus “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

A few key urban policy decisions after World War II created a different built environment in the two countries for a generation. In the US, the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration were providing WWII vets low interest mortgages for single-family, suburban homes. In Canada, the government instead encouraged veterans to renovate old housing stock, row houses, and mixed-use buildings, which concentrated development within older neighbourhoods.

At the same time, the US Federal Highway Administration built a 41,000-mile interstate highway system, which often cut through the hearts of cities, doing away with swaths of walkability and connections for commerce. Those millions of new homes out in the suburbs became cheaper for the users thanks to the interstates, betting that the devaluation of the core would offset the new value in the dispersed city. In Canada, highway revolts stopped freeways into and through most Canadian downtowns. With a larger landmass than the US but with about 1/10th the population, sprawl also naturally occurred slower north of the border.

Unfortunately, Canada’s positive post-war policy decisions have eroded, adopting a US approach to far-flung subdivisions. Queen’s University urban planner Professor David Gordon released a Canadian Suburbs study last year, indicating over two-thirds of the nation’s population live in some form of suburban neighbourhood. Canada’s growth rate from 2006 to 2011 exceeded that of the United States by nearly one-third, but during that time 95% of metropolitan area growth was in suburban areas. Perhaps one reason I love my city is that I live in the Active Core, with active transportation levels at 1.5x our metro average. However, the concerning numbers of this study for Winnipeg is that while the walkable core has grown by 9% and suburbs by 2% from 1996-2006, the exurbs shot up by 15%.

WinnipegActiveCore

The word on the street is that our Winter Olympic gold has more to do with the strong support of corporate sponsors and dependable winters, but I’d still like to see an international walkability index for urbanized areas of countries. And more outdoor, year-round living with compact urbanism incentivized locally and across Canada – here’s a litany on why that makes sense in winter cities. Until then, the following photos are a little inspiration from Winnipeg’s serious winter.

Students stay indoors for recess when the wind chill reaches -28 degrees Celsius. Otherwise, it's snowy fun, with winter gear policies enforced.

Students stay indoors for recess when the wind chill reaches -28 degrees Celsius. Otherwise, it’s snowy fun, with winter gear policies enforced.

Two houses pooled their front yards to build an informal hockey rink - ubiquitous with Winnipeg winter.

Two houses pooled their front yards to build an informal hockey rink – ubiquitous with Winnipeg winter.

No ice is wasted, as the Assiniboine River is groomed for a hockey rink.

No ice is wasted, as the Assiniboine River is groomed for a hockey rink.

Curling rink on the Assiniboine River.

Curling rink on the Assiniboine River.

Skate, walk, run, or sled your way through the heart of the city, the Guinness World Record-holding longest naturally frozen skating trail in the world - on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.

Skate, walk, run, or sled your way through the heart of the city, the Guinness World Record-holding longest naturally frozen skating trail in the world – on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Pictured here is the walking side, and across the snow to the right is the groomed skating trail.

RAW:Almond pop-up restaurant on the fork of the Red and Assiboine Rivers.

RAW:Almond pop-up restaurant on the fork of the Red and Assiboine Rivers.

RAW:Almond is not for the faint of heart, or the slow to reserve. The hottest ticket in town.

RAW:Almond is not for the faint of heart, or the slow to reserve. The hottest ticket in town.

Snow sculptors from around the world prepare Winnipeg for Festival du Voyageur, February 14-23.

Snow sculptors from around the world prepare Winnipeg for Festival du Voyageur, February 14-23.

Two houses take advantage of not having snouts, and build a double-wide toboggan run.

Two houses take advantage of not having snouts, and build a double-wide toboggan run.

The rooftop sculpture garden at the Winnipeg Art Gallery currently is hosting an igloo raising, thanks to the Manitoba Urban Inuit Association.

The rooftop sculpture garden at the Winnipeg Art Gallery currently is hosting an igloo raising, thanks to the Manitoba Urban Inuit Association.

Igloo builder, Fred Ford, talks construction methods at the WAG.

Igloo builder, Fred Ford, talks construction methods at the WAG.

Igloo on WAG rooftop.

Igloo on WAG rooftop.

Kids version of an igloo in our front yard didn't quite get finished, but did provide a great fort for ongoing snowball fights.

Kids version of an igloo in our front yard didn’t quite get finished, but did provide a great fort for ongoing snowball fights.

Tipis on the Assiboine River.

Tipis on the Assiboine River.

Outdoor skating rink at the Forks.

Outdoor skating rink at the Forks.

The Warming Huts: An Art + Architecture Competition on Ice is in it's 5th year, adding to the great collection of places to pause and get a little warmer.

The Warming Huts: An Art + Architecture Competition on Ice is in it’s 5th year, adding to the great collection of places to pause and get a little warmer.

Warming hut, Woodpile, from 2011, designed by Noa Biran and Roy Talmon from Tel Aviv.

Warming hut, Woodpile, designed by Noa Biran and Roy Talmon from Tel Aviv.

Skybox warming hut designed by University of Manitoba.

Skybox warming hut designed by University of Manitoba.

Winnipeg is the coldest city of it's size on earth, and also the brightest. Until next time, here's a little slice of Winnipeg sky.

Winnipeg is the coldest city of it’s size on earth, and also the brightest. Until next time, here’s a little slice of Winnipeg sky to add some brightness to the cold winter days. And a wish for walkable urbanism to help mitigate extreme weather conditions.

Hazel Borys

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Comments

  1. What a great article! Thank you for sharing. As a transplant to Canada via UK and USA I found it very informative. I look forward to learning more about what others have to say.

  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqpu9u4a9VI&list=UUD6exaOOTcOoTHeeBVhAFBw

    The Manitoba Nature Summit is working to ensure children and the adults who work with them get outdoors. Join us at the launch of our video profiling people who are getting outdoors. Wednesday, March 5 at 7 p.m. at The Park Theatre.

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