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Visionary conversation: What makes a city ‘livable’?
Posted Thursday, November 3, 2011 10:53 AM
 
EVENT
 
On the evening of October 18, a large audience gathered at the Schultz Theatre in St. John’s College to consider “Creating Livable Cities: 21st century perspectives,” the second instalment in the U of M series, “Visionary Conversations.”

After being introduced by President and Vice-Chancellor David Barnard, panelists Ralph Stern, dean, Faculty of Architecture, Richard Milgrom, head, department of city planning, Faculty of Architecture, and Michelle Richards, director, campus development and planning, presented.

Stern began the evening with the provocative question of what it means for a city to emerge from and thrive after a period of destruction. Referring to slides of Berlin and Dresden, Stern demonstrated an urban “vibrancy” approach taken by such urban centres, where ruined buildings and a city’s very history and identity posed seemingly insurmountable challenges. Stern focused his presentation on sites of “provisional use” — such as graffiti’d or vacant buildings occupied by artists — atypical sites allowing for and even encouraging “resistance and controversy.” Such “density” and “vibrancy, suggested Stern, promote a cosmopolitan, more inclusive alternative to potential “tunnel vision” by developers or typical processes of urban renewal through new building development or extending suburban sprawl.

Stern challenged the audience to consider parallels that might be applied to Winnipeg as it “moves toward becoming a more global presence.”

Panelist Richard Milgrom further contextualized the discussion by presenting the recent annual “most livable cities” list distributed by The Economist. A review of the list demonstrated that almost all of the top “livable” cities are very expensive: “livable, for whom?” he asked, “and for how long?” In his research on cities and suburban development, Milgrom focuses on issues of sustainability and quality of life. Drawing from statistical analysis and examples from Winnipeg, he built an argument for less reliance on developing new “subdivisions,” and more “good models of neighbourhoods” such as Osborne Village, whose density and mixed-use, amenity-rich character qualifies it as age-friendly with a high quality of life.

The debate was given even sharper focus by final presenter Michelle Richard, a former city planner with the city of Winnipeg who was installed as director of campus planning and development earlier this year. Winnipeg is a “slow growth city,” said Richard, in which many issues have constituted “a largely philosophical debate.” With Winnipeg’s increasing growth, however, “for the first time in our history, our concept of livability is being challenged,” she maintained.

Making Winnipeg the kind of city that allows a wide variety of options for its residents while remaining a “competitive city that is both a healthy environment and can attract and maintain a dynamic workforce” suggested Richard, will “require maturity, partnership, collaboration and the guts to take collective ownership.” Where there is a “commitment to and a particular identication with a place,” she said, “the values of the community remain in place” in spite of changes or the “rise and fall” wrought by economic conditions.

Answering audience questions after the presentations, Milgrom suggested that his approach was more “cautionary,” since in his view plans and predictions forwarded by city developers were often “wildly optimistic,” and that Winnipeg’s car-dependency could only change with “a real commitment to [developing] transit.” Stern added, in response to another question about his ostensible championing of graffiti and postering, that, “What I like about it is that [the space and its content are] not overdetermined.”

A young member of the audience asked panelists to consider the effects of urban growth outside of immediate context with his pointed question, “Are you willing to promote the possible growth of Winnipeg at the expense of the stagnation of our towns?” Other issues were also raised, including the limitations of Winnipeg’s ward council system, with Milgrom providing the example of Buffalo, NY’s short-lived hybrid system, a mix of both ward and global counselors.

Milgrom further suggested that transparency and “a more public process” would benefit all Winnipeggers, while Stern advocated development that takes account of already-existent “layers of networks — from high density and mixed uses, to bike traffic and river and road networks — and allows these to define ‘hotspots’ with real possibilities for growth.”

The panel discussion was brought to a close by Janice Ristock, AVP (research), who commended panelists for the “rich, informative presentations” that allowed the audience “to engage with things that matter to us and our world.” President Barnard concluded the evening with a two-line poem by Richard Wilbur entitled “A Short History”: “Corn planted us; tamed cattle made us tame./ Thence hut and citadel and kingdom came.” The poem, Barnard said, asks us to “engage with our decisions in a way that imagines their ramifications for the future.”

Visionary Conversations continues on November 9 on the subject, “Our Aging Society: Are we ready?”

>>See the October 18 conversation on U of M’s YouTube channel at the link below.
 
For more information, contact:
Mariianne Mays Wiebe
Editor, The Bulletin
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Fax: (204) 474-7631
 
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  •Watch the video