Deconstructing Density: Part 2

In part 1, I took a look at the basic benefits of density. Pretty straight forward stuff. Now for the fun part.

Winnipeg in all its splendor

Winnipeg in all its splendor

Let’s look at the question of whether or not, despite the benefits of density, Winnipeg is bursting at the seams, citizens rising up and demanding a new neighborhood of suburban delights. Onward to Waverley! Infinite growth!

The city currently occupies 464.1 square kilometers and has a population of 633,451.  (2006 Census) That makes for  1365.2 people per square kilometer. If Winnipeg were a perfect circle (ignoring the curvature of the Earth), it would have a radius of 12.15km.

Keep that circle thing in mind…

Now, how big would Winnipeg be if it were as dense as some of the most successful, world-renowed, cosmopolitan, wealthy cities of the world? Would it be much smaller?
Well, if it were as dense as Hong Kong, Winnipeg would now look like:

That’s right. Armstrong Point just barely makes it into the city! No St. James, Transcona, Maples, Fort Garry, Assiniboia, Charleswood, South St. Vital, River East, Linden Woods, or yes, Waverley West.

The city would eliminate over 95% of its area, reducing the burden of roads, snow clearing, sewers, and pretty much everything. The average person would never be more than 20 minutes walk from the center and 20 minutes walk from the edge. It would take me 12 minutes to bike across the entire city, and a slow cyclist could take 25 minutes. All businesses would be within minutes of all their customers; we could service the entire city with 20 subway stations.

What, you say, this is just too dense! Okay, let’s switch to Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto. I lived in Kobe for a few years, hiking in the lush mountains for hours, going to remote parks and hot springs within city limits. Still had great public transportation, though. Osaka is even 5 times less dense than Hong Kong!

So, here’s your new Winnipeg:


There we go. 5 times more spread out. Ah! The space. But wait! Still no Transcona, St. James, Maples, Lindenwoods, Southdale, River East, Fort Richmond, and yes, Waverly West! Surely not!

Well, fine, you say, we could have this kind of density and reduce the burden of infrastucture by 80%, walk more, cycle more, polute less, be healthier, save money, and build a basic train system. But, surely this density must be because you are looking to Asia for your comparisons. Are there any Western examples to look at?


With London, we now add an extra 660 meters to the radius of the city limits, adding no  neighborhoods, though finally starting to take in a bit of St. James. Still no Assiniboine Park.

The purpose of this thought experiment is not to suggest that we re-make Winnipeg in circular form or that there is no place for Transcona (where I grew up) or Charleswood. Nope. The purpose is to suggest that we must rethink our development plans. The city could double in population size and would still have enough room without adding a single kilometer of road or pipeline. The city should aim to put all the growth into the center. It would save millions of dollars, dramatically reduce our carbon footprint, increase use of and demand for better public transportation, increase community involvement, reduce crime, reduce the burden of transportation costs on individual families, and much more.

UPDATE: Some of the raw data:

City Density (pop/km2) Winnipeg equivalent area Radius (KM)
Hong Kong 29400 21.55 sq km 2.61km
Teipei 14750 42.95 3.70
Seoul-Incheon 10050 63.03 4.48
Rio-de-Jenero 6900 91.80 5.41
Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto 6350 99.76 5.64
London 5100 124.21 6.29
Tokyo-Yokohama 4350 145.62 6.81
Pairs 3400 186.31 7.70
New York 1750 361.97 10.73
Vancouver 1700 372.62 10.89
Winnipeg as circle 1365 464.01 12.15

12 responses to “Deconstructing Density: Part 2

  1. Nice article, Mike! The area surrounding Winnipeg has some of the best farmland in Canada, and I always think it is a shame that it is being paved over. People don’t really want to live in apartments or condos, for some reason. Of course, that is noting that I currently don’t live anywhere. :p

  2. Surprisingly, Winnipeg is less sprawled than some other major cities, such as Calgary, Edmonton, Phoenix, Atlanta, San Diego, Washington DC and Detroit.

  3. Wow – I should have a dozen people living in my condo ! If our density was low because we had a great system of parkways and greenbelts that would be fine but so much of it is marginal / underutilized / vacant land / surface parking lots so we don’t even get the best of the other world. Great comparison !

  4. Christian: I’m about to invite a family of twelve into my place to do my part. I hope they don’t mind that my spare bedroom is my office.

    You’re right, though, that most of the space is parking/transportation. I’m looking out my window now and only see five parking lots and a Pizza Hut as my neighbours. We need to rethink this hood.

  5. I agree with you in principle, but you’re only concentrating on the impact on the City itself, not the developers who are responsible for actually building new residences.

    Since we have no mountains, oceans or other significant geographic features limiting our sprawl, greenfield development on the city’s edge is still more profitable than urban intensification. We obviously need a better set of sticks and carrots to encourage developers to look inward instead of outward.

    The resident-hungry municipalities surrounding Winnipeg are another complicating factor. Remember, part of the justification for Waverley West was because the developer basically said “let me build inside the perimeter, or I’ll build anyway on the other side.” And despite two (three?) decades of consultations, the Province still hasn’t shown any appetite for implementing a serious development plan for the Capital Region.

  6. I agree, PolicyFrog, that the development is a consequence of the policy framework established by the Province and City governments.

    As for profit, I think this is more a consequence of routine. Having profited in the past from previous sprawl, developers only seek to repeat that experience and improve on it. If your business model is successful, how much time do you spend thinking of new business models? Inertia is a powerful factor.

  7. Yes, but money is an even more powerful factor. While profit can definitely be made from infill, it’s nowhere near what a large developer can make by building a new greenfield project.

    Leveling the playing field will require some penalty for sprawl (via development charges and impost fees) and/or a significant incentive for infill (tax forgiveness or direct subsidy).

  8. I couldn’t agree more, PolicyFrog.

    My point is that even if infill developments were marginally more profitable than sprawl, many businesses would still continue business-as-usual out of institutional inertia. If we implemented some of the carrots and sticks you suggest, then we could make it much more profitable to infill and then money talks.

  9. Stephen Moreau

    Congratulations Michael on this interesting site. Persons interested in urban sprawl and other interesting issues from the perspective of a Toronto native should read The Rebel Sell. This book is a rallying cry for those in TO who rail against condo development in their precious neighbourhoods. Might be of interest.

    And I should disclose, in case it is not apparent, that I am Michael’s older brother, the one living in Toronto. I am the other “bro” who is a lawyer. Although I work for trade unions, amongst other sinister characters.

    I will check in as time permits!

  10. Wow! The whole fam is stopping by. My mom came by the site and emailed me a list of spelling errata. Mothers never grow up.

    I’ve been meaning to read “The Rebel Sell” for some time. I hear that it’s a reponse to Naomi Klein’s “No Logo”. I’ll just add that to the list.

  11. Pingback: Winnipeg Subway: Part 2 « Don Street Blog

  12. Pingback: 4 Challenges for Downtown Re-Development « Don Street Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s