City needs to rally around a Green Corridor downtown

Dorothy Dobbie

All great cities have a commitment to becoming green and staying greener. It is not just all about aesthetics, even though green means beauty and beauty means peace and happiness. Civic beautification through greening affects the people who live there, changing behaviour and improving safety. A lovely green environment attracts and calms people and helps visitors enjoy the experience of being in the city. It also shows the kind of civic commitment that excites developers and businesses to invest locally.

The concrete canyons of downtown Winnipeg could use a green coridor.

So, when Cathy Campbell, former minister at the Holy Trinity Church on Smith Street and Graham realized this, she and current pastor, Andrew Rampton, decided to do something about it. For Cathy, this just made sense. A student of trees and how they affect us and our environment, she immediately understood the healing effects of an urban forest — even tiny ones scattered from here to there.

So, she enlisted some help from Colliers and a few community-minded advisors, working to reimagine this space and help us return our downtown to the pretty community place it was in the past.

Why does this matter? To those of you who never venture downtown anymore, maybe not a lot, but what if going downtown was the kind of special thing it used to be? What about visitors to our city? They focus on downtown, and I think pride in our town is an important part of living here. But even more, what about the folks who already live in that area. Some of them have no other home and it shames me to see how they are treated. Why can we not create a friendly space that enables them to breathe air cleaned by trees and greenery? Why can’t they have a place to sit and to rest and to mingle? 

A city without a heart of green is not a good city.

Let’s close our eyes and think what a little greening might mean to the barren concrete streets that lie between Donald and the Main on the south side of Portage to Graham. This area is very desolate, occupied by government and institutional buildings that look inward. There are tiny pockets of green inside the space: the church itself that lies between Smith and Donald at Graham and is rethinking its own green space to make it more accessible. There is the front of the Millennium Library which has created small pockets of green on its south side, but east of that on Graham, there is a parking lot on the north side and the Winnipeg Polices Service building on the south side. Back to the north side, there is another parking lot (although along Smith, there are some small businesses and some heritage buildings that lend a little character). Proceeding up Graham to Main, we pass more office buildings and at Fort Street there is the entrance to Winnipeg Square while another government building occupies the south side. There is room in both cases for raised garden patches and more seating areas. At the corner of Main and Graham, the new tower at 302 Main looms on the North side and on the south is CDI College in a fine old heritage building.

At the end of Graham, the former Federal Building (now the Victory Building) is architecturally interesting but offers no green comfort and, essentially, Graham ends up against with a blank wall. There are no signs to tell the visitor where he or she is or how to get to The Forks, our number one tourism draw (which owes its attractiveness to its access to the rivers, the greenery and the Human Right Museum, which is there because of the beauty of the site). 

The only green along the way comes from a few boulevard trees, some uncared-for scrubby shrubs along the western-most parking lot and some scanty cement planters on the south side of the street.

Yet here are many opportunities for greening on this small slice of the city. Behind the church on Smith, the old St. Regis has been demolished and the space is being transformed into a modern mixed-use facility with housing, offices, and some retail, including, it is rumoured, a supermarket on the ground floor. With a little thought and some urging, perhaps the developer, Rockford, could be made to see the value of having a green entrance. Other building owners could do their part. The new office tower owners of 302 Main might be prompted to improve their ugly parking lot between it and Garry Street.

Nor need any of this cost a fortune. Just think what a difference it would make if the parking lots set aside a few feet along their margins and created green islands in the lots for growing shade trees and small patches of grass? With relatively little expense, the whole aspect of the area would change. The parker would have some protection from the blazing heat in summer and cold winds in winter. Benches could be inset the way they are at 215 Garry where the builder left room for a little patch of green and fitted a couple of benches into a raised planting area where weary folks could stop and watch the passing parade.

We have had some very fine people come to our Green Corridor Advisory Committee meetings with ideas and contacts, including some fine-intentioned senior city civil servants, but while all agree this is needed and a good idea, action is harder to stimulate. Cathy and Andrew were turned down by the Winnipeg Foundation for a small grant to create some landscaping concepts. The Foundation didn’t see the “urgency” here. All I can say is that perhaps we didn’t make our case because this is urgent. Just take a walk in the area and you will soon discover that for yourself.

Now it is time to take action. We need the support of the local city Councillor and beyond that of the wider community to see what this means to the heart of our city and the quality of life of those who live and work in the downtown core. It also means a lot to all Winnipeggers no matter where your home. A city without a heart of green is not a good city.

It is not to say that all of downtown Winnipeg is in such dire need, although there remain much more to address that this tiny slice I have described. Much good work has been accomplished on the North side and even East of Main and Portage. Now it is time to turn our eyes south. The renewal of the Bank of Montreal into a museum for the Metis will bring new interest to the area. We encourage the planners there to add some green to that corner.

Let us band together and start an infection of green further south on both sides of Main, and particularly up Graham. This is just the start of a much larger plan, but we need to start somewhere. Let’s start here and let’s start now.