"it's tIME TO COLLECTIVELY SHIFT PERSPECTIVES, NOT INDIVIDUALLY CHANGE MINDS”: A position on the Portage + Main debate from Design Quarter Winnipeg" by zephyra vun

 

The Portage and Main debate is a challenging and provocative one because no one side is wrong. *gasp!

 

Let's Talk openly...

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions on the matter. Arguments against the iconic intersection’s re-opening, such as pedestrian safety, traffic flow, and expenditure have their credibility, and had to originate from somewhere, right?

A blog post (which will remain unnamed) was recently published gunning for a pedestrian-friendly Portage and Main, which sited multiple, reliable sources to contradict many unfounded arguments against. The only qualm I had with this particular article (and the reason for writing this in the first place) was the tone. While the editorial offered informed counter arguments to Winnipeggers’ primary arguments against, the chosen attitude in delivering said information may have been perceived as an attack on, or belittlement of non-believers.

(Hey, be as heated as you want in your own blog post, you’re the author! But perhaps, for this particular controversial topic that addresses complex urban planning issues and relates to important information that may not be as widely spread amongst the general population of Winnipeg, we should take a step back and contemplate the most appropriate and effective approach to persuasion).

Believe me - the last thing anyone from the design/urban planning/architecture community wants to do is denounce or bully those who are not sold, have questions, or simply don’t have the right information on the matter. That is simply counter-productive and contradictory to an open discussion (especially one that we want to be deliberated in order to enlighten).

Our ‘professional opinions’ are not more valid or important than your personal ones, and being condescending towards a confused or misunderstood audience is never the solution, especially when attempting to rally them.

 

GETTING THE RIGHT INFORMATION...

While I respect any founded arguments for OR against, I think we can all agree that it’s important to base opinions on hard facts. Since it seems that the two prevailing arguments against opening Portage and Main are to do with 1) safety of pedestrians and 2) vehicular traffic delays, The City of Winnipeg 2016 Collision Report and The City of Winnipeg Portage and Main Transportation Study are two, non-bias, purely information-based documents with a plethora of information relating to these topics, without agenda or prejudice.

In these documents, you will find hard data and numbers that prove (nay, let me rephrase), offer an enlightened perspective on the potential benefits of opening the intersection, as well as deflate many propagated, negative misconceptions. Have a read and formulate your own judgement.

Portage and Main, September 2016. All photo by Zephyra Vun, unless otherwise indicated.

THINK BIG PICTURE...BIGGER...

All of this being said, it’s becoming more and more clear that the real issue here goes beyond addressing this one intersection and people’s individual complaints about it. We are not going to make progress in the discussion if it remains a constant battle of solely changing peoples’ minds from a ‘no, keep it closed!’ to a ‘yes, open it up!’, or vice versa. Ultimately, it’s no longer about convincing polarizing viewpoints to switch stances, but rather the need for a complete shift, or, dare I say, overhaul in thinking (something Winnipeg is, and has always known to be, afraid of - change!); a look at the broader narrative of our city and its future is absolutely necessary. 

My confidence in changing a nay-sayers mind from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ in regards to opening this intersection to pedestrians is far less than appealing to his or her sense or position of what a prosperous, vibrant Winnipeg looks like. Rather than run around in circles on this one issue, let’s take the spotlight away from ‘the intersection’ and shine it on ‘the city’ as a whole; not the initial drop in the pond, but the perpetual ripples that will follow.

If we, as a city, start to look at the bigger picture, the overall benefits of pedestrian friendly streets, a walkable and welcoming downtown (to locals and tourists), and the consequential economic growth, increased safety and accessibility, and overall downtown rejuvenation that would result from simply removing some 40-year old concrete barricades, I genuinely believe Winnipeg will see that the greater collective benefits far outweigh the personal inconveniences or perceived disadvantages.

Winnipeg Design Festival Finale Party, 2016 - "ADAPTATION": Installation curated by Zephyra Vun. Immediately following a panel discussion about the re-imagination of Portage and Main AT Portage and Main (site: Richardson Building Plaza), four local artists paint live, displaying their individual reinterpretations of the iconic intersection on large, lit-up panels. The public also had an opportunity to contribute to the conversation (see below).

WE'RE NOT PROPOSING TO ABOLISH CARS...

Now, it’s not going to be easy. In fact, these concepts are especially difficult to wrap your head around when we live in a heavily car-dependent metropolis like Winnipeg! It’s true - many Winnipeggers need their cars to get to work, school, hockey games, the theatre, etc. And while some extremists are, most advocates for the Portage and Main re-opening are not suggesting we all get rid of our cars, start biking everywhere in -30 degree weather, and/or make everyone’s commute to work that much longer.. y’know, for the good of the city! *sarcastic fist pump* 

(By the way, The City of Winnipeg Portage and Main Transportation Study suggests that the commute time of 50% of vehicles passing through the Portage and Main intersection would not be affected at all by its re-opening, while the other 50%’s commute would be extended by an average of >50 seconds. Furthermore, the study adds: “Note that the travel time for the two most significant movements – northbound and southbound through – are unaffected by the change and show similar or even slightly improved travel times for cars in the model versus the existing conditions.").. ‘Improved’ you say?!

Again, while we are not preaching to get rid of your car and go vegan, we are preaching that crucial urban develoment decisions and renewal projects involving our downtown - the identity of our city, should not prioritize vehicles over people.

Provencher Bridge in winter. Photo by Olympia Cycle Club

PRECEDENTS AND EXAMPLES...

Because we all love examples, here’s some precedents on a similar issue. Remember the opening of the Provencher footbridge back in 2004, and how it was acutely criticized for many of the same concerns here - a pedestrian-focused project that was far too expensive? The Provencher bridge is now on every Winnipeg postcard, an award-winning, iconic and stunning piece of Winnipeg architecture and engineering, and beloved by commuters, especially those from the St. Boniface community who now have a direct (and beautiful!) connection to the downtown via foot, bike, and car. Now that’s inclusivity.

If your immediate response to the above example is “the footbridge did not pose a threat to pedestrian safety like the opening of a major intersection will”, I direct you to The City of Winnipeg 2016 Collision Report, which states that out of the total 17,586 collisions recorded in 2016, only 93 cases (that’s .52%) involved vehicles striking pedestrians, 4 of which were fatal. Less than half of the 93 cases were caused at a traffic-controlled intersection.

Because we all love analogies, here’s one to which you might relate. Say you are looking at an abstract painting from a certain angle (let’s call it perspective A), and you see a bear’s face. You then walk to the other side of the same painting and look at it from another angle (let’s call it perspective B), and you see a rose. The painting is still the same painting whether you are looking at it from perspective A or B, but you now have a different understanding of, and relation to it simply by shifting your position, literally. 

My point here is not to be patronizing, but to communicate clearly and effectually that we need to stop looking at just the painting itself (which, in this case, obviously, is a metaphor for the Portage and Main intersection). Instead, we must examine and self-reflect on the angle or perspective from which we are looking at said painting, and subsequently making our decisions. One particular angle may yield something different, something valuable that you may not have seen from your previous stance.

Now, if you see a bear’s face every single time, regardless of what perspective, A or B, then your stance on the matter is pretty concrete - congratulations, you know what you want! Arguably though, a more open mind, and/or genuine attempt to see something you might not want to see, may just produce a rose; a consideration or glimpse into the other side. Give it try, what’s the worst that could happen..?

Winnipeg Design Festival Finale Party, 2016 - "ADAPTATION": Installation curated by Zephyra Vun.

The iconic Portage and Main intersection activated by people! 

BRING IT ON, REFERENDUM...

Moreover, while the newly announced referendum decision to allow the public to decide the fate of Portage and Main in October 2018 seems to becoming a whole other debate in and of itself (nevermind the real issue at hand), many of those who are anti-plebiscite do have a point: Complex and layered urban issues should not necessarily be decided upon by an ignorant public, nor should a substantial suburban population with zero vested interest in our downtown be responsible for deciding what is best for those of us who actually and actively live, work, and play here. But, alas, that is where we find ourselves, and now it’s time to focus our energy on shifting perspectives (not changing minds).

 

DESIGN QUARTER WINNIPEG'S distinctive insight...

As an organization that promotes walkability, one that physically and promotionally connects both local businesses and the public sphere amongst Winnipeg’s core downtown communities (The Exchange District, The Forks, SHED + Broadway districts), and works very closely with the city’s tourism industry, Design Quarter Winnipeg has a unique and insightful perspective on what the opening of Portage and Main can do for our city.

"ADAPTATION": Local artist, David Oro's re-imagined Portage and Main.

Design Quarter Winnipeg Launch - Walking tour around Winnipeg's Exchange District with city influences and delegates, highlighting some of our members who all promote local design culture in our downtown. Photo by Mike Peters.

WALKABILITY AND CONNECTIVITY...

The Portage and Main intersection is a connecting route for people traversing through the Quarter who are encouraged to explore the geographical downtown triangle of the Exchange District, The Forks, to the furthest west portion of the SHED and Broadway districts via foot or bike to engage directly, and on a human scale, with the diverse design culture Winnipeg has to offer. At the epicentre (pun intended) of it all, instead of being able to cross from one district to the other with ease, one is confronted with concrete barricades inhibiting any kind of humanized street life for some 150’ in both directions (this includes street width plus existing barricades on either side). You must take a time-consuming detour (either around to the next city block, or below), until you finally reach the other side (5-10+ minutes later), where humans are then allowed to occupy grade level streets again - phew! 

(Fun fact: the width of Broadway Ave., which is 4 lanes wide in each direction, plus a hefty boulevard, is wider than that of Portage Ave. at the intersection of Portage and Main, which is also 8 lanes total in width, but with a concrete barricade instead of a 25’ boulevard. The width of Main St. at Portage and Main is only one lane wider than Main St. at Broadway Ave.)

Google Earth Pro: Portage and Main intersection, 2018.

Google Earth Pro: Broadway and Main intersection, 2018.

WINNIPEG IS MAKING ITS MARK...NOW!

Furthermore, having hosted a considerable number of travel media in Winnipeg from Australia, USA, Mexico, Germany, India, etc. over the past year who are specifically interested, and in some cases, heavily invested in Winnipeg’s thriving arts, culture, culinary and design scenes, it is abundantly clear that Winnipeg will immediately be (if not already is) a contender on the world-class stage. Tourists liken Winnipeg to cultural hotspots like Berlin or New York for our rich, historic architecture, flourishing and diverse creative sectors, and strong local energy and entrepreneurialism. We are on the map, so let’s start acting like it. 

It’s time to bring to the forefront the people, spirit, and communities that make our city great, not the cars we use to get there. It’s time to be inclusive of all street users! Picture this: You are visiting Winnipeg as an international journalist, writing a piece on Winnipeg’s hip and historic Exchange District and prosperous arts and culinary scenes.. OR you're a local (suburban) female resident who feels unsafe because you're unfamiliar with navigating the underground tunnels and it's ten o'clock at night.. OR you are a company CEO visiting Winnipeg looking to re-locate or invest in an up-and-coming Canadian city.. OR you're a disabled downtown dweller who would prefer not to take 4+ elevators and 20 minutes to reach the other side of the street.. Regardless of who you are, your otherwise scenic and fluid exploration of downtown Winnipeg is abruptly halted by a 40-year old, antiquated, barricaded intersection, unusable, inactive, and inaccessible to all but vehicles at the central hub of the city?! This just does not compute in 2018.

Winnipeg has come so far in the last decade with regard to making our downtown a safer, accessible, more vibrant place to be; keeping Portage and Main closed to human street life would be a huge step backwards. If we continue to cater to vehicles instead of people, our downtown will remain a transitory thoroughfare to get from suburb A to suburb B, and surely not a destination or hub of human activity that anyone (from here or afar) would desire to be, or feel any sense of place.

No, we are not Berlin, or New York, or Toronto, or Copenhagen; but we are a progressive city that is in need of a progressive backbone in order to be competitive, attract tourism, and see economic growth and prosperity. The positive implications of opening up Portage and Main will become more evident if we think collectively, not selfishly. It’s no longer simply a question of “Do we want to open this intersection?”, but rather “Do we want to remain a car-dependent city?”, “Do we want to invest in our downtown?”, “Do we want to be a contender with other world-class cities?”, “Do we want to embrace change?”

We are ONE great city. Let’s act collectively and prove it, together.