Winnipeg Hosts Canada's First

Housing and Town Planning Conference

by George Siamandas

Concern about cities and slums and of high child poverty levels were the main topics of a housing and town planning conference held in Winnipeg. But the day was July 15, 1912, and Winnipeg was hosting the first conference on Canadian Housing and Town Planning.


It was a showcase for all the thinking about the "city beautiful" and what each city was doing to solve its problems. Mayor Richard Deans Waugh mayor in 1912 opened the conference and welcomed delegates to Winnipeg. The conference was well attended with delegates from US , Britain Australia. The Chicago exhibit cost $90,000 and was put forward by Harvard University. Other prominent exhibitors included Minneapolis, New York, Kansas, New Orleans, Tampa, Harrisburg and Louisburg. There were examples of French Garden suburbs, English Model towns of which one was called Port Sunlight. And rehab work in Liverpool.


The big topic on day 2 was how to prevent slums. The pattern was known by all the delegates. Older buildings handed down to each succeeding immigrant group to the city. The poorer the tenant the greater the problem and the more rapid the deterioration.

There was a major concern with overcrowding and unsanitary conditions causing ill health amongst the poor whose children were dying at twice the rate of better districts. Even the famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead produced a paper for this conference on slum prevention. It is surprising how similar the debate is to today.


The idea of planning things right from the beginning was discussed. That residential, industrial and recreational districts should be planned from the outset. That there be model housing types and neighbourhoods. That cities abandon the rectangular alignment of streets and try to create radial streets radiating out from important public buildings. Another interesting idea was that three be islands in the middle of wide streets for the benefit of pedestrians. Winnipeg was congratulated for the width of its streets, Portage and Main in particular. The vision of the day was to turn empty lots into green spaces: from eye-sores to parks.


Winnipeg's political leaders had kept pace with the thinking of the conference. Winnipeg already had its own planning commission in place and had developed a plan addressing many of the city problems at the time. That planning commission reported to council shortly after the 1912 conference. In more than 90 years little has changed. The problems of slums, and even then the lack of river crossings in Winnipeg. The poor housing conditions and overcrowding. The big plans for Winnipeg in 1912. The report of the planning commission. Moving city hall to Broadway and creating a Mall along Osborne St. Winnipeg was the third largest city. And its leading citizens thought it would still become the biggest in the country.


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