The nation-wide, REALTOR-initiated Quality of Life program and how it can be used to enrich communities was the focus of a recent symposium held in Winnipeg.
“Quality of Life is basically a program to create better communities for all Manitobans — Canadians for that matter,” said Lorne Weiss, a former president of both the Manitoba Real Estate Association (MREA) and WinnipegREALTORS®.
In fact, the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) has adopted the Quality of Life program as a commitment by the real estate industry as an approach to building better communities across the nation.
MREA and the British Columbia Real Estate Association (BCREA) hosted the Quality of Life symposium at the Hilton Suites Winnipeg Airport, which featured guest speakers such as former Vancouver mayor and B.C. premier, Mike Harcourt, who told 70 REALTORS® from across the nation that “quality of life is central to Canadian cities being successful.”
The theme of the symposium was Building Better Communities, one of five Quality of Life principles that also include ensuring economic vitality, providing housing opportunities, preserving our environment and protecting property owners.
“Quality of life is a benchmark we as REALTORS® use to judge our incentives,” said Weiss. “It’s about creating communities where everyone thrives.”
The Quality of Life program was modeled after a highly-successful program in Washington State started by REALTORS®. It was first adopted in Canada by the MREA with the support of WinnipegREALTORS® and then by the BCREA.
“Quality of Life is a collaborative approach,” said Jennifer Lynch, the president-elect of the BCREA. “We build relationships with politicians, investors and the community, rather than be adversarial.”
Weiss said the symposium was the result of years of working through the goals of quality of life and proceeding to the “how-to” of implementing its principles.
“Everyone wants to live in safe and healthy cities,” he added, “we now want to see how this can be done.”
Harcourt, who is currently chair of the University of B.C.’s Regional Substainability Council, said building better cities is a “matter of choice, as they’re not preordained.”
Dr. Jino Distasio, the director of the University of Winnipeg’s Institute for Urban Studies, said that “Winnipeg is changing in amazing ways” with “sustained intervention in the downtown of the city” since the 1960s.
Speaking on the topic of Education as a Catalyst to Change, Distasio commented that institutional investments by the University of Winnipeg, Red River College and the Health Sciences Centre in the downtown have resulted in thousands of students and professionals contributing to thriving inner-city businesses.
“We’re seeing more activity now as 20,000 students converge on the downtown,” he added.
At the U of W alone, there are 1,000 staff and 10,000 students at its downtown campus.
The U of W has in recent years contributed millions of dollars to reinvent the downtown through the expansion of campus facilities and housing.
The U of W has kick-started downtown development with projects, such as McFeetors Hall: Great West Life Student Residence, the U of W Student Association day-care centre, the Richardson College for Environment and Science Complex, a new bookstore at the former Greyhound bus depot, and the Buhler Centre, which was made possible by a $4-million donation from Bonnie and John Buhler, the largest private donation in the university’s history.
Over the years, Lloyd Axworthy has managed to leverage hundreds of millions of public-sector and private-sector dollars for downtown renewal — first as a federal cabinet minister and now as the president of the U of W.
Distasio said the view from the U of W provides a 360-degree panorama of how government, private and institutional investment over the last 30 years has transformed the downtown through such projects as The Forks, the Broadway retail landscape, the MTS Centre, the Goldeyes’ ballpark and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
“We’re now reaching the pinnacle of being able to showcase how dynamic a city Winnipeg is,’ said Distasio.
“The U of W shows how an institute can make a valuable investment in the community and changes a neighbourhood for the better,” said Weiss.
Harcourt, who emphasized sustainable communities, said Canada and the world is now dominated by cities and their growing populations. He has coined a new term for the human species to describe this phenomenon — “Homo urbanis” (urban man).
“If you don’t make the right choices, there’s terrible consequences,” he warned.
“Wrong decisions last a long, long time, and it takes a lot to change them.”
Harcourt calls Guelph, Ontario, the “poster child” for sustainable urban development, while Detroit, Michigan, is the exact opposite.
“People don’t want to live in a city like Detroit,” he commented.
In Guelph, an “environment-first” approach to city planning was adopted by the council. According to the official plan, called Envision Guelph, growth and development will be in three-phases over the next 20 years and will encourage well-designed, walkable, transit-friendly neighbourhoods; promote economic vitality and innovation, support social well-being, and incorporate Guelph’s Community Energy Initiative.
The list of policies guiding development in Guelph bears a striking resemblance to the principles of the REALTOR®-established Quality of Life Program.
Once an industrial giant, Detroit has lost 60 per cent of its population since 1950. Whole tracts of the cityscape have been abandoned by people, crime is rampant and the city’s tax base has been gutted and infrastructure is deteriorating, prompting some commentators to say, “When the last person leaves, turn out the lights.”
However, in the city of noted professional sports’ teams such as the Detroit Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons and Lions, there is a new plan for urban renewal. To make the plan manageable, the city boundaries will be significantly reduced in order to concentrate all resources on the parts of the city deemed viable. Those areas of the city no longer felt to be sustainable will simply be abandoned.
Changing human behaviour
Harcourt said Canadian cities should find innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint and reduce greenhouse gases.
“The challenge for our species is changing human behaviour,” he added.
“When you put in $20 million in a short period of time, housing prices go up, desirability goes up,” said Distasio, “and there are going to be challenges, such as how to improve the quality of life for everybody.
He mentioned the need to help aboriginal people and people living on the streets find affordable housing and aboriginal people, as well as the need to secure supportive housing for the mentally-challenged.
Distasio was part of a U of W Mental Health Commission study on mental health and homelessness which found that there are 7,600 “hidden” homeless, 1,915 short-term or crisis sheltered people, and 350 people living primarily on Winnipeg’s downtown streets. Of these, a disproportionate number are aboriginal people.
“There is still an undercurrent of poverty in the downtown,” commented Distasio, “but you can feel a change coming on.”
Distasio said the U of W is working with community groups to address many of the housing problems the downtown faces.
“We engage and work with community organizations,” said Distasio.
The U of W is no longer a nine-to-five institution, but opens its doors to the community with programs for youth and adults, he added, including an Innovative Learning Centre, a Model School, an Opportunity Fund, and the Wii Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre, a drop-in centre for inner-city residents.
“Ultimately, what we saw in Winnipeg was an opportunity to fill a role within the community that was obviously lacking,” said U of W president Axworthy in a spring 2012 Canadian Education article. “And so we developed a strategy and a plan — for the future of the University, but also for the city.
“We started with a series of internal changes of people and practices and enlisted the help of aboriginal organizations and other community groups to show the way. We are teaching institutions, but we recognized that we had a lot of learning to do as well. As part of building this vision, we involved ourselves in a major strategic effort to re-define ourselves and to enhance our role in the rapidly transforming local and global community. We called it our Community Learning Strategy.”
As an example of working with the community, Distasio said the U of W joined a community-based coalition to purchase the Merchants Hotel on Selkirk Avenue, a symbol of despair and violence, in order to redevelop the three-storey building as a “community hub” for housing, education opportunities and commercial enterprises.
“When you pursue quality of life,” said Harcourt, “you get a whole different dynamic in your city.
“My modest proposal is that governments and communities work with REALTORS® to create a higher quality of life in our cities.”
“We talk every day with people who hope to build a life for themselves and their children,” said Weiss. “We understand what makes a community attractive and desirable. We know a community is more than just homes.
“People want safe streets, jobs that pay well, and roads that take them to where they want to go without delay.
“We’re not just REALTORS®,” added Weiss, “we’re neighbours.”