Let the streams flow
Winnipeg’s creeks let urbanites commune with nature
THERE were tiny fish in Truro Creek on Sunday. I saw them from the wooden bridge near Deer Lodge Place, where I watch for signs of spring. Spawning is likely over, since spring runoff is done. But I will keep looking for fish in the creek.
Winnipeg was once a city of creeks and coulees. Two hundred years ago, 36 streams and coulees emptied into the Red and Assiniboine rivers within the city’s boundaries. Many of these tributaries were wooded, and some were clothed in ferns, violets, bittersweet and other wild plants we can only imagine there now.
Efficient land development calls for elimination of swamps and ease of movement. So over time, nearly all of the tributaries have been covered or replaced with culverts, sewers and ditches. It is a familiar story — natural landscapes homogenized, made invisible by development.
Cities are densely occupied and they must be developed to provide an easily managed environment to live and do business in. But at some point, when most natural landmarks are paved over, a city loses its connection to its place in the world, and it loses its character
Winnipeg’s few remaining creeks — Bunn’s, Omand, Truro and Sturgeon — should be protected and celebrated as important landscape features. They should be treated with special attention, so that Winnipeggers can enjoy them as natural places. And passing over them should be a memorable experience. It follows that we should experience them through physical design that is responsive to the natural landscape of the creeks, and to the scale of human foot traffic… so that a “once-upon-a-time” experience can happen.
Bridges determine, to a large part, our experience of creeks and rivers. From concrete highway bridges to the suspension bridge in Souris, there is a wide range of forms and purposes for bridges. The new Esplanade Riel allows pedestrians to cross the Red River free of traffic. It makes a grand gesture, appropriate to the river it crosses and its historic setting. The Assiniboine Park footbridge is another Winnipeg icon, planted in memories of many since their first childhood crossing, and grand in its own way. Another bridge, of a different scale, is my favourite bridge on Truro Creek where I stop to check the water level, to look for fish and snapping turtles. This bridge, though certainly not a work of art, is perfectly scaled for the creek and the kind of activities a neighbourhood park engenders.
Many of the “fun” old bridges like the one in Bruce Park have disappeared — replaced by more efficient (rapid movement), permanent (low maintenance) and safe (less liability) concrete and steel bridges. Unlike the new bridges, the funky wooden bridges made friendly sounds when crossed on a bicycle. Not so long ago in Assiniboine Park, red-painted wooden bridges crossed drainage channels along the river. The bridges heightened the experience of the river, and were pleasant landmarks. When cycling paths went in, these bridges were replaced with culverts so that the paths, complete with gravel shoulders, could flow seamlessly along the river, avoiding “ups and downs”, and ignoring the swales below them. The paths homogenized the river trails, and made them less interesting. I have noticed too, that slow-moving traffic is not so welcome on this cycling freeway as before.
For all these reasons, recent discussion of a bridge to be built over Omand Creek worries me. I haven’t heard anything about the natural aspects of the creek. The million-dollar bridge may cross high above the creek, and, if it does, I am afraid it will do exactly what a superhighway does to the landscape — distance it — and make one more creek a distant view to cycling commuters. It would also divert valuable traffic from the park — people on foot and on bicycles — that keeps the park safe.
So I would argue for celebrating the creek with a new bridge that bring citizens as close as possible to the water, where people can observe the changes in the creek, watch wildlife up close, and still coast joyfully down the paths on bikes and rollerblades.
Winnipeg’s creeks and bridges are imperiled by development in the city.