Competing Visions

Text Richard Milgrom
Photos Janet Rosenberg & Studio and Cibinel Architects with Landmark Planning & Design and ARUP Canada unless otherwise noted

In 2011, the University of Manitoba purchased the Southwood Golf Course to accommodate future development. The green space both defines the northern boundary of the University’s Fort Garry campus and symbolizes its isolation from neighbouring communities: the commuter campus has little presence from Pembina Highway to the west, and while situated on a point along the Red River south of the downtown core, makes little effort to take advantage of this natural setting.

In its most recent Development Plan, the City of Winnipeg–which is experiencing growth for the first time in decades–identified the Fort Garry campus as a node of potential growth. With the acquisition of the Southwood Lands, the University identified an opportunity to lead by example: by building sustainable living environments for diverse communities, it could transform the campus into a living lab for urban growth. New rapid-transit bus lines could improve connections to downtown. And an international competition to identify the campus planning team would encourage public debate about development while raising the profile of urban design issues.

An open design competition called Visionary (re)Generation launched in December 2012 and drew more than 300 registrations. Forty-five teams from 17 countries submitted entries; six advanced to Phase Two. A jury announced the winner last September–a team led by Toronto landscape architects Janet Rosenberg & Studio and Cibinel Architects of Winnipeg.

The winning scheme suggests a bold landscape-based vision for the Southwood Lands as “a place of living in the prairie.” A rhythm of open and densely treed green spaces, reminiscent of golf course fairways, flows from Pembina Highway to the Red River. Within these stripes, residential uses for the proposed new neighbourhood are interspersed with educational buildings, recreational areas, and wildlife corridors. To the south and east, the core campus is densified and preserved as the heart of the University.

The jury was attracted by the clarity of the scheme, with its integrated approach to landscape and urbanism. In particular, they commended its treatment of the riverfront as an amenity for the University and the broader community. The plan includes boardwalks and pavilions along the water’s edge and maximizes river views from its apartment buildings. At the western campus edge, it clearly marks the Pembina Highway entrance with new gateway buildings that double as an aboriginal research centre.

Jury deliberations sparked controversy about what constitutes a visionary strategy for this development. The competition brief had been detailed and complex, asking entrants to address many dimensions of sustainability, requirements of everyday life and active living, and the ethical responsibilities of developing land taken from aboriginal peoples. 

For some jurors, questions arose about how effectively Rosenberg’s proposal addressed several of these intents. The jury report includes concerns about the homogeneity of building types in the Southwood Lands and weak connections to adjacent communities. Given the focus on sustainability, the report tellingly notes that the design does not take full advantage of opportunities for transit-oriented development–it states that the Southwood precinct “appears to be designed as a car-oriented commuter campus.”

In contrast, the second- and third-prize entries, awarded respectively to teams led by Perkins+Will and DTAH, more rigorously address the specific requirements of the competition. Viewed by the majority of jurors as more conservative, both are closely related to conventional ideas of urban space and neighbourhood design. 

Unlike the winning scheme, both Perkins+Will and DTAH focus their efforts on creating dense urban neighbourhoods and associated amenities within walking distance of the core campus amenities. They also attempt to address the scale of an existing football stadium by surrounding it with density, rather than placing it in a park as Rosenberg’s team proposes.

Interestingly, the jury report notes that, though conventional, the Perkins+Will and DTAH schemes are out of character with the surroundings and raised questions about the appropriateness of creating an “urban island” in this location. However, if the University wants to lead by example, the proposed neighbourhood may have to define a new context rather than fitting comfortably into the existing. Ideally this will provide exemplars of urbanism that will inspire the densification of the surrounding city fabric and provide models for other new neighbourhoods. As the University continues to work with Janet Rosenberg Studio and Cibinel Architects, one hopes that the strong landscape ideas that were received so positively will evolve to encompass more walkable and connected urban spaces–setting precedents that will have long-term benefits for both the University of Manitoba and the city of Winnipeg. 

Richard Milgrom is Associate Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and head of the Department of City Planning at the University of Manitoba. 

The Visionary (re)Generation finalist entries can be viewed at