Today We are Believers!

Former Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray imagines celebrating his 93rd birthday on a patio in an Exchange District transformed by innovation.

In the final of a series of 5 Future Vision essays commissioned by the Exchange District BIZ, Glen Murray marvels at the innovations that have allowed the Exchange District to flourish and emerge from a turbulent 30 years as an international leader in sustainable technology.

You can read more about the Exchange District Planning Process here.

I am singing along with Royal Canoe to “Today We are Believers” who are performing around the corner. I cannot believe 2050 is finally here!  This, the deadline year that has been in every speech I’ve given over the last few decades of my 93 years. It’s the year in which we hoped to reach carbon neutrality. It became more than a point in time. It became a countdown, an ever-shrinking runway.

In case you forgot, today is my birthday. I am sitting on the patio at a restaurant on Bannantyne Avenue, which thanks to its new Mexican sous-chef, has the best mole chicken in Canada— a benefit of the new immigration and lifesaving resettlement programs. I live across the street where an old parking lot has been repurposed as a hydroponic food centre and new seniors co-housing project. It also happens to be my home. It’s called “The Paz” which means “peace,” but all my friends tease me by calling it “The Pas”.

A Mexican modernist design, the project was one of many resulting from the mass capital investment which followed Winnipeg’s response to successive global tragedies. These new opportunities were embraced by the folks in the Exchange like nowhere else. Buildings are designed to address the challenges that we began grappling with in the early 2020’s, like social isolation and just plain working online. For example, my unit is a home, office, and study space in one, as we recognized the need to erase the walls between the workplace, classroom and home in buildings that have all the amenities for complete living. Common meeting spaces in the building allow for fruitful collaborations and friendship building.

Remember the promises of the heady days of the Paris Climate agreement?  Since then, we have been left both traumatized and transformed by three deadly pandemics, forced mass migration because of climate change drought and food shortages, and the rise and fall of a global authoritarian movement capped by a world war. It was a repeat of the world wars in the first half of the 20th century. Not so much about oil this time as it was over water and arable land. The global has been become local in a way that many predicted but few understood.

But the big story is what came next. What came out of the darkness and despair: Hope! The peace treaty after the war included recognizing the right of every citizen to food and water.

Canada led the way through a global series of bilateral resettlement agreements with other countries, and Winnipeg proudly stepped up to become the first global sanctuary city. Winnipeg, after all, had been the first city to establish a refugee settlement program with the federal government to guarantee refugee sponsorship. That was 50 years ago.

And of course, medical miracles that grew in the aftermath of the three big global pandemics have eased the suffering of many. And they are allowing me to be here celebrating my 93rd birthday in fairly great health as I write all this down!

Sadly, the desert that has replaced many wheat fields across the Prairies, together with the California droughts, have cut off the supply of most of our fresh vegetables. The diverted rivers, emptied aquafers, and a shifting jet stream ended their bounty. Food insecurity and skyrocketing costs led to a collaboration between the Paterson Global Food Centre, Richardson Research and the U of M’s Agriculture and Planning schools almost 15 years ago, when they launched the world-leading urban agricultural district in the Exchange. Given the huge potential of the massive warehouse buildings and roofs, it was the perfect location. The first was the transformation on Alexander Street of the old Eaton Warehouse, now western Canada’s largest urban food production centre and market. It has since supported initiatives like my own building’s hydroponic gardens.

Winnipeg has built our national leadership role in Human Rights and resettlement on the foundation of what has become an extraordinarily activist Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The most recent building in the Exchange is one of the Museum’s initiatives: the UN’s Turtle Island Centre. It is dedicated to the right to healthy food and water for all, cementing Winnipeg as a beacon of hope and seeing yet another generation of ‘Peggers step up, as we have so often, to create a sanctuary for the world’s dispossessed. The centre is built on the Indigenous traditions (that have become part of the country’s fabric) of making decisions for seven generations and seeing all of nature as our relations.

No part of the city embraced the fallout and opportunities of global crises like our beautiful Exchange District. The third industrial revolution, which saw the integration of the online economy and the on-ground economy took root in the Exchange like nowhere else. And the results were like nothing we had seen since 1910, when development in the Exchange District made Winnipeg the fastest growing city in North America! That record was set again this year when we passed the two million population mark, driven largely by the clean tech, creative industries, and the info tech explosion in the Exchange over the last two decades. It’s one of our rewards for not following the path of many cities that, in the middle of the last century had destroyed their stock of “over engineered” buildings from the second industrial revolution.

One innovation feeds another. Green roofs supply food, while blockchain crypto currency mines (which, as Mark Carney rightly predicted, have replaced conventional government-backed dollars) now occupy the basements of many large district warehouses and heat the entire district. The block chain operations and their power-intense computers generate heat that is captured and transferred through the Exchange District’s old steam pipe system, replacing all fossil fuels that used to heat our buildings. A zero cost and zero GHG emissions heating micro-utility has helped make the Exchange a magnet for progressive businesses.

Our district looks like a modern San Gimignano with solar chimneys on all the large buildings, a technology pioneered 50 years ago on the city’s most recently designated historical building, “Manitoba Hydro Place”. David Pensato, who recently retired as the Exchange District BIZ Executive Director, launched an artist and architect’s design competition to creatively design the “Chimneys of the Exchange,” winning international awards for public art, architecture, and sustainability.

I’m able to celebrate out in the fresh air because Winnipeg is now eight degrees warmer in Winter than it was on my 50th birthday— the patio season runs well into the fall. Also, this year’s “Get Together Downtown” outdoor concert at Portage and Main is bigger than ever, with 150,000 people in attendance. Holographic replicators are projecting the big reunion of Royal Canoe in many locations 40 years after their first gig in 2010. They look great for a bunch of nearly 70-year-olds. Oh, to be so young!

I am not just singing “Today we are Believers,” I’m living it! Both the tragedies and soaring accomplishments I have seen in my life have really made me a believer in our people and our city.  I was 43 for the first “Get Together Downtown” — maybe some things really don’t get old! Maybe the old Exchange District is just always going to be the coolest place in town!

Glen Murray was Mayor of Winnipeg, an Ontario Cabinet Minister and is now a software entrepreneur with Creative Applications for Sustainable Technology in the Exchange District.