Local innovation shines through, as Windsor tackles big urban challenges

December 9, 2021 – The Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) is released Windsor Blooms today, a report that reflects and highlights the collaboration, local innovation, challenges and on-the-ground-solutions developed in Windsor. Windsor Blooms captures how this mid-size, border city is dealing with some of our biggest urban challenges, like climate change, meaningful engagement and rebuilding their local economy. Through CUI x Local, the CUI spent three days in mid-2021, and partnered with community leaders, policymakers and city builders to host a series of virtual events to learn more about what’s working, what’s not working and what’s next for Windsor.

“Windsor Blooms provides deep insights from which we can all learn,” said Mary W. Rowe, President and CEO, Canadian Urban Institute. “It showcases how people from the arts, academia, business and industry, community agencies, local government, grassroots organizations and many other sectors are coming together to realize the full potential of their city, through large initiatives like leveraging their strong automobile industry, the Downtown Windsor Farmers’ Market and the Windsor International Film Festival and smaller projects like ‘placekeeping’ and beautification initiatives. Windsorites are channeling their rich history of innovation to create a just and equitable future.”

“CUI x Windsor was an unparalleled opportunity to bring together Windsor city builders from all segments of society—community leaders and advocates, elected councillors, youth, academics, business people and entrepreneurs, and more,” said Anneke Smit, Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Cities, University of Windsor. “This report highlights the incredible and collaborative city building work being done by so many and helps to lay a path for more.

Windsor has faced many economic challenges in recent years that have affected both the downtown and the city as a whole. However, the commitment to try new things, innovate and build is paying off. The manufacturing expertise in Windsor is shifting their focus to include more advanced pursuits such as autonomous and electric vehicles and the technology required to operate them at a commercial level, in a concerted effort to move from automotive to “automobility.” Leveraging funding from higher levels of government, the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network initiative is driving economic development and catalyzing innovation in automotive and smart mobility technologies. The collaborative efforts across government, industry, universities, and local talent helps position Windsor’s auto sector for the future. There is concern expressed by some that the continued auto focus is too narrow to support a just transition for all in the city.

Like many cities around the world, Windsor is focused on tackling climate change. For example, the City of Windsor was an early adopter of climate mitigation measures, starting with its greenhouse gas inventory in 2010. The City has started to include a climate risk analysis in all administrative reports and work is underway to develop a carbon budget. Climate action is also being pursued through strategic local partnerships that bring together cross-sector learning and advocacy for more meaningful policy changes. Researchers from across the University of Windsor are engaged in collaborative partnerships with community partners both in Windsor and with partners across the river in Detroit.

However, moving the needle significantly on climate action and related issues has also proven a challenge, especially around improving and increasing other modes of transportation such as walking, cycling and transit. In 2018, the City launched Walk Wheel Windsor, a 20-year, integrated active transportation strategy to help increase these modes and work is advancing to implement a pilot for the City’s first protected bike lanes, between downtown and the University of Windsor’s main campus. The 2019 Transit Master Plan likewise lays out a path towards a modernized and efficient transit system, whose transit system receives less funding per capita than any other urban transit system in Ontario. However, sufficient funding to move these plans forward has been slow to materialize and there are concerns about the rate at which the footprint of the city continues to expand, and the climate and financial implications of this.

Windsor is working to celebrate and recognize its rich cultural diversity to create a city where everyone feels included. The diversity of Windsor is reflected in many city-wide events, including Emancipation Day celebrations and public monuments such as the Bangladeshi Peace Clock, the Via Italia and the Ancient Jesuit Pear Trees.  Significant efforts are being made by many local institutions to address historic wrongs including anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism and LGBTQ exclusion. Similar to other cities, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour and other marginalized groups report feeling excluded from city processes and decisions that affect them. Windsorites are keen and looking for ways to participate and bring their expertise to the table, which includes working with local government to develop an equity engagement strategy, an equity plan and mobilizing community and grassroots to support more meaningful and inclusive engagement.  Youth, too, report feeling disengaged from local governance.

The City has also put a great deal of emphasis on strengthening the downtown in its planning policies and in a series of strategic public investments to improve facilities and quality of place. For example, the Downtown Windsor Enhancement Strategy and Community Improvement Plan offers grants to encourage projects that will enhance downtown, including the conversion of existing upper storey spaces to new residential units, the development of new residential units, retail enhancements and facade improvements. The City has also worked closely with local BIAs to help develop policies allowing for the use of public space during COVID-19, leading to an explosion of patios across the community. Working together, the City and BIAs were able to leapfrog four decades of red tape in one week.

There is tremendous potential for Windsor’s vibrant arts and culture sector. Over the past few years, the Canada-wide Municipal Benchmarking project reported the city consistently invests less per capita in arts and culture, compared to other cities surveyed of similar size. Despite that, there is a strong desire within the community to change this with small, targeted investments in public art initiatives.

We hope that by sharing this report and through the CUI x Local initiative, we can inspire other Canadian cities and urban centres with some of the on-the-ground and unique solutions developed in Windsor to address their most pressing issues. Windsor Blooms can be found online at https://canurb.org/cuixlocal.

CUI x Local 

Through CUI x Local, CUI is connecting with cities across Canada to gather interpretations, data, assessments, priorities, bright spots and stories from on-the-ground voices to help deepen our collective understanding of the interconnected and interdependent issues facing urban Canada. Alongside local partners, we are organizing these visits involving a combination of public and invitation-only meetings and activities. By looking at local issues and connecting them nationally, CUI x Local will strengthen the connective tissue within and across communities from coast to coast to coast. To date, CUI has completed five CUI x Locals in Calgary, Edmonton, Windsor, Halifax and Victoria.

Dhaneva Skogstad
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