Photo Credits: Noselski, 2017
Initial research by: Karissa Noselski
Edited by: Samantha Miller & Nicole Brekelmans
Case study compiled in 2019
Project: Wildwood Park
Type of Urban Strategy: Green Cities
Type of Project: Alternative neighbourhood design / Community design / Cultural landscape
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Date Designed/Planned: 1945
Construction Completed: 1947 + upgrades 1960s
Designer: Vision by Hubert Bird, Design by Architectural firm Green, Blankstein and Russell (G.B.R.)
Wildwood is a unique ‘reversed’ concept residential neighbourhood located in Winnipeg, designed with pedestrians and a shared natural setting in mind. The community was finished soon after World War II to address post-war housing shortages, taking inspiration from Stein & Wright’s Radburn development in New Jersey. Houses are oriented with their front doors facing inwards to a shared central park space, with the back of the house facing a private lane-way.
Long known for its strong sense of community and mature tree canopy, Wildwood remains an important precedent for neighbourhood designs everywhere. It is ultimately an oasis within Winnipeg. Today, space is ultimately the most significant limitation and criticism. While the neighbourhood is 74.7 acres in size, the limited space dedicated to the back lane-ways for parking has been a challenge for some in more recent years. Even so, Wildwood acts as a prime example where trying something bold or radical in neighbourhood design paid off, while also addressing social and in some ways, environmental sustainability.
A well-known archetype in community design, “Wildwood Park has developed a strong community identity that is certainly rooted in its historic social and environmental context” (Martin, 2001, p. 23), as well as its unique form and characteristic qualities.
Wildwood is one of Winnipeg’s most infamous, unique, and detached mid-density single-family residential neighbourhoods. It is known for its mature and dense tree canopy; a quality shared community common park space, and connective landscaped pathway networks that each house is built to face a space that acts as the primary neighbourhood circulation system. Positive feedback through word-of-mouth has made the area a very sought-after community-oriented neighbourhood, with a ‘reversed’ residential housing concept (Martin, 2001). The homes were built to face a pedestrian-only central park space, and “turn their backs on the realm of vehicular access” (p. 22).
To many, Wildwood is a special place, and it has remained such for many years (Reimer, 1989).
The total cost of the project was $1,000,000 (Reimer, 1989), with $15,000 for allocated for the purchase of the land (Martin, 2001). Great West Life Assurance Company provided the financing for the project (Martin, 2001, p. 25), while builder/developer Hubert Bird purchased the land and his construction company Bird Construction managed the project until completion with the help of the designers (Nelson, 1985).
Wildwood is named quite appropriately, after its early landscape, once described as ‘wild woods,’ or woodlands. The area is quite Isolated from much of the city, and the environment was described as harsh, resulting in its changing hands many times over the years (Martin, 2001). Built on a floodplain at a bend in the Red River (and surrounded by it almost entirely), the area was prone to flooding until the City of Winnipeg “undertook extraordinary regional-scale flood-control measures in the 1950s” including the development of the floodway to divert floodwaters (Martin, p. 27).
Initially, this site was home to thick and dense vegetation, described as peaceful and beautiful, full of “heavily wooded with green ash, Manitoba maple, American elm, basswood, bur oak, and giant cottonwood” (Martin, p. 25). Formerly “occupied by members of the Chippeway, Cree, and Assiniboine tribes” (Martin, p. 24), changes were first documented following settlement and transformed significantly after the signing of treaties.
GOAL OF THE PROJECT
The main goals of the projects were to:
-Preserve much of the original landscape character (i.e., as many existing trees as possible) Martin, p. 25
-Create a distinct separation between cars and pedestrians (Martin, p. 23)
-Redefine the relationship between the house and the street (as an alternative to traditional streetscape designs) (Martin, p. 23)
-Create a safe community common + connective corridor in the ‘front’ yard (Martin, p. 23)
-Provide a range of housing options (variety for a wide range of demographics and income levels), (Martin, p. 26)
-Break the pattern of surrounding grid neighbourhood developments, with superblocks and dendritic street patterns (Martin, p. 26)
GENESIS OF PROJECT
DESIGN, DEVELOPMENT, AND DECISION MAKING PROCESS
Decisions in the early stages were made to create mass-produced pre-fabricated houses to save time and address the housing crisis as soon as possible (Reimer, 1989). Many of the homes in Wildwood “were mass-produced out of recycled lumber from temporary grain elevators at the Lakehead and featured only five possible floor plans” with options to create diversity in exterior finishes (Reimer, 1989, p. vii).
Developers made sure to preserve much of the ecological value of the park, with tree retention a primary goal because of Bird’s initial connection to the natural setting (Reimer, 1989). “The mature umbrageous trees have always been a huge appeal” (Martin, 2001, p. 29).
Wildwood is well known because it questions conventional post-war suburbs of its time, “reflected in the nature of the landscape relationship between homes and park” (Martin, 2001, p. 163). The development of the neighbourhood was during a time that was significantly different than today and didn’t leave much room for change around the home.
By arranging the homes based on a flipped design concept of front and back, it allows for improved neighbourhood connections and central openness (Martin, 2001). The arrangement created “uniquely distinctive landscape conditions on both sides of the home” (Martin, p. 23). Essentially, the biggest challenge has become how to deal with changes in transportation and development trends.
ROLE OF DESIGNERS
-Ten sections/bays, each with approximately 29 homes with ‘picture’ windows facing a central connective park – a total of 286 homes (Martin, 2001, p. 31)
-“Back-door-facing u-shaped ‘lane-scapes” with space for children to play (Martin, 2001, p. 23)
-Visually open and expansive inward-focused housing arrangement (Martin, 2001, p.163)
-5 prefabricated housing options at a significantly reduced cost to build (Martin, 2001, p. 26)
This project is a powerful community planning precedent, with inspiration taken from the form and design of New Jersey’s Radburn by Stein and Wright (Martin, 2001). But Wildwood is known for its unique local contextualization, rather than duplication of precedent forms from elsewhere (Martin, 2001).
Hubert Bird “felt that such a unique piece of land should host an equally unique development” (Reimer, 1989, p. 23). The way the development was approached and cared for since its inception has maintained this level of care and preservation through the years, especially the idea that the park, in essence, belongs to everyone as an extension of their front yard, and many homes have large picture windows that overlook the space, allowing for more ‘eyes on the park' (Reimer, 1989).
Many of the successes of this project are in fact due to a variety of factors; timing, understanding of current context, and political circumstances being some of them. For example, because many of the first homeowners in the area were young and had little money following the war, the design of a common connective fabric facilitated sharing, community exchange, and relationship-building at a time when it was needed most (Martin, 2001, p. 26). Not many people owned cars around this time, and telephone services were slow to reach individual homes, but with the availability of a single bus route connection and a shared community phone, it cultivated relations and created the neighbourly feel that remains today (Martin, 2001).
This precedent emphasizes the importance of a park as a central unifying community feature in which to build around, and the need to plan for both diversity and adaptability with changing times and according to the local context.
MAINTENANCE AND MANAGEMENT
PROJECT BACKGROUND + HISTORY
Hubert Bird developed the concept for Wildwood. He saw the value in the uniqueness of this ‘natural setting’ and proposed this location for a pedestrian-focused neighbourhood with a strong sense of community (Reimer, 1989). But this site has a long history of transformations well before this occurred.
By 1905 there was no more evidence of early Métis settlement in the area, and land developers began buying up land parcels (Martin, p. 24). Col. R. M. Thompson and his partner in business Ralph Connor acquired the land that is now Wildwood, and submitted a development proposal for a neighbourhood with a traditional style ‘gridiron pattern,’ which they called ‘Wildewood’ (Martin, p. 24). At the time he also cleared the land and paved much of the road network, getting it ready for development, but after he left and never returned from the war, the property was eventually “transferred to the City of Winnipeg, which sought to make the property’s status officially recreational by developing it as a regional park” (Martin, p. 24). However, with the arrival of the Great Depression, this plan never came into the execution phase, and the lot sat vacant (though used unofficially for recreation) for many years (Martin, p. 24).
Meanwhile, Canadian officer Hubert Bird was gaining experience as a supervisor in European aerodome construction, returning to Canada to start his own construction company, settling on the land next door to ‘Wildewood.’ Supposedly inspired by a trip to New Jersey, Bird commenced planning for the acquisition and design of a neighbourhood similar to Radburn, before returning to war to continue with prefabricated war housing and training developments/barracks (Martin, p. 25).
Post-WWII, Bird returned home to a housing shortage across the nation and figured this project could help to address that, providing a place to live not just for veterans but for a diverse community (Martin, p. 25).
Martin, M. D., 2001. Returning to Radburn. Landscape Journal. [Online] 20 (2), 156–175.
Martin, M. D., & Harris, R. S., 2001. The Landscapes of Winnipeg’s Wildwood Park. Urban History Review. [Online] 30 (1), 22–39. https:// doi.org/10.7202/1015940ar.
Nelson, C., 1985. Wildwood Park Study.
Reimer, M., 1989. Wildwood Park through the Years. Winnipeg: Wildwood History Book Committee.
Wildwood into Tomorrow, 2013. Background Study on the Wildwood Park Community. Available at: [Accessed 23 February 2019].