Building sustainable university projects for community inclusion
The University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation (UWCRC) has no interest in building ivory towers. Instead, UWCRC helps build sustainable projects like Winnipeg’s Downtown Commons, which welcomes “a wide cross-section of people from different cultural, economic and social backgrounds.”
Like all UWCRC developments, Downtown Commons holds space, literally and figuratively, for members of the surrounding community. Alongside apartments for UWinnipeg students and the general public, the complex also features 15 affordable-rate units earmarked for newcomer student families or students attending programs at other post-secondary institutions.
“Our primary purpose is to develop university infrastructure with quite intentional attention to the inclusion of the wider community,” says Jeremy Read, CEO of UWCRC and its sister organization, UWCRC 2.0 (affectionately known as ‘2.0’).
With help from financial services partner Assiniboine Credit Union, UWCRC and 2.0 are trying to leave a different kind of mark on the landscape — one that’s more inclusive and sustainable than the traditional approach to urban development.
Four pillars of building
Founded in 2005, UWCRC is a nonprofit organization that develops capital projects primarily for the University of Winnipeg. 2.0 is also a nonprofit, created as an offshoot of UWCRC in 2016, that extends the organization’s expertise to provide development and property management services to the broader community beyond UWinnipeg.
“2.0 is significantly influenced by the university but it’s not controlled by the university,” Jeremy explains. “2.0 is working on a number of housing projects, women’s shelters and other social infrastructure — including community centres and daycare expansions — with other organizations.”
Underpinning the operations of both UWCRC and 2.0 are four pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, economic and cultural.
“The university is a major institution and the surrounding community is amongst the poorest in Canada. If we’re not conscious of our relative influence and power in that context, it’s very easy for us to roll over the community as ‘the elephant’ with the community as ‘the mouse.’ We want to utilize our expertise and influence and ability to attract capital, not just for ourselves but for the benefit of the surrounding community,” Jeremy elaborates.
Writing a new chapter
This is construction with a community conscience. It’s about building bridges rather than just putting up more walls.
“We’re very mindful of these things because of the university being located in a very disinvested community in Winnipeg’s core,” Jeremy continues. “We also have sensitivity to the fact that we’re on Treaty One territory and we have a very diverse population of newcomers where education can have a real impact, immediately and generationally, for some of the families in our neighbourhood.”
For example, cultural sensitivity is incorporated into design elements, such as rooms with additional soundproofing for ceremonial drumming and extra ventilation for smudging ceremonies.
UWCRC and 2.0 are winning international recognition for their community-based approach to development. In his 2021 book, In The Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities, American academic Davarian Baldwin cites UWCRC and 2.0 as good examples of how universities can collaborate with local communities.
“We don’t want to replicate the mistake of many post-secondary institutions,” Jeremy continues, “which is to attract a bunch of capital and then push the local community out of the facilities.”
A history with ACU
According to Jeremy, ACU’s own co-operative, community-focused approach makes it an ideal financial services partner for UWCRC and 2.0, especially ACU’s nonprofit lending division, the Community Financial Centre (CFC).
“ACU is our operating bank and they’ve financed mortgages for some of our student housing. In addition, they’ve allowed us to create lines of credit based on assets so we can seed other projects. ACU is a necessary partner for the kinds of work that we do. Without them, we couldn’t get it done,” he explains of the partnership.
ACU Community Account Manager, Mihaela Pirlog, looks back on her decade-long relationship with UWCRC and takes pride in the organization’s success. “Everybody can see what a great job UWCRC is doing in the community and we are very proud to partner with them,” she says.
For proof, she points to some of the buildings that now dot Winnipeg’s downtown skyline thanks to UWCRC and 2.0.
“If you looked at a picture of how those two blocks looked 10 years ago and how they look now, you can see they’re making a great difference,” Mihaela says. “They’ve built affordable housing that is a safe and beautiful space. It’s a great feeling to drive through the area and know we financed that.”
Bringing people together
“Safe space” also has a deep meaning for the 30 Ukrainian refugees who are now living at the Downtown Commons thanks to UWCRC and community support. The organization has been able to temporarily house them in vacant units since the start of the Russian invasion.
(Charitable donations towards the Ukrainian refugee temporary housing costs can be made to the Vasyl “Bill” Balan Fund. Bill was an active member of Winnipeg’s Ukrainian-Canadian community and a founding board member of UWCRC, who sadly passed away in March 2022.)
UWCRC’s initiatives showcase thoughtfulness and kindness for people at a local and global level. Through its ongoing community outreach, the organization will no doubt continue innovating through sustainable development and making a “direct contribution to the positive revitalization of Winnipeg’s downtown and advancement of the UWinnipeg campus.”
Learn more about UWCRC including Downtown Commons and other sustainable construction projects at The University of Winnipeg.
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