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Manitoba History: Review: Catherine Macdonald, A City at Leisure: An Illustrated History of Parks and Recreation Services in Winnipeg, 1893-1993

by John Lehr
University of Winnipeg

Number 35, Spring/Summer 1998

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Catherine Macdonald, A City at Leisure: An Illustrated History of Parks and Recreation Services in Winnipeg, 1893-1993. Winnipeg: City of Winnipeg, Parks and Recreation Department, 1995. pp. xiii + 220. Index, bibliography, appendix. ISBN 0-7711-1436-2.

Winnipeggers, like citizens in many cities, are apt to take their parks and recreational services for granted. Parks, we think, are part and parcel of every city, and we find it hard to conceive of a city or town which does not offer its inhabitants some respite from the congestion and stress of urban life through provision of recreational opportunities in municipal parks. It was not always so, for public parks, open to all, are a comparatively recent phenomena in urban history.

A little over one hundred years ago, in the early 1890s, what few parks there were in Winnipeg fell into two classes: vacant green space which had come to be used for recreational purposes simply because it was free and not being used for anything else, or commercially operated parks which provided midway-style amusements and opportunities for picnics or quiet strolls in the woods. Both had disadvantages as the former would disappear as urban development progressed and the latter charged entry fees, as well as fees for the games and rides, and were a streetcar ride away for most people. Since the streetcars did not then run on Sundays most working people found it difficult to reach these parks and expensive to spend time there even when they did. The more enlightened and foresighted of Winnipeg’s civic leaders began to look to the example of many American cities where, from the 1860s, public parks were provided by municipal governments and supported by taxpayers’ dollars. This model inspired them to advocate adoption of a similar system in Manitoba. In 1892 the Manitoba Public Parks Act enabled municipalities to establish public park boards and shortly thereafter the Winnipeg Public Parks Board was established.

In A City at Leisure: An Illustrated History of Parks and Recreation Services in Winnipeg 1893-1993, Catherine Macdonald traces the evolution and development of the system of parks and community recreation services developed by Winnipeg’s Public Parks Board. The book falls more or less chronologically into five major parts: Laying the Groundwork 1892-1914; Holding on 1914-1945; The Long Summer 1946-1960; The Suburban Experience 1977; and Coping with Complexity 1960-1993.

Macdonald relates the events surrounding the assembly and creation of parks in Winnipeg to the prevailing social philosophies in North America. The City Beautiful movement, for example, which was inspired by the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, left a lasting impression on Winnipeg’s streetscapes through its advocacy of treed boulevards and the Beaux Arts style of architecture. Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park, designed by Frederick Todd of Montreal, through its curvilinear paths, large open lawns, perimeter screening, and illusion of rurality, reflected the English landscape design principles of Frederick Law Olmsted with whom Todd had apprenticed.

A scene at River Park, Winnipeg, 1911.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

 The proponents of the parks system were not always driven by pure altruism. Macdonald demonstrates that real estate developers were often keen to donate land for parks in order to profit from the increased value of surrounding lands. Similarly, some of the elite’s enthusiasm for public recreation and provision of parks was explained by the belief that parks were the “lungs of the city,” an effective antidote to the unhealthy and squalid living conditions endured by many working class Winnipeggers. Provision of recreation programs was socially and politically wise since they served as an effective vehicle for the inculcation of Canadian values in Winnipeg’s growing population of Slavic immigrants. Support of parks and recreation promised to yield long-term social dividends.

Macdonald deftly steers the reader through the complex history of the parks board, tracing the difficulties of maintaining the impetus established before 1914 in the “twenties that never roared,” the depression years of the 1930s, and the war years. By 1945 public recreation was in a shambles. School playgrounds had not been opened since 1942, the fledgling community clubs established in the inter-war years were barely surviving, neglected by a Board without vision and with a chairman not much inclined to create competition for the commercial recreation centres which he owned! The importance of people of vision and enthusiasm was demonstrated after Charles Barbour was hired as recreation director in 1946. Barbour revolutionised recreation in Winnipeg, widening its scope, directing services to all ages and putting recreation programs back on a solid footing.

The political merger of Winnipeg with the surrounding municipalities in 1972 created a host of problems which are well described by Macdonald as she concludes the volume with an analysis of the issues and dilemmas facing the Winnipeg parks system in the uncertain years of the 1990s. There is a touch of irony in that parks and recreation programs are still thought of as antidotes to the social ills that beset Winnipeg’s core areas. Recreation, it seems, must always be a social instrument, expected to accomplish what a host of other agencies could not.

The duck pond at Assiniboine Park, circa 1928.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

This is a remarkable book on a number of counts. Unlike many books of this genre, commissioned by agencies to commemorate centennials, this is a well researched scholarly account squarely based on primary sources, which also makes effective use of an array of secondary sources. It is profusely illustrated by archival photographs along with a number of maps and plans. The writing is clear and sets events in the context of the social and political philosophies—of the time. It is a book which will have more than regional appeal for it will appeal to anyone interested in the history of recreation as well as those with a more specific interest in the history of Winnipeg.

Unfortunately the volume is burdened with an irrelevant appendix listing 101 reasons to celebrate one hundred years of service (though mercifully it presents only a sampling) and two equally redundant prefaces: “Greetings from the Parks and Recreation Department General Manager” and “Greetings from the Anniversary Committee Co-chairs.” The latter both contain the same elementary grammatical errors. All are out of place in an otherwise fine work.

Page revised: 1 August 2015

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