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History of the IUS

In 1969 the University of Winnipeg established the Institute of Urban Studies (IUS) with funding from the Central (now Canada) Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Its mandate was to assess government housing practice and recommend innovative policy for problems facing Winnipeg’s inner city. Lloyd Axworthy, one of the executive assistants for the 1968 Hellyer Commission, was appointed the Director of the Institute.

During its early years (1969-1979) the IUS established itself as an authority on core area issues in Winnipeg, working on many innovative projects such as establishing Kinew Housing, Canada’s first Aboriginal affordable housing organization. It also focused on the analysis of local governance and Winnipeg’s municipal amalgamation process, producing the reports that comprise The Unicity Papers collection on the IUS website. The Institute also advocated for rent controls, affordable housing, and established a community television program.

After Axworthy’s departure in 1979, Christine McKee was appointed the new director of the IUS. During her four-year tenure the IUS expanded its mandate beyond the inner-city and social housing. Research conducted during these years would help inform Winnipeg’s Core Area Initiative. Unfortunately, financial constraints limited the amount of research the Institute could do during these years, so the IUS began to diversify its revenue sources by providing consulting services. It also opened the “Urban Data Centre” which was created to provide students and community organizations with access to the hundreds of planning studies and reports that the IUS had collected in its first decade of existence. This data centre would later become the IUS library.

Alan Artibise became the director of the IUS after Christine McKee left in 1983, and served until 1988. During this time the IUS once again received financial support from the CMHC. This funding allowed them to focus on national academic research and publications. During this time, the Institute began publishing Urban History Review with Artibise as Editor-in-Chief. The IUS also hosted national and international conferences on topics related to northern communities, urban waterways, and urban Aboriginal peoples. It was during this period that the IUS began the process of cataloguing its library collection.

The next decade saw several brief tenures in directorship. Tom Carter was the director from 1988-1990. During this time Carter expanded the IUS’ mandate to include researching core housing need, and expanding the scope of its policy analyses. The IUS also began researching other Canadian cities. Brijesh Mathur acted as director for 1991, and Mary Ann Beavis was the director from 1991-1994.  This period would prove to be a time of crisis for the IUS. In 1994 the University of Winnipeg considered amalgamating the Institute into the University’s research and teaching operations. However, an internal review indicated that the IUS was too valuable to dismantle and Tom Carter was reinstated as director from 1994-1996. Between 1996 and 2001 Ed Cloutis and Phil Cyrenne served as directors. Then Tom Carter returned to the position until 2003 when he was awarded the Canada Research Chair in Urban Change and Adaptation.

During this period the IUS focused on housing, social issues, and public policy; while pursuing interdisciplinary cross-sectoral partnerships. Major projects included evaluating the first five years of the Core Area Initiative and developing a neighbourhood characterization scheme with the City of Winnipeg. The IUS also published Plan Canada from 1989-1991 and launched its flagship journal The Canadian Journal of Urban Research, still in print today. During the frequent moves and lack of space, in the late 1990s the IUS library closed and the collection was put into storage. However, the collection did not stay locked away for very long. The library was reopened and reorganized in 2001 under the direction of Michael Dudley.

The 2000s saw greater stability for the IUS. Jino Distasio was appointed Assistant Director in 2003 and has served as Director since 2005. During this time, the IUS has also moved to a model that employs and develops Researchers for longer periods of time. The focus of IUS’ research since 2000 has been on housing, homelessness, aging, and older adults with the work of Gina Sylvestre, Michael Dudley and Jino Distasio. Over this time period the Institute has largely focused on Winnipeg and Winnipeg’s inner city, but there have also been many partnerships with communities outside of Winnipeg, including Churchill, Portage La Prairie, Steinbach, and Peguis First Nation.

Since 2008 the IUS has focused on the largest research project it has ever undertaken. The At Home/Chez Soi research demonstration project, funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, ran from 2009 to 2013 and was then extended to 2015. This research demonstration project was the largest Housing First investigation ever undertaken, worldwide. The Institute of Urban Studies partnered with other organizations across the country in this multi-site and mixed-method randomized controlled trial investigating the effectiveness of the Housing First model of homelessness intervention. In the 2010s the IUS worked on community and downtown planning projects, produced work on managing and maintain tenancy, income inequality, and launched a short-form research report series called the IUS In-Brief. The Institute moved from its long-term offices at 520 Portage Avenue to the Richardson College for the Environment at 599 Portage Avenue in 2012.

Since 2000, the IUS has also been on the forefront of digital information dissemination. The IUS has undergone several iterations of its website, been active in the blogosphere, produced newsletters, podcasts, and has been on Twitter and Facebook for many years. Jino Distasio has also given the IUS a voice in the local media, providing more than 600 interviews to reporters on urban issues in Winnipeg. He has also served on the Mayor’s Rapid Transit Taskforce and assisted in redrafting the city’s zoning by-laws.

Over the past 50 years, the Institute of Urban Studies has created a significant legacy. It has played a role in many of Winnipeg’s largest urban interventions from municipal amalgamation and urban revitalization to community social housing and housing provision for homeless people. It has been a training ground for planners, policy makers, and academics with many alumni serving at municipal, provincial and federal postings across Canada.  As a part of sharing this legacy with our community the IUS has recently undertaken a two-year archiving project that has resulted in the digitization all research the Institute has produced since 1969.  This vast wealth of knowledge is now posted it on our website.

An earlier version of this article appeared as Distasio, J., Dudley, M., Lister, B., (2009). From "Experiment" to Community Engagement: The Institute of Urban Studies Celebrates 40 Years of Research and Action." Plan Canada 49 35-39.