Transforming Canada’s Downtowns: report calls for leadership, bold action

The Case for the Core: Provocations for the Future of Canada’s Downtowns

The Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) has released The Case for the Core: Provocations for the Future of Canada’s Downtowns, affirming the critical roles of central business districts to national recovery after COVID-19. Developed through consultation and research undertaken with leading international urbanists, community leaders and downtown-builders from across the country, the report presents three possible scenarios for Canada’s downtowns to provoke a sharp re-thinking, spur dialogue and inspire bold action.

The impacts of the pandemic on downtowns, which saw thousands of office workers transition to remote work and tourism come to a halt, devastated the street retail sector, shuttered cultural attractions, and gutted the hospitality sector that has been operating at less than 10% occupancy for 18 months. Coupled with the challenges of providing safe services to support vulnerable populations through the pandemic, Canada’s downtowns have become high anxiety districts with an uncertain future, affecting hundreds of thousands of jobs, people, and livelihoods.

“Throughout the development of this report, we heard from hundreds of people, in all sectors, from across the country. Some wanted things to ‘get back to normal’. But that normal wasn’t working for everyone. The pandemic made that acutely clear. The downtowns highlighted in this work generate a huge percentage of Canada’s economic wealth and cultural vitality. They are the essential, beating hearts of their regions. They need to come back, but come back differently, just as London recovered from cholera in the 1850s and New York after 9/11. This is our ground zero moment.” said Mary W. Rowe, President and CEO, Canadian Urban Institute.

The report explores three potential futures for downtowns and invites Canadians to make intentional choices: do nothing and risk a continual decline; take a speedy course to ‘get back to normal’ and end up with a return to the status quo; or commit to an ambitious ‘revolution’ that builds more diverse downtowns, prioritizes human and ecological health, takes tangible steps to address social inequities and equips Canada’s cities to achieve its commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development goals. The report makes the case for why downtowns matter, and why the experience of COVID-19 presents a profound, radical opportunity to rethink and remake them.

“As we rebuild our sense of community at all scales, we can leverage what we learned throughout the pandemic, to usher in a new era of positive transformation—one that ensures a more inclusive society where everyone benefits. By grounding our work in the human experience, we can transform our workplaces, buildings, and downtowns into hubs for connection and engagement.” said Thom Mahler, Manager, Urban Initiatives and Program Lead, Downtown Strategy, City of Calgary.

This report is the result of CUI’s cross-country Bring Back Main Street initiative to support the recovery efforts of Canada’s economic and social centres — local main streets and downtowns — with solutions-oriented research, and the engagement of urban leaders and stakeholders. Canadians across the country are coming to terms with how the pandemic will continue to impact their urban lives. It has profoundly and abruptly struck at what makes downtowns work, accelerating many of the existing challenges and introducing new ones.

“Witnessing the urban transformations during the pandemic and the hollowing out of certain areas, reminds us that city centres should not only be the economic hearts of our societies, but also the cultural, political and social hearts. As the symbolic cores, they need to serve multiple and hybrid needs, designed for the best of times and the worst of times.” said Gabriella Gomez-Mont, Experimentalista, Mexico City.

The report challenges and asks: can the downtowns of the future be remade to be:

  • Equitable: Welcoming and inclusive, addressing systemic racism, economic and spatial inequities made worse by COVID-19?
  • Vibrant:Drive local and national economies, while transitioning from the nine-to-five mono-functional office culture to more diversified, 24/7 ‘complete community’?
  • Flexible: Redefine public infrastructure to showcase different modes and patterns of mobility and/or reimagine how to better use existing buildings, and private and public spaces; and rethink outdated rules which inhibit innovation and creativity?
  • Livable: A greater mix of affordable residential options, with new forms social infrastructure and more ambitious parks, bike paths, and other accessible community spaces that make our downtowns diverse multi-use neighbourhoods?
  • Resilient:Prepared for future shocks—whatever may be next, so their future is never imperiled again?

“The biggest challenge facing our cities in the post-COVID world is reimagining our downtowns and central business districts as more vibrant and inclusive places to live, work, learn and play. We have a remarkable opportunity ahead of us and the Case for the Core paints a clear picture of what’s at risk and what our downtowns can be.” said Richard Florida, Researcher and Professor, University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, Co-founder of CityLab.

The report also recommends a number of government actions to begin transforming our downtowns, including:

  • Regional Task Forces that engage all stakeholders, with support from local, provincial and federal governments, to deliver Downtown Recovery Plans for Canada
  • Creating visible downtown recovery action centres along main streets with federal, municipal and provincial partners to harness resources, coordinate activities, and provide a clear signal that business is back
  • Swift and coordinated action by all orders of government to prioritize the allocation of under-utilized publicly-owned land and buildings to affordable housing, and community and social infrastructure
  • Demonstrating leadership and a commitment to policy and investment coordination using instruments such as urban development agreements, tri-lateral funding, and working agreements with clear accountabilities and timelines.

The Case for the Core: Provocations for the Future of Canada’s Downtowns was produced with support from the City of Vancouver, City of Toronto, City of Ottawa, City of Calgary and The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

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