Are we talking about a revolution? A case for the core

In this CityTalk, we explored why downtowns matter, and what their possible futures are in light of recent trends and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. We have an opportunity to rethink our downtowns

Jennifer Barrett is CUI’s Senior Planner and author of The Case for the Core report. Downtowns are iconic symbols of urban life and belonging, core to the identities and economies of cities. In the wake of COVID-19, downtowns have become places of great contrast, high anxiety, and uncertain futures. According to Jennifer, urban Canada needs bold action. By making the right choices today, downtowns of the future can be more equitable, vibrant, flexible, livable, and resilient.

2. Downtowns as spaces of contention

Vulnerable populations will continue to be drawn to downtowns to receive supports unavailable elsewhere. The multifaceted opioid, homelessness, and pandemic crises have made street-involved people highly visible. Two panelists acknowledged that while their cities have been successful in harm reduction for injection drug users, they have lacked in areas of public education, treatment, and meaningful enforcement. Canada’s downtowns are facing similar problems as evidenced by forceful, high-profile encampment evictions across the country. There is a need for downtowns to learn from each other to avoid making the same mistakes and to properly manage conflicting uses of space.

3. The federal government has the cash, the provinces have the jurisdiction, the cities face the problem

Municipal governments and business organizations must face the brunt of urban issues. But due to jurisdictional constraints, cities are ill-equipped to tackle these social problems. Paul MacKinnon, CEO of Downtown Halifax Business Commission, calls for the need to break down jurisdictional silos and boldly calls for the creation of a national downtown summit. The funding models municipalities rely upon are lacking and must be reconsidered to better provide services and improve the vitality of downtown cores.

4. BIA 2.0

Business improvement districts and downtown development organizations have existed in North America for 80 years and they need to evolve. Innovative BIA practices go beyond the needs of businesses by considering the health of the wider community. In downtown Halifax, the business community funds a social worker, as part of its navigator program, whose main role is to engage with street-involved individuals directing them into services and checking up on them daily. According to Mark Garner, Executive Director of Downtown Yonge BIA, “If you’re not waking up every morning and doing good work to change the neighbourhood that you live in, then you need to start doing it.”

5. Urbanites must recommit themselves to living in a diverse environment

The role of downtown as a gathering place for diverse peoples can serve as a means for cross-cultural and cross-socioeconomic connections. The vitality of Canada’s downtown cores hinges upon inclusivity. Nolan Marshall, CEO of the Downtown Vancouver BIA, calls for better communication strategies that promote diversity and equity. “It’s not just about gathering people from different backgrounds, race, culture, and a place. It’s about giving them a real equity ownership stake in that. And I think that’s going to be transformative to our downtowns going forward.”