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What should we do with downtowns? Double down.
This might seem like a weird recommendation from a guy who just moved out of downtown and now looks at this out his office window every day.
But the truth is I spent 16+ years living in a downtown and loved virtually every minute of it. Almost everything was a short walk away - my doctor, dentist, optometrist, barber (for a while), church, hospital, groceries/bakery (Dolma, CoPain), best restaurants, and much more. I sit on multiple boards of directors - all downtown.
Now, in the boonies, everything becomes a challenge. So much so that I am thinking about renting an apartment in the city to get both - the ocean and the city. Don’t get me wrong - I really like it out near the water but I already miss the hustle and bustle of the city.
I do some work in the area of downtown development and these days there is a growing panic that downtowns are heading into another period of long decline just as they were starting to revive.
I don’t think so. I just think we need to steer into the skid.
Yes, it is likely there were will be less office workers in the typical downtown in the coming years with the rise of remote work. I don’t believe it will be as widespread as some think. I am going out on a limb here but I think there will be productivity studies coming out over the next 2-3 years that indicate an office environment is more productive than a distributed workforce for at least some industries.
But having said that we need to double down on a transition that was already in motion before the pandemic. Downtowns as concentrations of residential population, education, arts and culture and recreation. In many downtowns across Canada that I have studied, the downtown population is now growing faster than the city overall. Municipal governments see the value of this from a cost of service perspective but also from a community vibrancy perspective. Nothing is a greater buzzkill for a community than to have boarded up businesses in the downtown and only one or two stragglers walking on the streets.
The vibrancy of the downtown has always been a signal of the economic health of a city.
As goes the downtown, so goes the town, as the old saying goes.
So, let’s double down. I’m not suggesting we ignore office work - in fact I think clusters of knowledge workers aligns with the strategy for downtown population growth. Why commute 30-40 minutes a day (even in Maritime cities we are seeing people starting to commute 15-20 minutes each way - at least 30 minutes a day.
As for me, the complications now begin. I have meetings next week at 11 am and 5 pm - both in the city and both are hard coded. What do I do from 12 to 5 pm? In the old days - 5 minute walk home. Now, 25 minutes by car to home, then back again, then home again?