As more economic activity shifts from the centre to peripheral areas, the downtown areas of many cities in Western Canada resemble ghost towns by early evening. But the situation is changing.
Most cities, with the help of their civic leaders, have been sprucing themselves up and attracting people back to the centre of town.
The city of Winnipeg, for example, has a noticeable spring in its step these days.
According to Brent Bellamy, creative director and architect at Number TEN Architectural Group, as many as five highrise towers could be under construction in 2017.
One of these, he said, could include what would be the tallest building in the city, the 45-floor SkyCity Centre.
"Along with these towers, population growth in downtown will be supported by three mid-rise apartments and four residential heritage building conversions, also slated for construction this year," Bellamy said.
An important aspect of these proposed developments, he said, is that they are spread across different areas of downtown. Some are located near recently completed housing projects.
"They help to reinforce pockets of residential growth," Bellamy said. "Developing population nodes that can grow together over time is an important strategy to bring renewal to downtown."
The residential growth in downtown Winnipeg in 2017 is a continuation of momentum that has been building since the mid-2000s, he said.
"It’s an important example of how forward-thinking political leadership can leverage public investment to stimulate private development," Bellamy said. "After decades of decline as the retail and social hub of the city, Winnipeg’s planners and politicians turned to residential growth as a primary vehicle for urban renewal."
Bellamy said downtown residential development is "almost exclusively" a product of tax increment financing (TIF), offered through combined city and provincial programs.
TIF provides rebates to developers for the increased property and school taxes realized by construction through higher assessed property values.
"The TIF programs level the economic playing field for residential development downtown," Bellamy said. "Until downtown has established itself as a thriving residential neighbourhood that makes urban living attractive enough to demand rental and purchase rates that compete with or exceed rates in the suburbs, incentives are needed to direct growth to the city’s centre."
Fifteen hundred miles west of Winnipeg, Victoria, B.C. has also been growing robustly.
"The growth Victoria has been experiencing can be an excellent catalyst for knitting the city together," said Joyce Drohan, an independent architect and urban designer in Vancouver. "There are many great neighbourhoods in the city but they don’t connect very well. This leaves arterial roads dominating and a lot of people relying on their cars to get from one place to another."
Drohan said even Victoria’s waterfront, "one of its most exceptional assets," is cutoff from the rest of the city.
"Jonathan (Jonathan Tinney, City of Victoria’s director of sustainable planning and community development) and his team are working hard to restore a sense of urbanity at the edge of the harbour," she said. "They’re looking at development that will bring residents and a vibrant edge akin to other waterfront cities like Sydney or Copenhagen."
Drohan said Victoria is looking at a longer, more continuous pedestrian route along the water’s edge.
"Not only will this benefit the locals, it will give the many visitors to the city a more interesting connection to the rest of the downtown," she said.
Tinney said the plan for the harbour is to create a quiet backdrop of pathways, benches and plantings that will enhance the public realm and downtown Victoria’s many heritage buildings.
Downtown Victoria is booming, he said, with new housing units and office space being built to accommodate the influx of new residents.
"In addition to retirees and former Vancouver residents, Victoria has been keeping more of its young people," he said. "That’s thanks to a boom in the tech industries, which are bigger in Victoria than tourism now."
Whatever the different steps that western Canadian cities have been taking to rehabilitate themselves, they are all reacting to a common challenge, said Harry Harker, planning practitioner in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.
"Bricks-and-mortar downtowns have had difficulty adjusting to changing economic circumstances," said Harker. "Economic models can shift suddenly. Look, for example, at the sudden fall in the price of oil and how it reduced the demand for office space in downtown Calgary."
Harker said the most resilient cities are the ones that don’t concentrate all their economic development in one place.
"Downtown is not the only place where you can do white-collar office work," he said.