Return to office struggles provide opportunity to shift vision
On March 23, 2020, as COVID-19 infections spread across the country and around the world, political and business leaders told people to “go home and stay home”.
Now, after two-plus years, the haze of the pandemic is lifting, and the impact of that decision is becoming clearer: hybrid work is here to stay and how we utilize and value commercial space is forever changed. Landlords and tenants need to work more collaboratively than ever, to ensure workplaces are welcoming, safe, and inspire collaboration. And while the downtown core of many cities, especially those that are primarily nine-to-five business centres, were extremely hard hit, opportunities to evolve and re-imagine them are becoming more obvious.
One of these opportunities is that the evolution of the downtown core has been accelerated by the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, many Canadian cities were already struggling to evolve from business centres to true 24/7 communities, but this evolution was not obvious unless you were really looking for it; because downtown transformation happens over decades, not years.
As a result of this accelerated evolution, there is now a collective understanding among business leaders that we need to act quickly and decisively. We have an opportunity to harness this collective awareness and energy to re-imagine what our downtown cores look like and create a vision for how they can evolve into vibrant, resilient, and sustainable communities where people want to work, live, play and visit.
Canada’s capital – A prime example of where opportunity lies
Ottawa’s downtown core has been particularly hard hit with many downtown workers resisting the return to the office, including approximately 110,000 federal government employees.
However, to say Ottawa’s situation is strictly a result of the pandemic is false as the capital’s downtown has never been a 24-hour community. For many generations Ottawa’s core has simply been a place where people go to work–commuting from the suburbs each morning and immediately heading home at the end of the workday. This is consistent with cores all over the globe, especially ones that have a heavy government presence.
To call Ottawa’s downtown core vibrant would be an overstatement – it was functioning. Office space was full, and shops and restaurants generated enough business from nine-to-five foot traffic. However, soon after the pandemic began, it became clear that the lack of housing and limited outdoor spaces, amenities, and attractions–things that create vibrancy and attract people to live or to visit–was a significant challenge.
To address these challenges, the Downtown Ottawa Revitalization Task Force, made up of representatives from different levels of government and local business leaders (including Colonnade BridgePort CEO Hugh Gorman), was established to look at ways to help the downtown core. One major focus is to get people back to offices, but there is a huge opportunity to do much more. There’s an opportunity to create a whole new vision for downtown Ottawa.
A place where people want to be
A vibrant downtown consists of a mix of uses including office, residential, arts, entertainment, and culture.
Hybrid work is here to stay but many employers have yet to define exactly what that means for employees, and few have meaningfully enforced it. If there is going to be any vibrancy in downtowns, as a starting point, people need to get back to offices. This will bring some life back to these areas and stabilize the situation, providing a foundation for economic recovery.
Living in downtowns is expensive and many lack diverse housing inventory that is affordable across a broad socio-economic spectrum. Housing is an important tool for creating vibrant and diverse 24/7 communities and expanding the housing supply will accelerate the path to a vibrant downtown and will have enormous benefit for individuals, families, and neighbourhoods as a whole. There are countless examples of mixed-income housing throughout Canada resulting in healthy, successful, and sustainable communities, and this type of development should be a priority when adding residential infrastructure to downtown cores.
Downtowns also need to offer arts, culture, and entertainment experiences to attract people from outside the core or the city. Safe and inviting walkable streets and outdoors spaces; a variety of shopping, eating, and nightlife; stimulating cultural spaces such as galleries and museums; and a diversity of events and festivals; will draw visitors from near and far, bringing economic viability to the core.
“We all own it”
Creating vibrant downtowns isn’t the responsibility of one entity alone. It requires collaboration between all levels of government, as well as business and community partners, to get a broad perspective on what a downtown could be. It starts with a vision that focuses on people; a vision that people can rally behind.
We have an opportunity to hit the reset button on Canada’s downtown cores to create vibrant, resilient, and sustainable communities where people want to work, live, play and visit for generations to come.