What’s the population of Edmonton’s downtown? Depends on the time of day.

Revitalizing our downtown is constantly in the news lately thanks to the proposed arena project. I’m glad that the issue is top-of-mind for so many people at the moment, and I hope we can keep that interest going. I think everyone agrees that Edmonton’s downtown does not currently represent our city as well as it should.

There are lots of factors that go into revitalizing an area. Probably even more that go into revitalizing a downtown. But there’s one factor in particular that for me stands out above all others. Residents.

I think if you really want to revitalize an area, you need to get more people living there. We’ve already seen this play out in Edmonton to a certain extent. Here’s what our downtown population growth has looked like since 1986:

Keep in mind the population has really only slightly more than doubled in that time. Not what you would call really significant growth. And yet look at all of the positive changes we have seen downtown in that time! This article by Lawrence Herzog from 2003 covers some of the changes up to that point quite nicely. People regularly point to 104 Street as a positive example of change downtown. It’s why Sharon and I bought here.

The factor that most often comes up as vital to revitalization however, is the number of people working downtown. Sometimes the argument made is quite compelling too. Whenever I hear that argument, I think of this graph:

It’s incredible how widely the population varies from the weekend to a weekday. And this doesn’t even take into account students and all of the other groups of people that might be downtown on a weekday. Is our downtown population 12,000 or 68,000? It absolutely depends on the time of day!

Why does nearly everything downtown close so early on weekdays? Why is almost nothing open downtown on Sundays? Why isn’t downtown changing as fast as we’d like it to? I think that graph tells a very significant part of the story (see below for an explanation and sources).

The numbers are certainly not encouraging:

  • As of 2009, downtown Edmonton’s population was 11,572. That’s just 1.5% of our total population.
  • As of 2010, downtown Edmonton’s workforce was roughly 67,700. That’s just over 10% of our total labour force.
  • Current plans call for the addition of just 12,200 new residents residential units over the next 35 years, and an increase in residents to 24,000 by 2030. We more than doubled the population in 23 years, why are we slowing down for the next 35 years? That’s about the same pace as we have seen over the last 20 years.
  • According to the Downtown Business Association’s most recent employee survey (PDF), just 6% of people who work downtown also live downtown. This despite downtown being one of our two biggest employment centres (the other being the University of Alberta, which is just a short LRT ride away).

So I don’t buy the argument that we need more people working downtown. If anything, we need more of the people who work downtown to choose to live there also. We need to want to make the changes downtown needs, and we need to make decisions that support that. If we want to meaningfully revitalize downtown, this picture has to change!

There’s a lot more to this discussion of course, but I find this to be a useful way to remind myself of the importance of residents. What do you think?

Sources: Municipal Census 2009, 2010 Downtown Resident Survey (PDF), 2010 Downtown Employee Survey (PDF), 2010 Business Recruitment Resource (PDF). The surveys come from the Downtown Business Association, and I used them to calculate the numbers in the graph. The times, 6am to 7pm, come from the Employee Survey. On weekdays, the green portion is essentially the number of people who both live and work downtown, which is an average of the 6% of employees who say they live downtown and the 29% of residents who say they work downtown. There are a bunch of assumptions made, of course, such as the assumption that if you’re a downtown resident and you don’t work downtown, you work and are somewhere else between 6am and 7pm.

  • Downtown is not an attractive place to live when you have a family. There are no good schools; it is not a great place to have your kids playing; it isn’t that great or safe for kids after dark either.
    Personally I live in the Prince Rupert neighborhood, so I get the best of both worlds: I live near downtown which is great for work, we have nice green spaces and playgrounds for my daughter, and bussing to decent schools. Its also relatively safe.

  • I agree with Eric. I lived downtown for 10 years until my wife and I started having kids, and then we moved to the burbs. I love downtown, but there’s nothing there for families. If downtown had more playgrounds, parks and genrally things that support a family atmosphere we’d look at moving back.

  • Colton Kirsop

    Former Downtown Planner here: the new downtown plan that was adopted last year recognized the abilty of the downtown to absorb addtional residents (and that it had done so quite well in the recent past). The Downtown Plan calls for the population to doulbe to 24,000 residents in the next 10 years not in the next 35. After enjoying all the work I did on the downtown plan I decided buy my home in the downtown too and can proudly say I love living downtown too!

    Colton Kirsop, MCIP

    • Colton, I see that I got slightly mixed up. The plan calls for an additional 12,200 residential units over the next 35 years, and then achieving a population of 24,000 by 2030. So doubling over the next 20 years, not the next 10. I’ll update the post accordingly.

  • Excellent post and thanks for both the numbers and the visual reminders. Bit of a quibble on numbers, current plans call for 12,000 people in the downtown *core* over the next 35 years… but there’s also a plan to put 20,000 residents between 97 St. and 92 St in the Quarters, which is pretty darn close to the core of downtown. I agree, there needs to be more downtown for people who work there. I’d kill for a downtown restaurant serving a decent weekday breakfast open early enough to hold a breakfast meeting with clients. It also drives me bonkers that our retail outlets downtown are so crappy. Our retailers don’t serve the residents well AND they don’t serve the workers.

    • You’re right, the adjacent communities will factor into downtown as well. I wanted to keep the math simple for now. Future post!

  • I’m an unmarried, mid-twenties professional with no children. Downtown would be perfect for my life. I would love to live downtown, but as it now stands, it’s way out of my price range. So I continue to commute to downtown from a little south of Whyte.

  • lesoteric

    I ♥ Downtown. It has grown into a Transit Oriented, pedestrian friendly area and is getting close to critical mass as far as being self-sustaining (in the sense of desireability to live there) and I am extremely concerned that we (city council, citizens) are going to muck it up beyond repair with all these giant aspiriations (ecca redev, sprawling ‘burbs, wacky transit to everywhere) instead of enticing Downtown over the hump and making it a real community to live in, full-time (not just Monday to Friday).

    Part of the reason #yxd (ecca) redevelopment is undersireable at this point is that it will only serve to pull population away from downtown. Yes, I have heard the argument that it will make downtown property cheaper (by flooding the market with ‘near-downtown’ properties) – however that will basically reenact the 1970-2000 flight to the suburbs which gutted downtown to begin with. If Downtown has the capacity to absorb another 24,000 people in a short (10 year) timeframe (which I believe it does) we really should concentrate on that and not risk the whole kit-n-caboodle (which the city is currently doing by actively courting development elsewhere).

    Its also another good reason to look at a Downtown arena as an anchor tenant for the Jasper Avenue commercial district. Imagine an arena complex that was more than an arena complex – add theatres, hotel rooms, conference rooms, retail, an accessible to the outside mezzanine and you have a building which serves the whole community and not just a few. Even if you never go inside for anything having a hive of activity begets more activity which makes the area safer, more accessible, and a better place to live.

  • I would love to live downtown as I work downtown. However, the housing options available to young, single professionals like myself are slim. There are a lot of nice condo developments in the downtown core from lofts to high-rises, but a lot of people can’t afford that kind of housing. Myself included. Rental units that are affordable that are managed adequately are also lacking. Why can’t developers or even the City of Edmonton design affordable urban housing that aren’t so “boxed-in” in thinking? Why can’t we develop housing co-ops in the form of dorm-style housing that would promote a greater sense of community both within the building and within the downtown core? Not everyone needs a 1000-1600 square feet condo in the core.

  • It should be worth noting that since the last census, our population numbers downtown (within the CCDP) are closer to 14,000. I have to check these numbers, but that is based on the population figures used by the CoE to calculate the annual operating grant for the Downtown Edmonton Community League (DECL).

    Chris Buyze,
    President
    DECL

  • Monica I.

    I moved to Edmonton 4 years ago for work. (From Calgary, don’t hate me – I’m a born and raised Albertan!)

    I chose to rent downtown as the housing market was incredibly out of my price range. My criteria was to live somewhere that I could walk (or bicycle) to work in 30 minutes or less, about 1-2 kms was my preference. I didn’t want to be entrenched in polluting, driving for anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes every day commuting. Not to mention the road rage. Yes I have a car, and a bicycle, motorcycle & scooter. I ALSO have 2 feet. I enjoyed renting in a concrete high-rise, but, from the sirens noise etc on 104 Ave, lack of trees up there, and other signs of nature, the market finally came down to reason, so I started searching for something I could own in my price range. I think I probably drove my realtor crazy. She specializes in downtown Edmonton housing, and we looked for 6 months, (and I have no idea how many listings – more than 150 I am sure). 18 months ago I moved into a newer 4 story building, in Oliver – west of 109 Street, north of 98 Ave, a vibrant place to live all the way north to 107, even 111 Avenue.

    Coming from out of town, I am glad I rented, and looked around to acquaint myself. It’s a HUGE area with lovely homes, apartments and condos. It is a green, lush and AIRY downtown here compared to Calgary. The downtown airport gave us shorter buildings, set back from the roadway, wider sidewalks, room for trees and public spaces – SUNLIGHT!

    There ARE schools – within walking distance, parks – Edmonton has so many parks, playgrounds, greenspaces, walking, cross-country skiing, LRT, farmer’s market, (and a streetcar to a second market in summer!), dining, shopping… yes, I do find the early closing hours and Sundays sometimes frustrating. Parking, and LRT access I suspect are partly to blame for suburban dwellers excuse not to visit.

    It’s not safe after dark for kids anywhere. Seriously. Why should kids be out after dark? This isn’t the 70’s we grew up in.

    My work is possibly planning a move this year. I made sure to find out it was still going to be downtown, I want to live near work, AND play.

  • David Staples

    So 1.5 per cent of the population lives downtown, but the city collects 9 to 10 per cent of its property and business taxes from downtown.

    Could it be that downtown is a cash cow to fund projects in the rest of the city. Not sure what the city has spent on infrastructure downtown in recent years as opposed to the rest of the city. It would be interesting to know that.

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  • “Downtown” is a pretty small area all things considered; I consider myself to live Downtown, but technically I live in Rossdale. I think between Rossdale, Oliver, and Queen Mary Park, one could account for a huge amount of the downtown professional traffic that appears to be missing. As others have noted in the comments already, part of the reason for this is that properties directly downtown are prohibitively expensive for young professionals, and once you have really solid, often dual income and savings to potentially buy an expensive condo downtown, you’re also likely to be raising a family, and there are no schools nearby, so it’s still inconvenient and impractical (plus kids mean you need a larger place).