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
residentsresidential 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.