Sanitation, CCTV, and getting back to work: How cities can revitalize their downtown cores

Parliamentary security personnel walk past a barrier indicating a road closure on Wellington St. in front of Parliament Hill on April 27, 2022 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

  • The City of Vancouver passed a resolution to spend over $2 million to revitalize Chinatown, and passed another resolution to revitalize Granville Street.
  • Ottawa's core has been hurt by vacated federal government offices, with downtown businesses that relied on public servants feeling the worst of it.
  • Calgary's downtown was hurt and emptied by a downturn in the energy sector, but the city and non-profits are working to convert commercial buildings into housing.

Canadian are becoming increasingly concerned about their struggling cities, from rising homelessness, to increased drug use, to declining public safety in cities like Toronto and Vancouver

Ottawa and Calgary are experiencing the partial desertion of their once-packed downtown office spaces, while Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver are struggling with high rates of addiction, homelessness, or random violence.

Some cities are tackling public safety by adding police officers and mental health nurses to the downtown area, but they are also focusing on how to make Canadian cities appealing again, both to residents and tourists.

“The downtown core is the driver of the entire city and without businesses thriving, who’s going to pay the taxes, who’s going to support the services?” asks Lorraine Lowe. “We definitely need to pay more attention and focus on the economic vitality of the city.” 

Lowe is the executive director of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. B.C.’s largest city has suffered from high rates of homelessness and addiction for years, especially around the Downtown Eastside (DTES). 

The intersection of Main and East Hastings is the epicenter of both problems, which have spread to and negatively affected nearby neighbourhoods like Chinatown, which is a block away. It has resulted in many business closures and declining enrollment in Chinese-language schools due to safety concerns. 

“There’s the issue of businesses losing customers because people don’t want to come down,” says Lowe, who says Chinese-language school enrolments are being affected as well. “The parents of these children don’t want them coming down to Chinatown because (of) the perception of it being unsafe for them.” 

To help address these issues, Vancouver’s newly-elected city council passed a resolution titled “Uplifting Chinatown Action Plan” last January, recommending expanded cleaning and sanitation, targeted graffiti removal, enhanced community support, and increased collaboration between the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), local business associations, and community police. The cost was estimated to be $2.2 million.

“That’s the first step with the city, having the aesthetics and graffiti removal, sanitation, but I think we all need to get off the moral high ground and start using common sense and talking about getting CCTV cameras,” says Lowe. “And also looking at where that money is being spent because I don’t think pouring more money into what is existing is going to help.” 

The council has also passed a resolution to transform Granville Street, the city’s busiest entertainment district, which has high rates of open drug use and visible homelessness during the day. The resolution emphasizes public safety, economic stimulus, and cultural revitalization. 

Lowe says all levels of government have a responsibility to try and restore the health of downtown cores, and she has hope for Vancouver. Years ago, both Granville Street and Chinatown were bustling commercial and cultural hubs.

“I think we are on the right track, it’s just gonna take a long time for us to get back to where we were before,” says Lowe.

In Ottawa, the national capital’s downtown is facing its own different problems. Prior to the pandemic, businesses in Ottawa’s core heavily relied on the patronage of federal employees working in the many offices owned or leased by the Government of Canada. 

Many shops and restaurants have taken a hit with government employees opting to work from home or a hybrid of both. 

“Businesses have not been recuperating. They took a very hard financial hit in downtown Ottawa, and then also because our downtown was virtually empty, major social issues arose like homelessness and mental health and addictions,” says Michelle Groulx. 

Groulx is the executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA). She says directives for government employees to return to the offices on a part-time basis have not meaningfully helped businesses. 

As of July 2022, Ottawa saw a 25 percent rise in crime, including the categories of assault sexual assault and robberies, as well as a spike in vehicular theft. Groulx says that converting the federal government’s offices into residential or commercial spaces would greatly benefit downtown Ottawa. 

“We’re in a housing crisis, and we know that where you have people around 24/7, social issues start to lessen because people are there to take care of each other,” says Groulx. “They have eyes on the street all the time…small businesses and businesses that serve people, consumer-based businesses will do considerably better than having a market that’s there half the time and only during nine to five on random business weekdays.” 

Groulx adds that unless all government employees return to work or the federal government sells its offices to be taken over by the private sector or converted into housing, downtown Ottawa will not change for the better.

“The federal government is the number one occupier of our downtown so we cannot reinvent our downtown Ottawa without the feds getting involved,” says Groulx. “They have more tenancy and more ownership of buildings than any other single occupant in downtown Ottawa. So they’re critical in order to either convert their buildings to housing or have buildings changed over to the private sector, but they have to take action.”

Going back west, Calgary faces an underpopulated core with a high commercial vacancy rate of almost 30 percent, mostly caused by a downturn in the energy market that rendered towering office buildings half or completely empty. Calgary’s municipal governments have pursued a downtown revitalization strategy, spending $360 million to date on converting empty corporate buildings into residential properties. 

Emily Campbell is a communications advisor for the Home Spaces Society, a non-profit affordable housing developer with a portfolio of over 33 properties in Calgary that serves almost 1,000 vulnerable residents. Last September, Calgary was estimated to have a homeless population of 2,782

“Building affordable housing certainly helps homelessness, that’s our key demographic. We’re really trying to find homes for a ‘Housing First’ perspective,” says Campbell. “You’re not required to be completely sober. You’re not required to attend treatment or have perfect mental health or even have a job before you are offered an affordable housing unit.” 

Campbell says that without a regular place to stay in the first place and in order to ensure things like personal safety and hygiene, it is difficult for homeless people to improve their lives. 

“We’ve been having issues with downtown vacancy in Calgary for a while. A lot of our economy was tied to the boom and bust cycle of gas and we’ve been struggling since I would say around 2014,” says Campbell, who adds COVID made things worse. “With fewer people coming to offices downtown, it means that the city isn’t collecting as much tax from the companies that they used to which left a bit of a deficit in our city budget.”

In 2022, Calgary’s transit system had a budget shortfall of $64 million. Like Groulx, Campbell says having a denser core brings vibrancy and community safety. 

“If people are doing their grocery shopping, going out to restaurants, living their lives, it creates vibrancy in communities,” says Campbell. “The more people are on the streets, the safer the streets are, the more people who are out shopping, there’s more reason to open shops downtown.”

Campbell says it is difficult to create vibrancy if shops and businesses are relying on customers to commute in from outside the core. 

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