Opinion: We must work together to save Canada’s downtowns

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Canada’s downtowns are in crisis. Years of pandemic repercussions, deep economic shifts, radical changes in work/life patterns, the frightening opioid crisis, a burgeoning increase in mental health issues, and skyrocketing homelessness have shaken our cities to the core.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our downtowns, with the all-too-common sights of people struggling with mental health issues, open drug use, and homelessness, a growing humanitarian tragedy that demands our compassion and commitment to action. Thankfully, the nadir is well behind us, but many are fearful of what the future may hold.

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For the health and future of our communities, we must break this emerging and troubling status quo. A downtown, after all, isn’t just part of a city or town — it is its heart. As a nexus for commercial, civic, and cultural activities, our downtowns play a unique role in economic development and social vibrancy.

Just consider Edmonton. Alberta’s capital city is an increasingly attractive location for head offices in a range of sectors. The Arts District is home to some of Canada’s finest cultural institutions, including the Citadel Theatre and the Francis Winspear Centre for Music. With Rogers Place serving as its anchor, the Ice District is bustling with restaurants, bars, and condos that appeal to young professionals.

Fuelled by its downtown, Edmonton is undeniably a city with momentum, but its ascendancy is being handicapped by the social fallout of the pandemic. The office vacancy rate in downtown rose to over 24 per cent in the second quarter of 2023, lower than Calgary but higher than Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa.

Canada’s building owners and managers are at the forefront of a new approach to solving the challenges of Canada’s downtowns. Working with social and community groups, real estate professionals are supplying opioid overdose treatment kits and training overdose response teams, providing safe walk and parking programs, and partnering with police in building trust with vulnerable people.

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Earlier this year, the city’s leading commercial real estate association, BOMA Edmonton, surveyed its members. The results were telling. Most said concerns about issues like drugs, homelessness, and crime were a barrier to returning downtown — but a strong majority still said that downtown is where they want to be.

This isn’t surprising; people inherently understand there is something special about a city’s core. It is the fount from which the community’s and the larger region’s economic and social vitality flows. Every Canadian, therefore, has a stake in the future of all our downtowns. Our job is creating resilient downtown cores that can address today’s and tomorrow’s challenges with collaborative, innovative solutions.

Later this month, Edmonton’s downtown will host BOMEX, the largest gathering of commercial real estate asset managers, property managers and building operators in the country. The event is already sold out, a clear signal of commercial real estate’s enthusiasm and dedication to the task of downtown revitalization.

But the industry can’t do it on its own. The crisis afflicting our cities’ cores is complex, touching everything from macroeconomic trends to addiction and mental health, underfunded social services, affordability and poverty, migration patterns, homelessness, crime and law enforcement, remote work, and transit reliability. What we need, therefore, is a whole-of-society approach, one that includes the private sector, civil society, and all levels of government.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. What works in downtown Edmonton may not in downtown Victoria or downtown Montréal. Determining what works best in which communities will come with time. To get to that point, though, we all need to treat this problem with the seriousness it deserves and begin developing creative, multi-stakeholder solutions. Our cities’ futures depend on it.

Benjamin L. Shinewald is the president and CEO of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada.

Originally Appeared Here

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