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Downtown viability an election issue

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This article was published 17/9/2015 (706 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Rising national debt, infrastructure deficits that seem insurmountable, ballooning health-care costs, the need for jobs, escalating poverty and homelessness, spiralling costs of living and our fragile environment -- are all national challenges and should be topics of discussion. These issues will no doubt be highlighted during the federal election. We will hear dozens of solutions and policy statements, financial commitments and promises made. But what if there was one answer, a silver bullet to put our country back on track toward greater sustainability and prosperity? Urban centres.

A group of downtown practitioners and organizations, including the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, through a national coalition called Downtowns Canada, recently assessed the values of urban centres in Canada. With new research gathered, we've confirmed our belief in the importance of downtowns -- they serve not only an iconic purpose but are economic engines for Canada's economy.

People watch a film at a pop-up drive-in movie theatre in downtown Winnipeg in August.


People watch a film at a pop-up drive-in movie theatre in downtown Winnipeg in August.

To many, Canada's urban centres are seen as the place where history began -- where trade and commerce first took place, where immigrants first settled and where banks first set up shop. They are centres of employment, produce the greatest GDP and are home to some of the most powerful corporations in the world. They are places of culture, arts, sports, entertainment, events and more. They are the city's gathering spots. The emerging concentration of density and mixed-use buildings interspersed with history, parks and incredible places to hang out is the key to these economic engines.

Downtowns are huge tourism drivers as well, attracting visitors and convention-goers from around the world, because of their unique history, vibrancy and density of hotels and convention centre spaces. This creates new business and jobs. Downtowns are places of higher learning that produce many well-rounded entrepreneurs and professionals who are more ingrained in the day-to-day life of a city. There is not a greater place where creativity and ingenuity exist in a place than in downtowns.

Downtowns and urban centres are small in size, some as small as one per cent of a city's total land size, but can generate up to 25 per cent of a city's tax base.

They are very efficient, generating more taxes per acre than any other neighbourhood. They are very walkable. People who live downtown and in dense urban centres rely on cars less and tend to be healthier because they walk, bike or take transit to work, shop and play. Increased active living also means less carbon emissions, less reliance on gas and cars, and a more preventative health-care approach to life.

Urban residents tend to be more tolerant and accepting because downtowns are also home to poverty and homelessness as well. Immigrants and people of all walks of life and socioeconomic status are found here. Downtown is a place where people live in a welcoming, homogenous community.

And the opportunities to grow on these strengths are more realistic now than ever. Preserving our history and retrofitting older buildings is not only great for our environment, but builds in the formula for growth and jobs. City infrastructure already exists in these incredible places -- why build new infrastructure in an era when taxpayers can't afford it? Opportunities to revitalize underutilized buildings, reclaim valuable waterfront lands and eliminate surface-parking lots, from coast to coast, are significant and can generate a greater return on public investment and grow these engines strategically. A lack of federal attention to downtowns only works to safeguard and subsidize neighbourhoods that don't belong to everyone.

In an age of serious national issues and challenges and a debt crisis, we need more vibrant and fully revitalized downtowns and urban centres. The prosperity of our country lies in federal government action that is focused on sustaining and growing the economic engines of our country, downtowns and urban centres.


Stefano Grande is executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.


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Updated on Thursday, September 17, 2015 at 8:05 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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