Opinion

The year 2020 is finally in the rearview mirror. With vaccines on the way, the pandemic nightmare might soon be over, but what kind of world will we awaken to?

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The year 2020 is finally in the rearview mirror. With vaccines on the way, the pandemic nightmare might soon be over, but what kind of world will we awaken to?

Many lines have been written over the past year, envisioning a world where people are permanently working from their dining-room tables, shopping is all done online, and dinner and a movie is replaced with Skip The Dishes and Home Box Office.

While it is unlikely the world will shift as much as many projections suggest, there will undoubtedly be lasting changes to our cities, with downtowns experiencing the greatest impact.

The overwhelming end of the office worker has probably been overstated, but it is likely that many people will see greater workplace flexibility. With people working even one day per week at home, this shift could have a devastating knock-on effect for downtown economies, where the influx of workers is needed to fill the office buildings, and to support local shops, restaurants and services.

In Winnipeg, a Probe Research poll recently showed that only 18 per cent of downtown workers are currently in the office. Walking through the area today, it is easy to see the challenges ahead. Winnipeg’s downtown has fewer retail shops than other major Canadian cities, but the number of "for lease" signs currently in the windows of the ones we do have, is jarring. Dozens upon dozens of sidewalk storefronts are empty, The Bay is now completely dead, and Portage Place has many vacant units. It is easy to see that the landscape has already changed, and with fewer people coming downtown to work in the future, it will likely not return.

The Bay Downtown has closed its doors for good.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / FREE PRESS FILES

The Bay Downtown has closed its doors for good.

The news isn’t all bad for downtown Winnipeg. There are currently at least 1,400 new homes slated for completion in the next two years, meaning a potential downtown population increase of more than 15 per cent in a short period of time. Actively pushing this momentum forward, by bringing government and the private sector together to develop strategies that redefine downtown as a place where more people will want to live, might accelerate investment in residential development and provide the solution to the area’s new challenges.

Before 2016, downtown renewal was successfully driven by incentives provided through a combined civic and provincial program offering tax increment financing for residential development. A similar program could be part of a strategy to add fuel to an already growing residential construction sector. Initiatives could be tailored to look beyond the simple goals of population growth or financial return, prioritizing development that builds community and provides social and economic opportunity for inner-city residents that results in the creation of a vibrant and prosperous downtown neighbourhood, less reliant on transient office workers and better able to respond to the changing urban landscape.

New programs could provide short-term rent assist that connect local entrepreneurs with owners of empty storefronts to promote the growth of innovative startup businesses, as well as the little groceries, coffee shops or hole-in-the-wall restaurants that create employment opportunities, and build the walkable streets that attract people to urban living.

A $165-million 40-storey mixed-used residential tower at 300 Main St. is being built by Artis REIT.

MIKE DEAL / FREE PRESS FILES

A $165-million 40-storey mixed-used residential tower at 300 Main St. is being built by Artis REIT.

Strategies could be tailored to encourage transformation of vacant office buildings into housing, or to use the city’s many underused heritage buildings to stimulate Winnipeg’s already vibrant creative industries by promoting development of affordable artist live/work studios, galleries, performance venues and maker-spaces.

Successful urban neighbourhoods offer a diversity of housing types that create active communities composed of people with varied ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and lifestyles. Strategies could be formed to enhance development of high quality social, affordable and student housing. This could be dovetailed with initiatives that establish a greater downtown presence for Winnipeg’s advanced education institutions, improving collaborative partnerships, and connecting students to local professional networks.

To build a true neighbourhood that will attract people to urban living and increase investment in new residential development, it will be important that we also address the inner city’s physical environment. Today, downtown is designed primarily to funnel vehicle traffic through and away as quickly as possible. To create a place where people want to live, our focus must shift from prioritizing traffic, to creating an environment that puts the human experience first.

Widening sidewalks; removing barricades; adding benches, lighting and trees; building pocket parks and protected bike lanes; improving public transit; and redeveloping surface parking lots — are all initiatives that could be supported to help establish a downtown neighbourhood and make an urban lifestyle more appealing. One-way streets designed to accelerate vehicle speeds, could be returned to slower, safer, two-way streets, helping to improve connectivity, and providing more convenient access to amenities for residents across districts.

As we move forward, it will be important that we are not seduced by the lure of the silver–bullet megaproject solutions we have so often looked to in the past.

Downtown Winnipeg is the economic and cultural engine of the province, and is vital to attracting business, investment, immigration and tourism. A healthy downtown is critical to establishing civic pride and public image, and it can offer urban lifestyle options that help retain young people and attract creative industries.

The coming challenge to downtowns everywhere will be significant. Cities that prosper in the future will be the ones planning their response today. Winnipeg should be one of these cities.

As we move forward, it will be important that we are not seduced by the lure of the silver-bullet megaproject solutions we have so often looked to in the past. Constructing grand new buildings in isolation is rarely a path to prosperity. The boldest response will be a series of small solutions that work together to inspire fundamental change toward a common goal. Responding to the evolving world as we move out of the pandemic will require diverse and holistic strategies that focus on the fine-grained development and entrepreneurship that is the backbone of a local economy, and the seeds that grow into a vibrant downtown neighbourhood with the flexibility and ingenuity to prosper against the shifting challenges of the future.

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy
Columnist

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

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