When Dan Christian and his wife recently decided to move their family from Toronto to London, Ont., they were looking for a place to raise their children and launch a new tech venture.
But rather than head for the suburbs, as hordes of people have done for decades in this and other mid-sized Canadian cities, they found the lifestyle they were looking for in a rejuvenating downtown core.
They were blown away by the funky boutiques and fine dining on King Street and other bustling boulevards. They were equally impressed by an influx of new companies and an increasingly sophisticated entrepreneurial environment.
"There's a lot more industry there now. There's an educated work force and an affluent community, but without the high costs of (Toronto)," Mr. Christian explains. "(London) is also becoming more tech savvy and can foster more opportunities like that."
With an appealing downtown fit for their new business - as well as closer proximity to family - they concluded that a move to this city of about 355,000 made sense.
Like London, smaller cities across Canada are investing millions to kick-start growth and bring foot traffic and entrepreneurs like Mr. Christian back to their downtown cores.
But revitalizing a tired downtown is an uphill battle that requires more than money - it takes time, strategic vision, a diversity of businesses and a realization that competing head-to-head with the likes of Wal-Mart is a non-starter.
"I believe making a main street from scratch or keeping a vibrant street in a small or medium-sized city is the most difficult task in city-making," says David Gordon, the director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
"The market forces that are arrayed against you are very difficult to deal with."
Over time, those forces - in particular the drive toward suburbanization - have slowly squeezed the life out of once-thriving downtowns.
"We did a survey seven years ago of planners across North America and we asked them to identify downtowns of medium-sized cities of between 70,000 and 700,000 people which were in a bad state, unhealthy or declining, and it was virtually all of them," Pierre Filion, a professor at the University of Waterloo's School of Planning, recalls.
"There was only about 10 per cent that were doing well."
Despite the bleak assessments, cities across the country are making progress in transforming dilapidated downtowns. The key, say urban planners, is to understand that injecting new life into a downtown core takes a careful blend of innovative tinkering and visionary planning.
Here are five key truths that civic leaders should embrace to reinvigorate their tired downtowns:
Traditional downtown retail is dead
The retail revitalization of central London is working, says Joe Berridge, a partner at Toronto-based urban planning consultancy Urban Strategies Inc., because local officials accepted the idea that once major retailers bolted to regional shopping malls or big-box "power centres," they weren't coming back.
Instead, the city focused on restoring its vibrancy with renewed residential and office development, and a completely different retail product - cafes, restaurants and specialty entertainment in place of major department stores.
Case in point: the downtown shopping centre Citi Plaza - which once housed The Bay - has been re-imagined as a multipurpose venue housing London's central library, retail and office space, as well as satellite campuses of Fanshawe College and the University of Western Ontario.
Restrictive levies and bylaws no longer make sense
To attract new businesses and residential development to downtown, London removed development charges and parking requirements for new residential construction.
The result? Property value assessments in the core have increased by 22 per cent since 1998, while the city's downtown population has grown by nearly 37 per cent.
Downtown is a dynamic event space
When Cataraqui Town Centre opened on Kingston's periphery in 1982, city planners knew that despite having recession-proof institutions such as Queen's University and CFB Kingston at their doorstep, they needed to act fast to insulate downtown from increasing suburbanization.
Officials began aggressively programming downtown in spring and summer with regular outdoor concerts and festivals such as the successful blues and busker festivals.
The events cost the city about $100,000 to stage - all of which is covered by admission and sponsorship revenue - and return upward of $2.5-million in local economic activity.
"We did physical revitalization in a lot of places," says Doug Ritchie, managing director of Downtown Kingston, the local business improvement area (BIA), "but we knew it was just a stage. You still have to put something on it."
Improving downtown infrastructure is a must
Cities that have enjoyed some success rejuvenating or limiting the decline of their downtowns, such as Kelowna, B.C., and Kingston, have invested heavily in infrastructure, says Larry Beasley, Vancouver's former director of planning and a professor at the University of British Columbia.
That includes everything from street lighting and public bench upgrades to road improvements designed to slow traffic and improve the pedestrian experience. But it also means investing in event infrastructure to lure visitors from within and outside the city.
The Kingston BIA, explains Mr. Ritchie, recently contributed $3-million to the construction of downtown's $47.5-million K-Rock Centre. The facility hosts about 90 events - from hockey games to concerts - annually.
The venue provides the city of 120,000 with a full slate of events to keep downtown busy during its chilly winters. "Having new curtains at your theatre isn't going to improve attendance," Mr. Ritchie says. "You still have to have a show to draw them in."
In another major programming success, Kingston converted its popular farmers' market - a former parking lot - into an outdoor skating rink in winter. The space now draws an additional 40,000 people to downtown each year.
Development incentives are crucial
In London's case, council established a downtown "incentive zone" and promoted direct investment in new construction and the refurbishment of older buildings, including the Upgrade to Building Code Loan Program and the Downtown Rehabilitation and Redevelopment Grant Program.
"That's probably one of the biggest successes that we've had," Gregg Barrett, London's manager of city planning, says of the latter initiative. "In the 10 years since we started this, we've added over 1,700 new residential units in the downtown." Officials estimate the program will eventually deliver an estimated $38-million in additional tax revenue.
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