Karen Chapple, PhD, is director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto. Patrick Gill is senior director of operations and partnerships at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Business Data Lab. Marwa Abdou is senior research director at the chamber’s Business Data Lab.
Almost 50 million square feet of vacant office space is available in Canadian downtowns, with nearly 40 per cent of that becoming vacant since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. That’s the equivalent of 89 baseball stadiums the size of Rogers Centre in Toronto.
The ripple effects of this transformation on the economy, real estate market and city planning cannot be understated. As policy makers consider the response to this, balancing the need for vibrant city centres again with the changing mobility patterns of the pandemic is critical.
The current situation presents an opportune moment to reimagine office spaces and urban environments. Remote work has expanded employment opportunities for groups such as women, who historically have had a lower labour-force participation rates. We need to preserve these new arrangements while making sure that our downtowns provide enticing experiences worth leaving the house for.
Some vacant commercial or office space can be repurposed into vibrant community, learning or enterprise hubs that foster creativity, innovation and collaboration. By designing spaces that cater to diverse needs, we can breathe new life into our cities.
Take, for example, the Slayte in Ottawa, an 11-storey former office building which was converted to residential and commercial mixed use and completed in 2022. The building features 158 residential units, 6,700 square feet of indoor amenities, and 7,500 square feet of exterior rooftop amenity. The building includes a gym, a rooftop patio and party lounge.
Or consider instead Winnipeg’s Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, a former department store undergoing a First Nations-led conversion. When complete, the building will feature a museum and art gallery exhibiting Indigenous history and the repatriation of artifacts, a grocery store and the First Nations Bistro Restaurant. The second floor will house the Southern Chiefs’ Organization’s Governance House, its property management office, child care, commercial spaces for First Nations non-profits and a dedicated space for educational providers. Additional floors will house a total of 225 flexibly designed affordable housing units, 90 assisted-living units and 10 units geared toward social assisted living with a full package of amenities.
Let us draw inspiration from examples, both domestic and international, that have successfully transformed old industrial and commercial office spaces, and learn from their triumphs and challenges.
Let us lean into the advantages of changes to work-force mobility. One of the remarkable outcomes of the pandemic-driven changes is the positive impact on specific groups within the work force. Remote work has brought newfound advantages for women, employees with young children and individuals burdened by long commutes by public transit. This shift has facilitated greater work-life balance, and reduced commuting stress.
According to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Business Data Lab, work-force mobility habits in Canada’s largest 10 downtowns remain 35-per-cent below prepandemic levels. The University of Toronto School of Cities’ Downtown Recovery project finds that most Canadian downtowns are lagging rates of return in the United States, and a few are even trending in the opposite direction.
Which is why recognizing silver linings and building upon the changes brought on by the pandemic is essential to creating a more equitable and inclusive work environment. A 2022 poll for the Prosperity Project notes that many Canadian women were concerned that pandemic workplace accommodations wouldn’t last. The report also highlighted that the vast majority of Canadian women want to work remotely at least part of the time.
In this evolving work landscape, business and municipal leaders hold a significant responsibility. They should embrace the transformation and actively participate in reconfiguring office spaces and districts to meet the evolving needs of employees. Collaboration is key, as businesses and city officials work hand in hand to foster a sense of community, attract top talent and revitalize urban cores. Supportive policies and investments in infrastructure are imperative to ensure a seamless transition to a more flexible and inclusive work environment.
With the equivalent of 89 Rogers Centres of vacant office space available, we have a large canvas upon which we can redefine our cities and drive economic growth.