Is downtown irrelevant in a modern age?

Calgary needs to boost tourism and promote downtown as a destination like other great cities of the world.

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Is downtown irrelevant in a modern age?

Urban sociologists study the way cities work. Through their work at major universities, they consult with municipalities, developers and community leaders to help shape the urban world in which a great many of us live.  Many have given great thought to the dynamics that either contribute to a vibrant downtown core or spell its death.  You may be surprised as to what they have to say about Calgary.

How did downtowns evolve?

The idea that a city even needs a central core is perhaps outdated at best.   Once upon a time when a town or city was built there were three things that took place in the middle of it all.  Government, commerce and religious gatherings (think of the world’s most grand cathedrals). Downtown wasn’t where the people lived.

What changed this was the industrial age when rail lines, roadways and rivers brought traffic through the city. Factories were built and warehouses erected close to these traffic routes and to where commerce or trade took place. Then as factory jobs downtown made way for office jobs in tall office buildings, the pattern of downtown development changed again. Entertainment hubs, shopping centres, museums and art galleries, hotels and fine dining because essential to the type of commerce being conducted in the centre of the city. The leisure hours after work mean people would stay downtown, loosen their tie and go out to play.

With the proper care and feeding of a downtown core, this type of urban living should promote a healthy city centre.  Key word is, should.  It works in Toronto, in New York in Vancouver. 

Does Calgary have a long way to go?

The issue is that we, as a city, are young – relatively speaking.  Our population is young and we are captivated by a suburban lifestyle with lots of elbow room where it’s easy to raise a family. We don’t mind the commute.  We, as a majority, think downtown Calgary is inhospitable and that as a worker in the city centre, downtown is a place to escape from.

Another issue is that urban planners are creating Main Streets and Town Centres in our new communities.  These are commercial nodes where suburbanites can shop, eat out, take in the latest movie and get their dry cleaning without going far from home.  Why go downtown when we can hang out in Kensington, Marda Loop or McKenzie Towne?  Some of these streetscapes are great for bringing people together and away from downtown.  No wonder downtown seems so irrelevant.

On the horizon

It’s not that we haven’t been trying.  TD Centre and Eaton Centre have rebranded as The Core and made weekend parking cheap like borscht.  There are public pianos on the street and public celebrations are still being held downtown.  The plethora of new condo developments in the Beltline area tout the convenience of inner-city living and work/play/live environments.  It would seem that Calgary is taking baby steps towards keeping downtown alive.

The Calgary Next plan, although certainly ambitious, would add an incredible facility to downtown and not just for sports. Concerts, conventions – we could have some pretty major events downtown not to mention the tourists that would come.   We’re not alone in our desire to have a super-event centre like this downtown. Edmonton is doing it, Toronto did it, Vancouver did it – they either are building or have built major arenas and stadiums downtown that bring people back to the city, rejuvenating the downtown core.

Calgary needs to get better at supporting tourism above and beyond those 10 days in July during the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede.  We need to promote downtown, just like other great cities of the world.  Bring folks into Calgary for the weekend to stay in a hotel, shop downtown and take in some culture.  Think San Francisco.  You don’t go there to hang out in the suburbs.  You want to be downtown in the hot spots.

One urban sociologist said it best:  if just 2% of Calgarians go spend some time downtown on a weekend, that’s 100,000 people.  Kind of neat to think about.

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