Why are some downtowns more “lived-in” than others?

In recent years, there has been a renewed appreciation of the fact that healthy downtowns need people living in them in order to thrive.  This, in turn, has led to efforts to build more residential housing in Winnipeg’s downtown core that have been starting to produce some results.

But other than building more housing downtown, why else are some Canadian downtowns more “lived in” than others?

To answer that question, I took a closer look at the population density of 25 downtowns across Canada — including Winnipeg — focusing on those census tracts located inside or within easy walking distance of the city centre.

I then compared the population density of these 25 downtown areas to a wide variety of things we know about the wider cities around them, courtesy of Statistics Canada, in a search for trends that might explain the differences between the country’s more lived-in downtowns, such as Vancouver, and those places where downtown living has little appeal, such as Sudbury.

Sure enough, some strong correlations emerged that, when put together, seemed to identify some of the tipping points a city needs to reach for downtown living to become an attractive option. I’ve assembled them here as a list of waypoints that cities usually pass on their way to a downtown population density of 5,000 people per square kilometre — a challenging but not insurmountable goal for Winnipeg to aim for.

Waypoints we’ve passed, or are just passing:

A reasonably large local business sector. Some jobs are more downtown-friendly than others. For example, if you work in the trades and thus require a vehicle to access job sites, suburban living is probably going to be more convenient for you. Jobs in the business services sector tend to be more suitable for those who prefer to walk, bike or take public transit to work, though, so they’re vital for growing a downtown as a nice place to live. Every one-percent increase in the business services sector’s share of the workforce translates into roughly an extra 500-600 people per square kilometre downtown. With business services accounting for about 19 percent of Winnipeg’s workforce, we’re roughly right at the point where a well-populated downtown starts to become viable.

A strong influx of immigrants. Nearly two-thirds of the difference between Canadian cities in terms of their downtown population density is attributable to the intensity of immigration. Not only are recent immigrants who arrived in the past five years more likely to settle in city centres because of easy access to services, jobs and fellow migrants, but they also add to city-wide population growth and housing demand, which can in turn make downtown housing more viable.  A well-populated downtown becomes viable when recent immigrants make up three to four percent of the entire city’s population, which is again about the point we’re at right now.

That influx needs to be kept up, however, as many immigrants eventually move to the suburbs.

Waypoints we’re approaching:

A fairly well-educated population. There is a solid relationship between a city’s educational attainment rates and its downtown population. The downtowns that have been most successful in becoming populated are those where about 19 percent of the city’s adult population has a university degree and 79 percent have completed high school. Winnipeg is at about the right place in terms of university degrees (19%), but with only 77 percent having completed high school, there’s still a bit of work to be done. With a continued focus on improving Manitoba’s lacklustre educational attainment rates, Winnipeg’s downtown should benefit, as should our ability to create more downtown-friendly jobs.

Waypoints still well ahead of us:

Continually high housing prices. Downtown living tends to thrive in cities where housing is in the highest demand, as this makes people more willing to accept the trade-offs of living in a 500-square foot space with no yard. Generally, downtown living starts to take off as an option when city-wide average home values climb past $250,000. In early 2011, the average home price in Winnipeg was about $229,000. That sounds close enough, but if what three academics reported about Winnipeg is true — that we’re a mortgage rate-sensitive city — housing prices could drop and stay well below that $250,000 tipping point for a long time if interest rates rise in the next few years.

A truly big city. Unless land is scarce, it’s difficult to sell downtown living in a smaller city — there’s less to do in a small-city downtown and distances tend to be short, anyway. Generally, downtown living starts to become attractive when a city’s population nears 950,000 people. Metro Winnipeg, with a population of just under 700,000 in the 2006 Census, has a long way to go yet. (But we’re getting there: Statistics Canada projects a population of about 884,000 in 2031.)

A city has to expand out before it can expand up. Living downtown is a much easier sell when it’s a substitute for commuting. The tipping point from a thinly-populated to a well-populated downtown is usually reached when the average metro area home is more than 10 kilometres from the city centre. In 2001, the average Winnipeg home was just eight kilometres from the city centre, which is too close for downtown living to be sold as an alternative to that gruelling six-kilometre, 20-minute commute from St. Vital.

It’s a different situation in metro Toronto (where the average home is located 20 kilometres from the city centre), Montreal (16 kilometres), Vancouver (16 kilometres), Edmonton (13 kilometres), Ottawa (12 kilometres) or Calgary (10 kilometres).

Data sources: Statistics Canada Community Profiles and Census Tract Profiles; Andrew Heisz and Sébastien LaRochelle-Côté, Work and Commuting in Census Metropolitan Areas, 1996-2001 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2005)

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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