Planner sees need for 'granular' projects to build downtown population

The latest census shows that Edmonton is one of a handful of Canadian cities to see a decline in its downtown population between 2016 and 2021. The decrease is surprising, says urban planner Neal LaMontagne, but he doesn't think it is necessarily a sign that the city is headed in the wrong direction.

"I see a lot of really wonderful green shoots in downtown. But I think it's an indication that it's not easy. Downtown Edmonton is behind the curve for Canadian cities," he told Taproot in response to the 1.1% population decline at a time when the census metropolitan area's total population grew by 7.3%. "It will catch up, I believe. But it's really difficult."

For the purposes of the census, Statistics Canada defines downtown Edmonton as roughly bounded by 111 Avenue to the north and the river to the south, more or less between 123 Street to the west and 82 Street to the east. In addition to the central core, it includes neighbourhoods like Oliver, Queen Mary Park, Boyle-McCauley, and Riverdale.

But Downtown Edmonton Community League president Chris Buyze told CTV News Edmonton that those borders aren't indicative of downtown population growth because the core boundaries are "97 Street to 109 Street and 97 Avenue to 105 Avenue," arguing that within those boundaries the population has gone up 17.5% in the last five years.

LaMontagne, who moved to Edmonton from Vancouver last fall, said regardless, there needs to be a focus on building up the neighbourhoods that border the core of the city, more "granular" projects, and getting people onto the streets.

"It's having places to go: bars, restaurants, art galleries, bookshops — this stuff is everyday life," he said, adding that when there's enough of those amenities, people will pay a space or cost premium to be at the heart of the action.

That's where the University of Alberta lecturer thinks the city needs to improve, instead of "trying to do these home-run things" like the Ice District or Churchill Square.

"(Edmonton) has not been building up that fine-grain stuff that actually drives downtown. And it's starting to, that's why I think it's early stages ... 104th Street is a much better thing than almost anything that's happened downtown," he said.

LaMontagne said if the city continues to improve in that realm, it would also encourage the neighbourhoods bordering the core to take advantage of downtown amenities in the evening, when the bustle created by office workers during the day is quiet.

A chart showing Edmonton near the bottom of a list of cities arranged by growth of their downtowns from 2016 to 2021

Among 42 cities in Canada, Edmonton was one of just six that has seen its downtown population decline since 2016. (Statistics Canada)

The question of how to build a vibrant downtown core is not a new one in Edmonton. Compared to other cities of the same size, LaMontagne said it doesn't have a very well-developed central office core, and its historically car-centric outlook lends itself to sprawling into the suburbs, an issue that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, said it's necessary to "think about the core differently." She told CTV News Edmonton that the city needs to curb growth in the suburbs and encourage it in inner-city neighbourhoods.

And while the City Plan aims to tackle some of these issues, including building density as it works towards 15-minute districts, LaMontagne isn't sure that it will have much impact when it comes to downtown.

"I used to live in downtown Los Angeles, which also struggled. What brought it back was bars and restaurants," LaMontagne said.

"(Downtown Edmonton) is getting there ... but it just doesn't quite have enough to robustly weather a challenging time."