The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a major rethink of downtown cores: survey

MONTREAL — The country’s largest downtown cores are in trouble.

Prior to COVID-19, downtown areas in some of Canada’s largest cities were struggling, but the novel coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated those problems exponentially, according to a new survey from the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS).

Public health measures such as social distancing rules and reductions in gathering sizes have made it difficult for businesses that depend on high volumes to make their rent.

“When asked whether Canadians have been avoiding downtown areas since COVID-19, some 60 per cent say that they have done so,” the study conducted in partnership with Leger between Sept. 18-20 reads.

The study polled 1,538 Canadian and 1,001 American urban residents online.

Residents who responded to the survey overwhelmingly (58.4 per cent) said they are avoiding heading downtown to the city centre.

Edmontonians (at 75.5 per cent) led the way at in saying they were avoiding the downtown core followed by Vancouverites (70 per cent), Ottowans (66 per cent) and Torontonians (65 per cent).

Fifty-nine per cent of urban Montrealers said they are not heading downtown.

The City of Montreal reported earlier in September that the city has seen a 90 per cent decrease in people heading downtown to go to work.

According to the ACS survey, United States urbanites responded similarly, with 57 per cent saying they are avoiding going downtown.

Even in the 25-34 age demographic, over half (55.3 per cent) said they are avoiding the downtown core.

Women (at 64.2 per cent) are more likely to avoid downtown than men (58.2 per cent).

Over three-quarters (80.2 per cent) of respondants who said they are avoiding heading downtown are also “very afraid” of contracting COVID-19, while 67 per cent are somewhat afraid.

ACS owner Jack Jedwab said the pandemic has sped up the urban decay trend that predates the pandemic, and cities will need to speed up plans to rejuvinate the centre of their cities.

“It does not look good for downtowns,” said Jedwab, who was one of those who closed his downtown office. “I think what COVID has precipitated is a rethinking of downtown. There’s going to be a serious rethinking of downtown areas.” 

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