The Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on downtown vitality
A U of T research team leads study regarding the levels of activity in downtown areas across North America following the pandemic, discovering varying recovery rates among cities.

During the pandemic, researchers from U of T’s School of Cities (SofC) conducted a study on impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on major cities’ downtown areas. The focus of the team’s research was to assess the recovery from Covid-19 of Canadian and US cities since the beginning of the pandemic in terms of activity. Their findings were summarized in Volume 2, Issue 3 of City Research Insights, in a report titled “Post-pandemic Downtown Recovery: Downtown is for people,” published in December 2022.

The research was conducted differently compared to the traditional way of measuring how active downtown areas are. Typically, three factors are considered: office vacancy rates, public transportation ridership, and retail spending. However, Dr. Karen Chapple, director of the SofC, led a team of students and conducted research by studying mobile phone data, thus exploring downtown activity patterns in the sixty-two cities chosen through user locations. The downtown activity levels acquired during the pandemic were compared to pre-pandemic levels in order to determine the differences.

SafeGraph, a company that gathers location data, was used by the research team. Thirteen million mobile phones were used to collect this information across North America. Additionally, SafeGraph highlighted public locations, such as offices, shops, restaurants, parks, libraries, and stadiums. These public locations, specifically those in downtown areas, were the focus of observation and research.

The data collected allowed researchers to determine which cities were returning to levels of downtown activity observed before the pandemic, as well as to identify any cities that surpassed prior levels as a result of pandemic employment shifts. 

Notably, recovery depended on population density, the presence of businesses, transportation methods, and remote working. According the collected data, medium-sized cities are recovering at a faster rate than larger cities, such as Toronto. This occurs because large cities are at a disadvantage due to their dense populations. Crucially, such cities also focus on professional services, where remote work options were feasible and available. This decreased the use of office buildings and slowed down downtown activity recovery.

In terms of changes that the pandemic has brought, low-wage service workers were hit the hardest. Despite the reduced use of offices, service jobs within these buildings could not exist without workers physically gathering in downtown office spaces. Examples include cleaning personnel, security staff, and building engineers. According to the report, during the pandemic, service workers, of which many are BIPOC and immigrant workers, faced the dilemma of either losing their jobs or going to work at the cost of increased health risks due to the looming virus. 

Yet, the attributes that make it difficult for large cities to recover may help them adapt. According to Richard Florida, a professor of Economic Analysis and Policy at the Rotman School of Management, “Central Business Districts are perfectly positioned to be remade as more vibrant neighbourhoods where people can live and play as well as work.” However, this is not possible without government assistance—affordable housing and inclusivity must be present in downtown areas.

In an interview conducted with three professors contributing to the issue, insight was given as how this future can be achieved. Dr. Chapple observes that cities heavily specializing in professional services or information sectors “didn’t do too well in the recovery,” while those focusing on healthcare, education, and public administration recovered swiftly. She notes that the latter sectors have essential workers that work in-person, which greatly increases downtown activity.

Likewise, Nathaniel Baum-Snow, associate professor of Economic Analysis at the Rotman School of Management pushes for downtown reinvention, highlighting past policy failures of reserving downtown for offices only and forgoing residential use. “It’s important to let the market speak on what types of [land] use are garnering demand and letting those uses be allowed—maybe even encouraged,” he shares.

Finally, Professor Florida expresses that the impossibility of downtown areas returning to their original state is something that people must accept. According to Professor Florida, transition strategies for hospitality and service workers, and employment opportunities in peripheral neighbourhoods are key. He states, “We also need to rethink what downtown can become, to make it a place where people can live, work, play and connect.”


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