Whenever we talk about our “New Normal”, teleworking usually comes up. We’ve now seen how efficiently many of us can work from home. And surveys show that most people who can work from home would prefer to do so at least part time after the pandemic ends. This means that employees planning on returning full-time to the office will still spend their days in teleconferences as coworkers dial in remotely.
Hence our working environment is unlikely to go back to how it was. With so many employees physically at the office only a few times per week, the days of personal offices or desks are likely over. Common workspaces will probably become the norm. This will allow employers to downsize their office space, as smaller shared work environments can accommodate multiple teams that previously needed more room for each employee’s individual desk. The cost savings for employers will be substantial.
But what does this mean for the future of our downtowns?
Vacancy rates in downtown Ottawa are likely to shoot up and stay high. And what about downtown Hull? With fewer federal employees spending their lunch hours in the area, what does the future hold for Laval and Eddy streets, as well as Place du Centre? Their prospects are dim.
In order to keep our downtowns vibrant, we have little option but to be innovative. The private sector is unlikely to pick up the slack alone. Yet there are also major opportunities. Imagine a redesigned downtown core, refocused on culture, healthy living and entertainment, built around active lifestyles where everything residents need is within walking distance. Most neighbourhoods of Gatineau and Ottawa focus on attracting young families, offering yard space and proximity to schools. Yet young professionals, active seniors and couples without children might instead appreciate a vibrant nightlife and culinary scene, all available within a short walk, no longer having to be concerned with parking. Such people may be more than willing to accept smaller living spaces in exchange for a dynamic community suited to their needs.
Recent pushes to densify on both sides of the river can fit well with such a model. Sparks Street in Ottawa gives us a preview of what this could look like: a miniature version of Montreal’s Plateau, inspired by neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village in New York, Soho in London or the Quartier Latin of Paris. A centrally located area allowing a local cultural and arts scene to develop and shine.
At the same time, neighbourhoods like Aylmer can double down on their appeal to families looking for houses instead of condos. Many of these residents will be working from home with more time to shop and dine in the neighbourhood once freed from time spent commuting. By properly planning to develop commercial areas tailored to their residents’ needs and tastes, child-friendly neighbourhoods like Aylmer will continue to thrive as well.
As communities, we need to work with our municipal representatives to begin laying the groundwork for this transition. The alternative is the hollowing out of our downtown cores. The defining moments of the 21st century are now.