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Some cities’ downtowns are finally seeing a post-pandemic turnaround: Study

Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto get a boost

Workers erect giant letters spelling out Toronto in Nathan Phillips Square as they prepare for the Pan Am Games, Wednesday, July 8, 2015. Organizers of this summer's Pan Am Games say preliminary figures suggest the Toronto sporting event came in under its estimated $2.5 billion budget, but the final cost won't be known for up to a year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Rebecca Blackwell
Visits to Toronto's downtown had returned to only about 70 per cent of their pre-pandemic level in a 2023 ranking. The latest trends showed a 25 per cent gain from March 2023 to Feb 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Rebecca Blackwell) (The Associated Press)

Some cities in Canada and the U.S. that have struggled to revive their downtowns after the crushing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic are seeing a turnaround, according to new data from the University of Toronto.

Researchers with the Downtown Recovery project at the university’s School of Cities found that most of the cities showing the largest yearly increase in downtown visitors in their most recent data are the ones that scored lower in the project’s 2023 rankings, including Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto.

Those cities’ recoveries “may now be converging with the downtowns that largely recovered in 2023,” the research says.

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The pandemic all but emptied out the centres of North American cities, with various public health measures and corporate decisions closing offices, restaurants and businesses for long periods. Since then, attempts to bring the cities’ downtowns back to life have been complicated by various factors, among them “new patterns of remote work,” according to the project’s policy document.

Minneapolis, MN, where downtown activity in the 2023 rankings was just over half its pre-pandemic levels, saw the highest jump among the 64 cities tracked, with visits increasing 45.3 per cent in February 2024 compared with March 2023.

Visits to the downtown areas of Ottawa and Montreal increased by more than 35 per cent in that time period. In the Downtown Recovery project’s 2023 rankings, Montreal’s downtown activity was still just 67 per cent of its pre-pandemic level. Toronto, which was at 70 per cent of its pre-pandemic level in the 2023 ranking, showed a 25 per cent gain.

With the exception of London, Ont., all the other Canadian cities tracked — Quebec City, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Halifax — saw visitor increases. London’s decline was just under five per cent.

The Downtown Recovery project uses mobile phone data to model activity in cities’ urban centres. Data tracking the number of unique phones in a geographic area are reasonably analogous to the number of unique visitors, and the evolution of those numbers over time provides researchers with a way to see whether downtown activity is increasing or decreasing.

The latest data show most cities are making progress. Fifty of the 64 cities tracked have visits trending up, while the remaining 14 saw visits trend down. The median visitor increase was 9.3 per cent.

The cities with the most significant decrease in downtown visitors were San Antonio, TX, with a drop of 17.5 per cent, and San Francisco, where downtown visitors fell 21.6 per cent.

John MacFarlane is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow him on Twitter @jmacf. Download the Yahoo Finance app, available for Apple and Android.