— The Urbanist —

Weak-Ends

What’s behind the core’s sleepy town mentality?

Remember that time on a Sunday in Edmonton when you had too many options for things to do and the Downtown and Oliver streets were crowded with people?

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Of course you don’t. On Sundays, downtown can feel like a sleepy town you pulled into off the highway. To find a good coffee or a new pair of shoes, to hem a pant or fix a phone, to find out whether the new “it” restaurant lives up to the hype, can feel like you’re living an episode of the Amazing Race.

Actually, it often feels that way after six o’clock each day, but Sundays are guaranteed snoozers. The cafes are closed; a majority of bars are silent; offices are locked. And, thus, the sidewalks are barren. Even our autobahn-width streets and free street parking, a friendly plea to incoming shoppers, if nothing else, are lightly trafficked.

None of this holds as true in many of our suburban spaces. They don’t hold true on Whyte Ave. neither, where at least the shops stay open till five and popular restaurants like Meat and Ampersand 27 are open … late … seven days a week.

Since the post-millennium downtown revival, we’ve added close to 10,000 people to our core neighbourhoods. Many of them are young, make decent money and live interesting lives. Yet so many of the businesses in their neighbourhoods don’t cater to them. Instead, their business hours serve the ephemeral office crowd that drives in and out, for five days and 40 hours a week.

There’s no reason for this other than culture. We’ve allowed Sunday shopping far longer than other cities. (Halifax, for example, only legalized shopping on the Lord’s Day in 2006, a decision that took far longer because of its deep Christian past. But while commerce took a step forward, the amended bylaw didn’t transform Halifax’s already bustling weekend streets; those were baked into the waterfront’s DNA.) It’s not like we don’t get out on Sundays, either. Down in the river valley, the trails and pathways are busy arteries of recreational life. But up in the downtown, it’s tumbleweeds.

Meanwhile Old Strathcona is a nexus of activity. Perhaps that’s why the City thought of Whyte first when piloting the possible car-free Edmonton, an effort to shut down the street for pedestrians for a few hours on select days. Maybe downtown businesses would benefit from it more.

It has worked elsewhere. Since the ’90s, Ottawa has closed Colonel By Drive to traffic every Sunday for pedestrians, cyclists, rollerbladers, pets and all other forms of foot-based life. The results have been transformative. Colonel By Drive winds along the Rideau Canal (Ottawa’s version of our river valley) and ends up right downtown. Effectively, the route feeds pedestrians onto Ottawa’s once-dead Sunday streets. And since Sunday motor traffic is nearly absent anyway, few complained.

Imagine if we did the same downtown, and not just to accommodate nightlife, as it’s been proposed for Whyte, but day-life. On Sunday, we pick a road or two, which are hardly being used by motorists in the first place, and throw them open to people walking, biking or just loitering. We encourage businesses to extend not just their hours, but patios. Invite food trucks and kiosks. Buskers, too.

We can’t force businesses to open and treat downtown as more than a roofless stadium for the service sector. What we can do, though, is bring people here on Sundays, much in the way that festivals already do, only this wouldn’t have any planned programming—just whatever happens when we hand over our downtown to the people.

Tim Querengesser is president of The Edmonton Wayfinding Society.