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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A Downtown for Everyone

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The Ramona Apartments in Portland, Oregon, is an example of high density, family-oriented housing. Photo: Ankrom Moisan

There are more places to live in Downtown Edmonton than ever before. As part of this revitalization, the City is campaigning that it is doing its part by investing into projects that will build a “Downtown for Everyone”. So does this growth include more families with children?

The numbers suggest that the answer is no. According to the 2014 Municipal Census, 697 children under 14 years of age were reported living in Downtown and Oliver, an increase of just 195 children since 2005. As a conservative estimate, this age group represents only 2.1% of the population in both neighbourhoods — a figure that pales in comparison to the 2011 city-wide share of 16%.

If the redevelopment continues as is without further planning intervention or action, neighbourhoods like Downtown and the Quarters will stay unfriendly to families. This matters because there are many benefits of having children live downtown including: higher exposure to diversity and perspectives; increased social interactions particularly with seniors; and many more. Currently, the downtown lacks several aspects and amenities that would attract and retain families to live in a comfortable lifestyle. This article will outline four of many important topics that will need to be addressed if we want a downtown that is truly for everyone, and a core that enables children and families to take part in it.

Rooftop playground on the rooftop of a child care centre in Korea. Photo: JYA-rchitects


Families moving to the downtown core for a more walkable lifestyle find themselves without any nearby childcare services. Fortunately, recent changes to the Zoning Bylaw have made it easier for daycares to set up business in the core. The City could do more however. For instance, Vancouver has recently committed $30 million towards childcare through the investment of 1000 new spaces. Developers could also be incentivized to build such spaces.

Oppenheimer Park, Vancouver. Photo: space2place

Play Spaces

Although many family activities take place at Churchill Square and the Legislature Grounds during the summer season, few other opportunities exist for children particularly in the residential portions of Downtown Proper. The Capital City Downtown Plan identifies two areas that should accommodate playgrounds but no formalized funding is in place. These spaces also need to be thoughtfully designed. For instance, during my childhood I recall playing on residential parking lots in Chinatown with my siblings and neighbours despite having a playground situated nearby. Why? The playground site did not support any gathering places for larger groups, was not particularly safe to access and had no other amenities. Consequently, the adults preferred to supervise us in informal spaces closer and more convenient to access from their apartments.

High density ground-oriented housing in Montreal. Photo: Alanah Heffez

Family-Oriented Housing

The Downtown Plan also proposes a housing incentive program encouraging developers to provide affordable “family units” with more than two bedrooms. That said, there needs to be recognition that housing needs to be designed with families in mind beyond just the number of bedrooms. This means appropriate site location, diverse housing (i.e. providing rental, affordable and ground-oriented options), outdoor play areas on site, indoor common amenities, and enough family units for children to interact, etc. Current zoning regulations make it difficult to incentivize such considerations when they favour conventional high-rise developments.

Another complicating factor is the allowance of adult-only residential buildings in Alberta. While age is a protected ground for tenancy in many other provinces, Alberta only protects family status. Many condo boards and rental landlords actively discourage children on their premises. This creates an unwelcoming environment for families as a result. This also further exacerbates the lack of family-oriented units in the core because it enables development of new housing that is inaccessible to families.


Schools can serve as a catalyst for residential development because they are an incredible draw for many families. However, parts of Downtown and the Quarters lack a primary school and their respective neighbourhood plans do not provide any guidance for future school sites. Rather weak policy regarding schools currently exists for the downtown area:

“Assist the Downtown Edmonton Community League in working collaboratively with adjacent communities and the Edmonton Public School Board and Edmonton Catholic Schools to develop a strategy for an improved central area school system to serve Downtown and central area communities’ school-aged children.”

In addition to this approach, school boards and the City should work proactively to plan for future children and families, such as by reserving land for downtown schools and collaboratively identifying opportunities to advance their construction.

Moving Forward

There are some promising signs that the City of Edmonton is taking action in planning for families in high density neighbourhoods. For example, the Blatchford redevelopment will support many housing typologies and a school site has been identified in its plan.

Edmonton wants to have a downtown for everyone, indeed. But, like many other Canadian and American cities, it has more work to do to achieve that in a meaningful way. More than buildings, a downtown for everyone needs to look at who is able to live there, and what steps can be taken to make the communities more inclusive and accessible.



  1. Building a healthy city and downtown core is one of the reason why we opened our second grocery store in the downtown core. If we want to have people live, work and play in the downtown core their should be a complete set of services and infrastructure available for them. Access and proximity to healthcare services, sports, entertainment, restaurants, play areas, schools, work and grocery stores help build a healthy, safe, diverse and balanced community.
    Down towns are competing with suburbia and mature neighbourhoods so ‘we’ need to offer as much or better alternatives/options.
    The city is doing better in attracting people to the core but families want those services that are lacking – schools, play area, etc.
    I have one family that comes in with two children and they live kitty corner to the Sir Winston Churchill Square and they are considering to move out of the core because of the lack of services. Two less squeals laughter from these little people in the downtown core is a loss.
    FYI – our downtown store offers a play area downtown. It is well appreciated by families and especially the children.

  2. Last year, I bought a small piece of land in downtown Edmonton. I would like to build some shop and condos for famliy. However, I soon realized that my neighbours are either all living by collecting pay check from government or mental illness patient. Very few real family live in that area. I also found that there are lots of people roaming on the street that are very unfriendly begging for money which you have to aviod them or they will follow you. My house got break in once. Even though police station headquarter is only 200 m away, it tooks at least 45m for them to respond.

    As an adult I feel unsafe in that area, for children I dont think it is a very health place to grown up.

    I think the most challenges that face downtown is too high concentration of salvation armies and hope missions as well as mental illness agencies. It is very easy to identify those building because homeless and patients just roaming around there to get services. The agencies have responsibility to provide service to the homeless however they dont have any control over their clients for their behavior after they get their services which cost the neibourhood to get disdressed. Over times people feed up and move out.

    Therefore I am fantasizing move all the homeless and mental illness agencies away from downtown core as well as the exsiting China town area. It will perminantly remove the source of crime and loitering. I know it sounds crazy but this is the only way that we can offer best of our downtown to Edmonton people, that is a downtown for everyone.

  3. A very timely and well written article by Paul. Many lessons to be learned and ways to improve the current situation.

    1. The reality is that in most cities families do not live Downtown proper/CBD, they live adjacent to the Downtown where there are more townhouses, row houses, where prices are slightly lower, where open spaces are more likely and where schools tend to be located if at all centrally. See Grandin or Oliver as a good example of this. Even McKay Avenue, which is technically Downtown, has a much higher amount of kids and families than say the UW.

    2. Our Downtown proper can still do a much better job at being inclusive, for families, for singles, for seniors, for visitors. We need more reasons for people to stay, live, play, explore, have fun, relax.

    3. Alex Decoteau Park will provide green space, play space, a fountain similar to the Leg for people to interact with, play in, an off leash for kids, parents, families to play with their pup. It will provide a community garden which will act as an area hub for all ages and folks to come meet, mingle, share, relax, grow. It will serve a need for all ages, not just singles or seniors or kids, but a place for all to come and enjoy… we need more of these kinds of places.

    4. We need more family friendly housing in central Edmonton, simple as that. Certainly a 2bdrm in the Icon etc. can and does work for some families, but more 2bdrm and dens, 3bdrm townhouses, duplexes and podium/ground-floor units are needed. The EFCL has done a lot of work on this topic and determined appropriate amenity spaces, unit sizing, ground floor units, privacy screening, etc. THAT SAID, we SHOULD NOT be requiring developers to provide these units, it doesnt work, let the market decide.

    5. Do we need an elementary school Downtown, no, likely never to be honest, but we do need great options adjacent to Downtown such as Grandin, Riverdale, Oliver, Vic Comp, etc. that are within 5-10mins walking or bus/driving/transit.

    6. We need more childcare spaces and they are coming thankfully. Revised parking requirements, more demand, subsidies, partnerships are all helping create far more spaces for parents who live, study or work downtown… a key requirement to encouraging more families to be here.

    7. We need to remove age discrimination from the condominium/tenant act. At the moment Alberta is one of the only provinces that allows a condo board or landlord to decline applicants or make owners leave by violating what is a human right. Until this is changed, things are in motion, we will have a very difficult time with places allowing families… something that I see as absolutely ridiculous. Our condo allows people of all ages and pets for that matter and is always in demand.

  4. Thanks for the comment Ian. I question whether there is enough effort being done for families given that the City is aiming for another addition 30000 people in both the Quarters and Downtown neighbourhoods. I hope the complete build out isn’t mostly geared towards singles and childless families similar to what is currently occurring in Calgary’s East Village. There, crossing the river, Memorial Drive and up the hill to get to the closest K-9 school (5 min drive) is unacceptable for many parents (may as well move to Bridgeland). Thankfully Alex Taylor is still owned by EPSB, but the school board has been reactionary rather than proactive to work with developers and attract families to the core. Yes, not many children currently live Downtown and Quarters but I don’t think that is sufficient justification to not encourage/incentivize (versus regulate) family-oriented households like 3-bedroom units as many other municipalities do.

    As for the park, I am going to write something up hopefully soon!