Saskatoon and Regina struggle to shine in a rural-run province
City | Gregory Beatty | April 7, 2022
Back in October 2007, I remember covering a City of Regina media event announcing a new downtown revitalization project.
The event was at Globe Theatre in downtown Regina. As it happened, the Globe’s Christmas play that year was A Christmas Carol. Struck by the parallel between Dickens’ three ghosts and the ghosts of downtown past (vibrant and thriving), downtown present (stagnant and failing) and downtown future that the revitalization project embodied, I used that as my article lede.
Around the same time, Saskatoon began a downtown revitalization process of its own. That culminated in a City Centre Plan passed in 2013. Regina approved its plan in 2012. And now that it’s 2022, the “ghost of downtown future” that I conjured up in 2007 is starting to manifest.
It’s not quite a “tale of two cities”, if you’ll excuse another Dickens allusion, but the spectre that’s emerging in Saskatoon is somewhat less spooky than the one haunting Regina.
How spooky? Well, a recent Stats Canada report showed that between 2016–2021, Regina and Saskatoon’s downtowns were pretty much the slowest growing in Canada. Saskatoon placed 34th among Canadian cities with 2.7 per cent growth, while Regina’s downtown population actually decreased by 1.6 per cent.
To talk about the challenges and opportunities both downtowns face, we contacted two urban planners to get their perspective: Alan Wallace (Saskatoon) and Jennifer Fix (Regina).
Bridge City Build-Up
The big challenge Saskatoon’s downtown faces at present, says Wallace, is Covid. That’s true for cities across North America really. Downtowns tend to have high concentrations of office workers, and when they transitioned to working from home, retail sales and street traffic in the downtown plummeted.
“The retail environment on 2nd Ave is quite depressed on what used to be a vibrant street,” says Wallace. “But the issue that’s really come up lately is safety. When the pandemic started, there was a lot more vagrancy, along with some incidents, and I think if there’s one factor that will kill a downtown quicker than any other, it’s the perception it’s unsafe.” [See sidebar]
Office workers are trickling back now, so that should help. But the pandemic also spurred a sharp rise in online shopping. If that trend continues, it will put additional pressure on downtown retailers. Still, Wallace sees reason for optimism.
“We have a brand-new library being built on the north end of 2nd Ave,” he says. “We also have several projects that have been approved. One under construction now is a twin residential tower on 25th St. Two other towers have been approved but haven’t started yet. One is at the top of University bridge, the other Broadway bridge, so they’re adjacent to the downtown.”
Wallace says the river is proving to be a huge asset for the downtown. “I can point easily to a billion dollars of development just because of the river,” he says.
The Remai Arts Centre, Remai Modern Art Gallery and Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan’s new facility are all located along the river. Soon, they’ll be joined by a new outdoor festival site. Plans also call for the construction of a downtown arena and entertainment district.
While downtown’s southern flank is strong, boundary neighbourhoods on the west and north such as Pleasant Hill and Mayfair have what Wallace describes as a “concentration of socio-economic issues”.
Saskatoon is also failing miserably at meeting infill targets which require that 30 per cent of new development be in existing neighbourhoods.
“Unfortunately, both Saskatoon and Regina have seen their infill percentages remain static,” says Wallace. “The highest Saskatoon ever got was 17 per cent, while Regina was 12 per cent. It’s a tough sell, but it’s something the city should promote because when you’re not always building extra infrastructure it has a tremendously positive impact on the mill rate.”
According to a 2021 City of Ottawa study, low-density subdivisions built on greenfield cost the municipality $465 per person annually. Meanwhile, each development that increases density in the urban core nets the city an annual surplus of $606 per resident.
Not only does infill make fiscal sense, it’s a must if Saskatoon (and Regina) are to meet ambitious climate goals to be net zero by 2050.
Hope may be on the horizon, though, in the form of two rapid transit lines that will converge in the downtown.
“What’s important now is nailing down the routes, because once that’s done they become permanent,” says Wallace. “Improvements get made, such as replacing bus stops with stations which are often tied to private development. And evidence from cities such as Victoria, Calgary and Edmonton shows the city develops around those routes.”
So while it’s still early, Saskatoon’s ghost of downtown future shows signs of being, well, if not Caspar-style friendly at least not full-on Poltergeist.
Which brings us to Regina.
Queen City Quagmire
Like Saskatoon, Regina’s downtown has been battered by the pandemic, with the same street traffic and safety concerns. And I say that as someone who has lived in the downtown since 2006.
Some positives have come out of Regina’s downtown plan, says Jennifer Fix. “I think the public realm investments have been very positive. As a downtown resident with two small children, crossing Victoria Ave has been vastly improved. It feels safer and more enjoyable, and once the tree canopies start to grow and flourish, it will further improve the look and feel of that corridor.”
Prior to the Covid shutdown, Fix also says she was impressed with the programming being done in Victoria Park and the adjacent plaza to inject some energy into the downtown at nights and on the weekend.
Now, the scary stuff.
“One of the biggest challenges Regina has, and has had for a long time, is thinking about the downtown as a neighbourhood unto itself,” says Fix. “It’s not just a destination for employees and shoppers. It is that, of course, but it should be seen as a neighbourhood and treated as such.”
The downtown plan was designed to remedy that, says Fix.
“A major theme is ‘Walk to Work’. That captures a very good intent, which is to create a neighbourhood where people can walk to work because they either live in the downtown or a nearby neighbourhood. But at present, we simply don’t have the residential density to make the downtown that vibrant, flourishing place that people expect.”
A big challenge Regina faces in boosting density in the urban core is the dominance of R1 zoning, which restricts infill development to single detached homes, says Fix.
“I recall reading a few years ago that there was an intention by city administration to allow for duplexes and coach houses which are detached secondary suites,” she says. “That was shot down after some pushback, maybe even some nimbyism, and that was enough to stop the change from happening.”
When people in R1 neighbourhoods think about density, says Fix, they too often think of Toronto/Vancouver-style high-rise towers. This was gentle densification though.
“You can have a vibrant, dynamic city with higher density but still have that intimate village character,” says Fix. “Paris is often held up as an example, where you have four to six stories in the downtown, and it’s very dense.
“Until we are prepared to take those infill targets seriously,” she says, “I don’t think we’re going to see the success in the downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods that we aspire to see.”
A second challenge Regina faces is a lack of strong connections between the downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods, says Fix.
“I like to think about streets as seams that are opportunities to stitch neighbourhoods together. If you have a really great street with destinations like cafes, restaurants, shops and community spaces, and the public realm is safe and beautiful, then you draw people in.
“The streets we have in the downtown, such as Broad, Albert and Saskatchewan Drive, aren’t functioning as seams or bridges,” she says. “Instead, they function more like walls that prioritize vehicular movement over pedestrians, cyclists and even transit users. People aren’t drawn to them, which makes nearby neighbourhoods more insular.”
The Albert and Broad St. underpasses that “connect” the downtown with the Warehouse District and North Central are especially problematic, says Fix.
“As the crow flies, my doctor is located easily within walking distance of where I live in the downtown,” she says. “But I’m hesitant to make the walk with the baby because it’s unsafe to cross Sask. Drive, and then going through the underpass is so unpleasant.
“It’s loud, smelly and unkempt. We live in a city that is designed around and caters primarily to vehicle traffic. And it comes at an enormous cost to our quality of life, health and GHG emission reduction capabilities.”
Regina does have planning initiatives in the works to grow the downtown population by 5,000 and develop the railyards in the Warehouse District. But two councillors are pushing to rollback density targets. So for now, Regina’s ghost of downtown future looks pretty frightening.
Not Getting It
I’ve lived in downtown Regina for 16 years, and summer 2021 was by far the toughest I’ve seen with many people living rough on the street and struggling to survive. The main cause, social justice advocates allege, are changes the Saskatchewan Party government made to a key social support program that reduced benefits for shelter, food and other necessities.
Driven by hard-right ideology, the Scott Moe government also refuses to invest in harm reduction to help people struggling with mental health and addiction.
With inflation on the rise, summer 2022 is shaping up to be even worse.
It’s an example, says Alan Wallace, of how decisions made by senior levels of government can impact cities.
“The one thing I wish we had in Saskatchewan is an urban agenda,” he says. “We have a rural/urban divide, everyone knows that. And what we don’t have is a government at the provincial level that understands urban issues and how important they are in the 21st century.
“Regina and Saskatoon are under the same planning and development act as Kindersley, Melfort and other smaller centres,” says Wallace. “We have far different issues. I think there should be a large cities act for Saskatoon and Regina.”
When Canada’s constitution was enacted in 1867, Canadians lived 75 per cent rural and 25 per cent urban. Now, those percentages are flipped but cities simply don’t have the powers they need to raise revenue and service their populations.
“It’s not that Regina and Saskatoon don’t understand the problems,” says Wallace. “I just wish we had a partner at the provincial level to assist in tackling them. Our social problems are starting to affect the downtown, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear vision for how we’re going to solve them.”
Transit is another area where the province could play a role, but doesn’t. Instead, the Sask. Party government is busy building giant bypasses in Regina and Saskatoon to reroute truck traffic and facilitate commuter access for exploding exurban communities such as Martensville, Warman, White City and Emerald Park.
Regina’s bypass opened in October 2019, while Saskatoon’s is in the planning stages. “So there you go,” says Wallace. “We’ve got $4 billion of bypass roadways in a province with two cities which total 600,000 people. It’s going to cost us dearly, when you consider Winnipeg did the same thing but with one bypass for 750,000 people.”
Despite their downtown struggles, Regina and Saskatoon continue to grow. They now account for over 60 per cent of Saskatchewan’s GDP, says Wallace. “Yet as we reach the 300,000 plus level, we start to become big cities with big city problems. Going forward, I think our cities are going to be more reliant on the federal government, where there seems to be a much more fluid pipeline than with the provincial government.” /Greg Beatty