Canadian city’s downtown gets detailed survey

Saskatoon just got to know itself real well. A new report on the Canadian city intimately profiles the downtown, its assets, its problems and the ways that people use and move through the area. It’s being called the "downtown atlas," and it’s phase one of a plan to rethink the city center.

The report [pdf] provides a detailed and data-rich look at the city’s downtown. Included are tidbits like this - there are 2,600 residents downtown, but only 25 of them are children. The city center has fewer people per square kilometer than another other downtown in Canada. The city's downtown sees about 4,000 less pedestrians per day in the winter compared to the summer.

This report is the first of its kind in a North American city, according to this article from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

The city centre included parts of Broadway Avenue, Riversdale, and College Drive, with the report detailing size (3.6 square kilometres), residents (5,804, or 2,600 in the core business area), number of children (509 total, but just 25 in the core), the number of restaurants (108), and night clubs and bars (52), and the number of trees (6,400), building entrances (1,355), crosswalks (251), traffic signals (68) and bench seats (1,633).

The report delves into how people move around the downtown with the University of Saskatchewan's regional and urban planning program leading a research project that measured where, and how many, people sit, stand, walk and cycle in the downtown. The research group measured and recorded people's movements in the summer and winter of 2010.

Unlike most reports, this one focuses specifically on how people interact with the city. "It's unique to study people spending time in space. Traffic engineers have studied the way cars move around our cities. We know the economics of our cities, but we rarely just look at how people use space," the report’s lead consultant Chris Hardwicke told the StarPhoenix.

The report cost about $240,000 to perform, and takes a holistic approach to documenting life downtown, from demographics to building and street measurements to qualitative data on conditions like sense of safety in a specific place. It draws heavily on similar studies conducted in European cities by the Danish firm Gehl Architects.

Beyond just a documentation of the city at a point in time, the report also makes suggestions for future developments and designs. Some ideas include adding more student housing to accommodate students from the University of Saskatchewan, more outdoor seating areas and a new public square at city hall.

A local planner told the StarPhoenix that the report will serve as a baseline to measure against in the future. As the city continues to build a new downtown plan, this data will play a key role in determining what’s needed and why. And when the city looks back to do another downtown plan in 20 or 30 years, they’ll be able to compare and contrast with the past.

And while cities are in no shortage of reports and studies, this atlas approach strikes as being particularly useful. Saskatoon may be the first North American city to have one, but others would be wise to create their own.

Photo credit: aendrew / Flickr

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