Could Vancouver retail and commercial streets battle the COVID downturn by embracing the city’s rainy winter?

SFU’s Andy Yan helped create a new database aimed at boosting economic recovery in Canadian retail and commercial districts. As the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on, the urban planner sees opportunities for Vancouver and other B.C. cities to adapt

From Victoria to St. John’s, COVID-19 has made life difficult for main streets across the country. Cities need to give struggling retail and commercial businesses a helping hand. But to make the right decisions when it comes to economic recovery, Andy Yan says, they also need good data.

To that end, Yan helped create the Main Street Data Primer: A Resource for Policymakers, Main Street Stakeholders and Urban Researchers. Director of the City Program at SFU, the urban planner worked on the national project with the Toronto-based Canadian Urban Institute as part of its Bring Back Main Street initiative.

The primer aims to help municipalities, analysts, advocates and other parties navigate a sea of data that could help commercial hubs bounce back from the pandemic more resilient than ever. The information on offer ranges from surveys by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business to details on demographics and property vacancies.

It’s part of a data-gathering movement that has been busy for several years, Yan observes. “The idea is to give people a sense of the existing infrastructure that has been built over the last decade or so, and making sure they’re aware that it even exists.”

This summer, the Canadian Urban Institute took a close look at seven commercial districts in B.C. and Ontario. By tracking data like business closures, pre- and post-COVID foot traffic and the size of the local residential population, the Block Reports survey revealed how the pandemic is reshaping main streets.

“The interesting thing about COVID is how it’s been the great accelerator,” Yan says. “It’s accelerating a lot of trends that have been happening over the last five to 10 years.”

At the same time, the pandemic has magnified what he calls pre-existing conditions for retail districts. “It’s not only COVID but the economic consequences of COVID that have occurred over the last six to eight months.”

The Block Reports study has shown the challenges faced by main streets, Yan says. “But on the other side, it’s also shown how local businesses, because of how they were endeared to their local community, have at least weathered the storm.”

Singin’ in the rain?

In B.C., it looks like most people are bracing for more turbulence. Yan cites a recent national poll by Vancouver-based Research Co. in which 61 percent of British Columbian respondents said they thought the worst of the pandemic lies ahead. That’s the most pessimistic outlook in the country, well above the 46-percent tally for Canadians as a whole. “I thought that was a really interesting survey in terms of giving us a sense of like, OK, yeah, let’s just get ready for the second and consequent waves.”

For Canadian communities and their businesses, part of the COVID challenge is adapting public space, Yan says. Dining out is just one example: “We all know that patio weather in Vancouver in the spring and summer is amazing, but fall and winter is a lot more problematic.”

Just as Edmonton has made peace with the cold by adopting a WinterCity Strategy, Vancouver can embrace with the rain, Yan suggests. Admitting that he prefers warm, sunny weather, he sees an opportunity for residents and businesses to change their behaviour, both recreationally and economically, during the dark, wet months ahead. Outside the Lower Mainland, other communities could do the same with their snowy winters.

“Particularly when it comes to retail and commercial activities, it’s now being very connected to the season,” Yan says. “We already had moments of being more connected to the season. This is an example of COVID accelerating these trends.”

For Yan, it comes down to the idea of trying to build things back better. “Normal isn’t necessarily going back; it’s whatever that level of stability is in terms of economic and public health,” he says. “This is like a developing Polaroid, and trying to adapt to how that image is going to look like—that, I think, is the trick.”

Yan hopes that the Bring Back Main Street project sends an optimistic message. “It’s just saying that yeah, the biggest challenges may still be in front of us, but arguably the biggest opportunities also are,” he concludes. “It’s also rethinking B.C. in that kind of local, national and global context. The global economy is down, but it’s far from out.”