I recently came across a brief report by the University of Toronto’s School of Cities on the recovery of urban cores in the U.S. and Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic. The study’s methodology is intriguing:
The recovery metrics on these charts are based on a sample of mobile phone data. The recovery metrics on the charts and maps are computed by counting the number of unique visitors in a city’s downtown area in the specified time period (standardized by region), and then dividing it by the standardized number of unique visitors during the equivalent time period in 2019. Specifically, the rankings below compare the period from the beginning of March to mid-June in 2023 relative to the same period in 2019. A recovery metric greater than 100% means that for the selected inputs, the mobile device activity increased relative to the 2019 comparison period. A value less than 100% means the opposite, that the city’s downtown has not recovered to pre-COVID activity levels.
As the results were given in tabular form, I thought that it would be useful to map them to more easily see if there are any distinct regional patterns or anomalies. The resulting map, posted below, has some expected features. Recovery has generally been faster in low-density sunbelt cities, with only Las Vegas showing an increase in downtown activity since 2019.
But there were also some unexpected findings. Columbus, Ohio, for example, has many characteristics of a sunbelt city, despite its cloudy winters, yet it has one of the worst downtown recovery rates. Minneapolis and Seattle also have unexpectedly low rankings. To understand what is going on in these cities one would have to examine exactly how “downtown” is defined in each case. In Columbus, for example, the old central business district has been declining over the past few decades, but a new vibrant urban core has emerged nearby, in a neighborhood dubbed “Short North.” I doubt that it was included in area deemed downtown Columbus.
A few other interesting findings deserve comment. It seems that Canadian downtowns have recovered more quickly on average than those of the northern United States. Is this because they tended to be more alive to begin with? The relatively quick recovery of Oakland, California that is indicated by the study makes little sense. From what I have read of Oakland, and from what I have seen in a few quick visits, the city’s downtown is in a desperate situation, with closing businesses and surging crime. In late September, 2023, Oakland saw an unprecedented strike of business owners. As reported by a local news source:
It’s not business as usual in downtown Oakland on Tuesday morning as store and restaurant owners go on strike over rising crime.
Business owners say the goal of this strike is to send a larger message to City Hall. They want better protection and support so they can safely operate their businesses and make a living.
Many of the participating businesses gathered in front of Le Cheval for a news conference on Tuesday to voice their concerns. The restaurant is closing at the end of the month because of the crime and slow sales post-pandemic.
Participating merchants say, just like Le Cheval, they’re losing customers and foot traffic because of car break-ins, carjackings, robberies and assaults.
In conclusion, I can only fall back of the most tiresome of all academic clichés: more research is needed.