Industrial Space and Great Downtowns

Vancouver BC and Portland Oregon are known for their beautiful and livable downtown districts where people live, work and play.  But are these downtowns so great because they are so important economically? or, is it because they are less important to the region economically, they have become urban playgrounds with office space?

Intriguingly enough, both the Portland and Vancouver metropolitan areas (cities and suburbs combined) share a high ratio of industrial space to office space (over 4 square feet of industrial to each 1 square foot of office, using CBRE statistics).  Most of this industrial space is not downtown, but in more suburban areas.

In the case of Vancouver (and likely Portland, but I’m not an expert on the Portland economy), this industrial space supports a crucial import-export and logistics sector. Trade between Asia and North America comes through these west coast ports and it drives a substantial part of the Vancouver economy, directly and indirectly.

With so much of the economy dependent upon industrial lands, did this allow–or even force–more people to live and play in higher density urban areas?

By contrast, places like Seattle and Calgary have traditionally been less known for their downtowns, although this is changing, and both have a much lower ratio of industrial to office space (approximately 2)–or put in reverse, a higher ratio of office to industrial than Vancouver and Portland.  Could it be that office space is–or has been–so important for the economies of these cities that perhaps it crowded out residential, retail and other uses?

Thoughts welcome!



  1. Daniel Hake says:

    My experience in the Netherlands is that in metros with a lot of industrial and logistics business, most of the offices are related to that business and therefore tend to settle nearby, in the industrial areas and along highways. The remaining ‘general’ office space takes up only part of the downtown area, leaving more room for other functions.
    Apart from that there is a general policy of preserving and strenghthening downtown as the main shopping centre in a metro. Malls along freeways are banned. Period. So retail is a fierce competitor for downtown land, and cities invest a lot of money in making downtown attractive to visitors. In fact, all sectors apart from retail and dining are declining in Dutch downtowns, according to a recent report. Downtowns are turning into open air malls basically.

  2. Des says:

    “places like Seattle and Calgary have traditionally been less known for their downtowns”

    My impression is that both of those cities have much stronger, typically North American downtowns than does Vancouver (or, possibly Portland, but I don’t know much about that city). Calgary, for instance, has the most head offices in Canada after Toronto, and some of the highest parking prices in North America. Indeed, the higher ratio of office to industrial that you report for Calgary (versus Vancouver), is just such a sign of a very dominant downtown. Lots of reasons for this though; different economies, with demands for different kinds of spaces, and different budgets to pay for prestige and well-connected/proximal spaces in the core of a major industrial cluster (oil), and downtown Calgary’s relative tight geometry, sandwiched between rail and river, compared with the relative generosity of Vancouver’s peninsula (which also has room for the West End, even!)

    Now does that mean it’s a nice place, or that it’s more lively after 6? Not sure, but economically, I’d say that downtown Calgary is pretty powerful, likely more so than downtown Vancouver.

    Interesting observations though, and evidence that even cities that are frequently paired for one set of reasons can diverge for another!


  3. Wendy Waters says:


    Thanks for the European observation. I especially liked the point that just because you have highways to serve the industrial spaces doesn’t mean north-american-style sprawl has to happen along them.

    By restricting freeway-oriented retail, Netherlands would instantly remove many reasons people have for driving.

    I wonder if by forcing the retail into higher-demand nodes like downtown, prices would be higher than they are in cheap freeway sprawl?

    This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it would force most people to be more selective, only buying what they need.

  4. Wendy Waters says:


    Thanks for the observations on Calgary. With residential encroaching more onto the fringe (beltline, east lands, etc.) I could see downtown Calgary continuing to grow in its “livability” and 24X7 atmosphere.

    I’m only there once or twice per year, but every time I notice a more vibrant downtown after 5PM.


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