Corner Post
Quarterly Newsletter of the Saskatchewan
Land Surveyors

Heritage infrastructure and downtown revitalization

by Marvin Thomas, Heritage Conservation Branch, Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport

Heritage and Growth


Growth is creating unprecedented opportunities for Saskatchewan’s cities, towns and villages.  With rapid growth, there are also challenges.  Communities across the province are experiencing increased demand for housing, commercial space and recreational and cultural facilities.  Local governments sometimes struggle to provide the infrastructure and services needed to ensure that growth leads to a higher quality of life for their residents.  Historic buildings are a resource that can support growth and help municipalities meet their infrastructure needs.


Heritage Benefits


The social and cultural benefits of conserving historic buildings are well known.  Historic buildings reflect the vision and achievements of the people who built our communities.  As links to a shared past, they reinforce people’s sense of community identity and build civic pride.  


There are also more tangible benefits.  Historic buildings are an excellent source of housing stock.  Rehabilitating older dwellings, converting redundant institutional and commercial buildings to residential use, and developing upper‑floor apartments above downtown shops can increase housing supply across all segments of the real estate market.  Historic buildings are also well‑suited to serve as cultural and entertainment facilities, and as affordable work space for volunteer organizations and other NGOs.


Heritage conservation is also a proven economic driver.  Rehabilitating and reusing historic buildings creates jobs and business opportunities, revitalizes older commercial neighbourhoods and stimulates local economies.  Giving historic buildings new life raises property values and increases the local tax base.  A community’s heritage character can be an effective branding and marketing tool for attracting tourists, new residents and new businesses.


Heritage and Downtown Revitalization


At last February’s Heritage Forum for Municipal Officials hosted by the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport, over 70 delegates from more than 20 municipalities heard Donovan Rypkema talk about heritage conservation as an economic development tool.  Mr. Rypkema is one of the world’s foremost authorities on downtown revitalization and the economics of heritage conservation.  Having worked with hundreds of communities around the world, he says that he is unable to cite a single example of successful, sustained downtown revitalization that didn’t involve the conservation and adaptive reuse of heritage buildings.


As Mr. Rypkema explained, differentiation and quality of life are competitive advantages in an increasingly globalized world.  In a world where every place is starting to look like every other place, and capital and people are highly mobile, it will be the communities with a distinctive character and high quality of life that succeed in attracting investment and talented workers.  Young workers in particular gravitate to communities that have a well‑developed “cultural infrastructure,” i.e., access to arts and cultural amenities; entertainment and recreational opportunities; people‑friendly public spaces and lively street life; diverse, inclusive social networks; affordable and interesting housing options.


The authenticity and strong sense of place conveyed by well‑maintained heritage buildings and historic streetscapes make historic downtowns attractive places to live, work and play.  Because they can offer a variety of space and a wide range of rents, historic buildings are well‑suited to house the diversity of businesses, services and attractions that will draw people downtown.   Relative affordability makes historic buildings especially well‑suited for business start‑ups and for artists and craftspeople looking for affordable work‑display space.  Specialty retailers, restaurants and bars often prefer historic buildings for their distinctive, “funky” character.


Downtown living is another important ingredient for creating successful downtowns.  According to figures presented by Rypkema, the impact of one downtown resident on the downtown economy is three to four times greater than that of one downtown worker.  Historic buildings can be adapted to provide downtown housing that appeals to singles, young couples and empty nesters, and is accessible to people from different cultural and socio‑economic backgrounds, adding to the diversity and vibrancy of downtown.


Heritage Conservation is Environmentally and Fiscally Responsible


Mr. Rypkema also spoke about the environmental benefits of heritage conservation, and how these benefits translate into savings for local governments.  Extending the life of historic buildings means less demolition waste requires disposal, lengthening the life of municipal landfills.  Revitalizing historic neighbourhoods focuses development in areas where municipal services already exist, reducing the need for costly new infrastructure.  By encouraging the development of a more compact urban form, the revitalization of historic neighbourhoods also lowers the substantial lifetime costs of servicing far‑flung subdivisions, while reducing the consumption of agricultural land and natural spaces.


Role of Local Government


Few assets have as much potential as historic buildings to contribute to such a broad range of community development goals.  Municipal governments are well‑positioned to be leaders in the conservation and development of these valuable resources. There are several things a municipality can do to make the most of its heritage resources:


  • Have an Official Community Plan and zoning regulations that support heritage conservation and the adaptive reuse of historic buildings.


  • Compile an inventory of local historic places to provide the knowledge‑base needed for good planning.


  • Become familiar with conservation tools provided by The Heritage Property Act and other legislation.


  • Provide incentives and other support to leverage private investment in heritage properties.


  • Invest in public works in historic neighbourhoods and set a good example by using heritage buildings for municipal purposes.


  • Ensure municipal staff has basic heritage training and access to heritage guides and manuals available from the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport and other sources.


  • Educate the public about the benefits of heritage conservation.


  • Promote and market the community’s historic places.


Provincial Assistance


The Government of Saskatchewan is committed to being an active partner in the stewardship of the province’s heritage resources.  Provincial support for conserving designated heritage properties is provided in the form of cost‑shared grants administered by the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation.  The Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport provides heritage advisory services and administers The Heritage Property Act, which provides  municipalities with legal tools to recognize, protect and promote their historic places.  In 2011, the Province announced a $1.65 million investment in the Main Street Saskatchewan Demonstration Program.  This three‑year pilot program is supporting the implementation of the heritage‑based Main Street Approach® to downtown revitalization in four demonstration communities.  In its first year, the program leveraged $10.00 of capital investment for each dollar of provincial contribution.


For more information about preserving and developing your municipality’s heritage resources, visit the heritage section of Ministry’s website at or contact the Heritage Conservation Branch at 306‑787‑2817.