Who Belongs Downtown?

After the downtown ambassadors program, a new project addresses negative perceptions of the downtown


The Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) and the City of Peterborough’s Social Services Division are funding a new program in response to complaints about panhandlers, loiterers, and perceptions that the downtown is unsafe and unsightly.

The new initiative, called the Downtown Belonging Project, comes after the DBIA’s controversial piloting of the downtown ambassadors program that saw hired security guards patrolling the downtown, though both projects were approved at the same time.

The Downtown Belonging Project was designed by two local consultants, Natalie Napier and Sarah Cullingham. The first phases of the project are being implemented now, and involve gathering data through on-street interviews and conversations about what exactly makes people feel uncomfortable downtown, and what could be done to allay those feelings.

“The goal is to get unstuck in terms of a response to all the negative feedback that the DBIA and the City get about downtown,” Napier says.

Napier says that the City, the DBIA, the Peterborough Police, and social service agencies have been discussing the issue for over a decade, investing significant resources while doing so, but that no solution has come out of those meetings. “The point of this project is to get out of those conversations,” she says, “to get away from whatever boardroom table these conversations happen around [and] to seek wider feedback from people about the experiences and interactions they have downtown.”

Napier points to the care meter initiative and to an abandoned plan to put up posters dissuading people from giving money to panhandlers as examples of failed responses to the issue. She says that the Downtown Belonging Project is different, because it will collaborate with users of the downtown, including the marginalized, to generate solutions.

“It doesn’t really make sense to design a solution without allowing people who are experiencing the pains of this issue … to co-design it with you,” Napier says.

Napier and Cullingham spent more than a week’s worth of full days engaging with people downtown in September, and are now generating ideas based on those conversations. People repeatedly expressed concerns about empty storefronts, for example, and that led Napier and Cullingham to consider filling those storefronts with artwork. They also found that people who feel out of place downtown generally want to know more about the place, leading them to consider a series of tours of the neighbourhood led by volunteers.

Napier and Cullingham have also been asked to take a look at alternative models for the downtown ambassador initiative that was piloted earlier this year. One idea they’ve developed is hiring outreach workers and retirees to fill the role rather than security guards.

The DBIA has approved the first two phases of the Downtown Belonging Project, which are research and idea generation. If the DBIA board approves future phases, the public will be presented with some of Napier and Cullingham’s ideas—creative interventions meant to build community and foster relationships.

“The next phase is to put these ideas out into the public realm and figure out what people have energy for. What do they have excitement for?” Napier says.

One theme that runs through Napier and Cullingham’s work is the creation of roles for people that use the downtown. Ultimately, they want their ideas to be enacted by others, in ways that make people feel they are making positive contributions to the physical and social infrastructure downtown. They wonder, for example, if providing resources and support for people to beautify downtown themselves (by planting flowers or painting buildings or whatever else they feel inclined to do) would help people feel more ownership and investment in the space.

Creating roles for the marginalized is crucial, as well. In their conversations with panhandlers and other street-involved people, Napier says the idea of invisibility came up again and again. “How do we create opportunities for people to be visible,” she asked, “and to be able to have more meaningful interactions based on having some legitimate role?”

Napier says that up until now, people addressing the issue of panhandling complaints have lacked “the ability to imagine a really amazing version of our downtown in which people feel not just comfortable with each other but connected with each other.” She and Cullingham are trying to imagine that future with us.


Cover photo by B. Mroz.

Fields marked with an * are required
Will Pearson

Will Pearson


Will Pearson is a freelance journalist based in Peterborough, Ontario. He has written for a variety of local and national publications, and he is the host of the Peterborough Currents podcast.