Does size matter?

One of the interesting discussion threads yesterday at the Social Policy Research Network forum (at least in the groups I was in) was this issue of size.    Dr. Haan made the case that he can’t see much correlation between population growth and GDP per capita growth over time (he looked at Canadian provinces).  Others were suggesting that just boosting the population was not the answer – the “you can’t grow your way out of this” crowd.

I’m a population growth fan.  A big one.  New Brunswick has more paved highways than other provinces (and more kms of four lane highway), more schools, more hospitals, more firetrucks, more powerlines, broadband everywhere, more more more.  We have enough basic infrastructure to support a much larger population.  I don’t want 10 million people here but I think we could easily handle 1.5 million over the next generation with much of that growth – probably 90% or so in the urban centres and environs (this latter issue of smaller communities in the periphery of larger urban centres was also put on the table yesterday – by me at least).

I think this would be a wonderful time of renewal for New Brunswick.  It would breath new life into communities, it would bring young workers, young families.  It would drive new tax revenue to pay for increasing health care costs.

But to those that believe large urban centres (millions) are the only future (i.e. Richard Florida), I disagree.  There are lots of people who want to live in large urbans – a high percentage of the 20-30 year olds but there is a large cohort of folks who are happy to live in smaller urbans or even rural areas.  All the data and surveys bear this out.

In addition, if we go way back to Aristotle, we see the potential of diseconomies of scale associated with large urbans.  Aristotle was a fan of small cities. He said:

“Most persons think that a state in order to be happy ought to be large; but even if they are right, they have no idea what is a large and what a small state. For they judge of the size of the city by the number of the inhabitants; whereas they ought to regard, not their number, but their power”.

“….a great city is not to be confounded with a populous one.”

“Moreover, experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed; since all cities which have a reputation for good government have a limit of population.”

“For law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly.”

You are going to tell me not to take advice from someone who lived thousands of years ago but I got lots of confirmation bias from his view on cities so I think I’ll keep it.

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2 Responses to Does size matter?

  1. Don Dennison says:

    Another interesting conclusion Dr. Haan reaches from his study of NB demographics is that the outmigration from New Brunswick is mainly attributable to people moving to larger urban centres than you will find in this province. Bigger cities are the draw, whether for job opportunites or for other reasons. This puts us in a limited market segment. We can hope that there are increasing numbers of those attracted to smaller city living, though the evidence globally doesn’t show that.
    As to rural living, I think we need to take a closer look. Are people living within a half hour-forty five minute drive of an ‘urban’ centre living ‘rurally’, or in a New Brunswick suburb? We need to understand what our potential appeal is if we’re going to attract immigrants or other Canadians.

  2. richard says:

    “Bigger cities are the draw, whether for job opportunites or for other reasons.”

    If you ask your high-school or uni classmates why they left NB, what’s the answer? For my peers, it was overwhelmingly a search for a decent job; one that had an increased likelihood of better salaries and career advancement. Only a few seemed to leave because of a preference for urban life per se. I think it is economic opportunity that attracts not urban lifestyles. Was Ft MacMurray an urban oasis? Calgary a hip town? Not 30 yrs ago.

    “Are people living within a half hour-forty five minute drive of an ‘urban’ centre living ‘rurally’, or in a New Brunswick suburb?”

    If they work in an urban centre, but live outside of one, then IMHO they are living in a suburb. Adjusting tax rates appropriately would change this.

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