Nuanced thinking about urbanity this morning

I follow a number of urban zealots such as Richard Florida and I find some of the thinking fairly pedestrian.   It’s like the kid who thinks that two scoops of ice cream are better than one and three are better than two.  The urban zealots have now decided that 500 scoops of ice cream – consumed in a 24 hour period – is best of all.

There are two broad categories of benefit associated with urbanity – the clustering of population in fairly close proximity.   The first is related to the practical benefits of scale.  If you have 1,000 people living in your town, you may be able to afford a single doctor to provide check ups and prescribe medicine.  If you have a million people living in your town you can afford a pediatric neurosurgeon.    With 1,000 people, you might have one k-12 school, with one million, you might have specialized high schools.  With 1,000 you might have a couple of pick up hockey teams playing at the arena on a Saturday night, with a million you might just have the scale for a professional or semi-professional hockey team.  This view of ‘scale’ applies to airports, professional services, etc.

The second broad benefit category is related to what happens when you pack a mass of population in a dense area (the City of Vancouver has 5,200 residents per square km).   This is softer and harder to measure but it is about networks, innovation, creativity, social and economic Darwinianism, ambition, etc.  It occurs in a symbiotic relationship with the first benefit category.

I agree with both categories of benefit and am a fan of urbanization as a force for progress and overall betterment of society.

However, I struggle with the Floridian view of the Megapolis as the only engine of growth.  When he first advanced the notion of the creative economy, he travelled North American telling towns as small as a couple of thousand people they could be dynamic and successful ‘creative economies’ but after the great recession he threw Sackville under the bus and began preaching that the only areas with a future were mega-regions with millions and millions of population (I infer this from what I have read from him).

I agree my view is tainted by my choice of geography but I chafe against the mega-region view.  I think can be diseconomies of scale – high costs, crime, hyper-competitiveness, potential loss of social capital, etc. – associated with mega-regions and I am not convinced that everyone wants to live in that environment.

How big is big enough?  I don’t think there is a clear answer to that question.  I love NYC.  I try to visit at least once a year.  But there are smaller urban centres that are doing very well too.

I think my biggest frustration is that these gurus talk about urbanization as some inevitable and inexorable trend. I think there are pockets of population in North America – specifically Atlantic Canada – that need to urbanize (remember that doesn’t mean necessarily shrinking rural but it does mean growing urban) but I doubt the urban concentration will go much beyond 85% of the national total.

There are only six population centres in Canada with a million or more people (in total they account for 42% of the national population).  I don’t think it is likely that mega-regions – Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary-Edmonton will account for much more than 42% in 20 years for now.  There are many smaller urban centres – between 150k and 500k that are doing fine and exhibit most of the benefits cited by the mega-urbanists.

I do think Atlantic Canada is particularly challenged because the region isn’t even in the orbit of an urban centre with 500k (from the Census, Halifax only had about 300k in its urban area – population centre).  You have to drive by car eight hours (roughly) to reach a large urban centre and I think that could be an impediment to growth.   New Brunswick is practically Wyoming – Moncton ranks 27th in Canada with a population centre (urban) of 107,000 in 2011 behind Kingston, Guelph and Kelowna.  NB really needs a focus on urban growth.

Coming back to my ice cream analogy – I think the mega-urbanists fall into the trap of linearity.  They see the trend line going up and to the right and assume it will forever.  In the real world, the trend line never goes up and to the right in perpetuity.

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