Tiptoeing around urban-rural land mines
I tend to get quite a few emails whenever I talk about the urban-rural thing in Atlantic Canada as I did in my Economy Lab piece yesterday.
One economist wanted to point out Statistics Canada’s definition of urban and rural. It’s not the same thing as ‘city’ or ‘country’. It is based on population concentration. According to Stats Can an urban area is “defined as having a population of at least 1,000 and a density of 400 or more people per square kilometre. All territory outside an urban area was defined as rural area”. This is why you may be living in a rural area and not know it or you may be living in an urban area and not no it.
In fact, Statistics Canada has muddied the waters in 2011 by moving away from the term ‘urban’ to the term ‘population centre’. According to the agency:
“… the term population centre will replace the term urban area. A population centre will be defined as an area with a population of at least 1,000 and a density of 400 or more people per square kilometre. All areas outside population centres will continue to be defined as rural area. This new terminology will be implemented consistently across the Agency.”
The same economist used the term ‘land mines’ to describe any discussion of urban-rural.
The problem in New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada is that people view economic development as a ‘zero-sum’ game – in order for urban areas to grow, rural areas have to decline. My point is that is not necessarily true and in fact may be false.
I talk about how the rural population across Canada has grown by 950,000 people since 1951 while the urban population has exploded by 18.5 million. Conversely, in New Brunswick the urban and rural populations have both kind of sputtered along. If NB’s rural population had grown exactly the same as it has over that period but its urban population had grown at the same pace as urban growth across Canada, the province’s economic and fiscal health would be much different (IMO).
So, when a policy maker or politicians says “Moncton is doing fine, we need to focus on the areas that need help”, that for me sums up the root of the problem. If Ontario had said “Toronto is doing fine, so we can ignore it and focus eleswhere” that province would be a different place today, too.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Places grow and decline because of forces beyond public policy. But orientation matters. In the long term, moving away from the zero-sum game view of economic development is a critical step in trying to transform the economic destiny of this region.
The last point I want to make is whether or not urban growth is actually good for rural areas. This has been an argument that has been around for years and it is one that I tend to agree with (caveats exist however). The Conference Board did a study a few years ago that concluded areas with strong and growing urban centres tend to see a rise in GDP per capita in its rural areas. Other studies have shown positive effects on rural areas that are in the periphery of growing urban centres. Stats Can data shows a difference between ‘rural’ and ‘remote’ population growth. Rural areas that are in the influence of an urban centre have done better than those outside over time.
The bottom line of my argument is that we can’t have an either-or approach. We need to focus on urban growth opportunities and the long term investments required to shore up the growth of cities and at the same time we need to work on growing sectors of the economy that are suited to rural areas.