Importance of having an urban centre

Alec Bruce uses his typical blend of humour, biting satire and good data in his column today. At issue is the TJ report on Tuesday that Nova Scotia is more prosperous than New Brunswick and that a key reason for this is Halifax. Bruce makes some interesting counterpoints.

But let me take umbrage with Alec. Actually, not umbrage – I just wanted to show off my word of the day.

But I digress.

I have been thinking a lot lately and studying the issue of urban centres and their role in regional and provincial development. New Brunswick is the only province in Canada (and I think in North America) that doesn’t have at least one urban centre with 20% or more of its population concentrated in one urban area. Both Saint John (urban area) and Moncton (urban area) have about 17% of the provincial population.

Halifax, by contrast, has 41% of Nova Scotia’s population, Vancouver 51% of BC’s population, Montreal 48% of Quebec’s population and Toronto has 42% of Ontario’s population.

Little old Charlottetown has 43% of PEI’s population but I consider this not a good comparative case as everyone on the Island lives within 75 minutes of downtown Charlottetown so in effect that city acts as the urban centre for the whole province.

My point is this. New Brunswick doesn’t have a ‘dominant’ urban centre so I would suggest we ‘leak’ a lot more economic activity than provinces with larger urban hubs.

If you need certain specialized health care, you are sent out of province. If you need a patent lawyer, you will need to look outside New Brunswick. If you want a direct flight to just about any international destination you will have to go outside New Brunswick.

But there’s a lot more than that. Professional sports? None. Large scale arts and cultural venues/activities? None.

But there’s more. Any bank loan over something like $25k – approved in either Halifax or Toronto. There is almost no local authority over the financial lending industry here.

And more. Very few regional head offices for the Maritimes here. A couple. Very few. Why? Most claim a lack of size (airports, convention centres, etc.).

And, on the broadest point of all, historical data shows that medium to large sized metro areas tend to grow faster than small urbans or rural areas. Probably for a lot of the reasons I mention above.

But Alec Bruce is right. There is a dark side to urban growth. Crime, congestion, environmental concerns, angry people that won’t say hello. High costs of living. Pressure.

So, in the grand tradition of Vladimir Lenin, What is to be done?

I think that Moncton and Saint John need to be more deliberate about becoming dominant urban centres and what that entails. I think they should collaborate and maybe horse trade some stuff in order to achieve the goal of building urbanity in New Brunswick. You get a trauma centre, I’ll take an international airport – or some such thing.

Because while we fight over the scraps, more and more economic activity that could/should be done here isn’t.

Why are all your RRSP and pension funds invested and managed anywhere but in New Brunswick?

Why is almost every TV program you view on the tele produced anywhere but in New Brunswick?

Why if you need specialized legal, financial and professional services consulting you almost always need to leave New Brunswick to find it?

How come just about every major Canadian corporation from Canadian Tire, to the Atl. Superstore, to Sobeys, to Walmart to Costco to GM to Ford to Chrysler etc. etc. etc. have only a retail presence in New Brunswick? How come no regional office? How come no back offices? How come they never (rarely) use local professional services firms?

Part of the answer, I think, is a lack of urbanity.