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.

11 thoughts on “Tiptoeing around urban-rural land mines

  1. Increasing urban growth is a given. However, in NS it only exacerbates the Urban/Rural divide leading to more out migration, declining student enrollment and school consolidation and centralization. Longer bus rides etc. An aging population that is generally intent on retirement and has little knowledge of the looming rural crisis makes up the difference.

    It’s kind of like closing rural schools and then in comes the department of Rural Economic growth and asks the dwindling community what can we do to stimulate a better rural economic and cultural strategy for sustainability? Hard to accomplish without families.

    The focus should be on rural development. Urban growth and development is generally a priori. There is a great need for a collective plan to develop rural NS instead of pitting departments against each other at the expense of outlying regions.

  2. “Rural areas that are in the influence of an urban centre have done better than those outside over time.”

    Those growing ‘rural’ areas tend to become less and less rural and more suburban over time.

    I’d imagine that over the past few decades federal and provincial govts have spent billions in this country on rural development efforts; those dollars have not succeeded in stemming falling rural populations outside of those areas adjacent to urban centres. Perhaps rising energy prices will gradually result in a resurgence of local agriculture. Perhaps technological innovations will bring about new demands for forest products.

    Part of the debate is not just about growth. Many in rural NB simply do not want change; they like things the way they are. Most of us here in rural NB want schools kept open despite falling enrolments; we want hospitals, well-maintained roads, etc. In short, we want the services but not the disruption that comes with the growth needed to pay for those services. It is not just about urban centres wanting all the economic development pie; quite a few rural NBers do not want the pie at all.

    I note that despite the move by GNB to turn over more services to local govts, including LDSs, there still has been little data released on the costing of those services. GNB has the data; they just do not want to upset rural NBers by pointing out that they are paying too little in tax revenue (not too much as many rural NBers believe) to pay for those services. I imagine the plan is to let rural govts, the new regional commissions and LSD advisory committees take the heat and the blame for the coming tax hikes. A shameful but typical approach to governance in this province.

  3. @Richard Reeleder
    The myth that rural NB does not pay its share has become so embedded in the commentary that no one feels obliged to explain it. Please enlighten me – what are the services that rural NB enjoys and does not pay for.

    GNB is not turning over more services to local governments, rather they are turning over control of the existing services in rural areas to the towns and villages who will effectively be taxing the LDS’s a premium to have a commission that has no particular likelyhood of reducing the costs. This isn’t local governace it is the first step in a process to force almagamation which you so correctly characterised as typically shameful governace – I would add cowardly.

  4. This is all based on an assumption that ‘places must grow’. Well, no they DON”T need to grow. And yeah, I’d LOVE to see examples of those ‘billions’ that rural NB gets. Maybe its those ACOA investments that ‘build bridges’ because the province won’t.

    And there is STILL virtually NO coverage that the rural ‘cost’ issue has largely been dealt with. In January the bill was passed that added ‘administrative costs’ to rural taxation level. In other words, by law rural people are paying for both the services that they recieve AND the administrative costs the province incurs in servicing them-and of course probably a little on the top.

    But I get a kick out the whole ‘urban’ superiority thing. Apart from malls, what really does a city offer? They have libraries nobody uses, theatres nobody goes to, museums that are gathering dust. All of these used by a tiny minority of people. Meanwhile, virtually EVERYONE I’ve known who owns a cottage has said they’d love to live there, its just a shortage of schools and shopping that make the only difference.

    People talk as if a ‘city’ is somehow man’s natural state-something that is completely ridiculous. The only people who LIKE cities are companies and government. Business because it means a good competition for labour to keep costs low, and government because its easier to administrate, and virtually impossible to accomplish anything remotely democratic.

    In New Brunswick its simply yet another wedge issue to divide people, like french and english and north and south. Go look at a map and you’ll see that there isn’t even any such thing as ‘rural’. There are suburbs of cities, and then suburbs of suburbs-then cottage country.

    Apart from the governance issue, there is no reason to even TALK about it anymore-by law they are paying ‘their fair share’, in fact, the part of the Finn Report seldom quoted is that only about 10% of the LSD actually take out more than they take in. For the tax issue, all that had to be done was change the taxation levels in that 10%. Then done.

    What is strangely ironic, is that ‘rural’ areas virtually NEVER argue for economic development. If anything they want LESS of it. Yet city people, for whatever reason, are constantly lamenting the lack of ED in rural areas, when any city would get on its knees for more ED. And as for services, people complain about costs, but thats because of regulations. Heck, take an abandoned building in a rural area, stick in high speed internet and ONE good teacher and you’ve got a school system for a rural area from 1 to 18.

  5. I’m more confused than ever about what is defined as rural, but I do know that we’ve got to stop using our ruralness as an excuse. Most NB residents, including First Nations peoples, live within a half hour’s drive of an ‘urban’ service centre, so our ruralness is more like a different form of ‘suburban’ living.

  6. @mikel Your comments are always highly amusing. There’s so much wrong with this particular post that I don’t even know where to start. There are plenty of advantages and disadvantages to both urban and rural life. There are many, MANY people who have absolutely no interest in living in rural areas. The reverse is also true – some people swear they will never live in a city. To each their own! But to argue that cities offer no advantages, and that no individuals want to live there is ridiculous.

    As for rural economic development, I’m not sure exactly which rural people you are speaking for but fact of the matter is that in New Brunswick the unemployment rates are typically much higher in rural areas than in urban ones. Are you suggesting these people have no interest in being gainfully employed?

    And do you honestly think that a single teacher for all age groups will adequately prepare his or her students for post secondary education? This isn’t the 1800s we are talking about but most of the content of your post suggests you believe it is.

  7. Glad you were amused! It WAS first thing in the morning,but I reread it and the only thing ‘wrong’ was the facetious statement that “the ONLY people who love cities..”. Thats a bit of a stretch, and I suspect I knew it was and it wasn’t put in there for the purpose of drumming up support for a “lets get rid of cities” campaign. It was more meant to take some of the smugness out of the city superiority. Again, you see rural people go to cities because they HAVE to, to shop or to work. You see city people go to rural areas for very different reasons, because they WANT to.

    Of course people all have different interests and issues-again, there are few studies, but it would be VERY interesting to see just how many people are actually LIVING their preference. Do all those people flocking from NB REALLY prefer living in Fort MacMurray? Are the hookers there that much better? Or is it just for jobs? Of course by that reasoning Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John are barely even ‘cities’. So maybe its right to just empty out the maritimes because people are better off in big cities-because if they are better off in high concentrations of people, its logical to assume that the MORE concentrated they are, the better. See the point?

    The rural people I’m speaking OF, not FOR, are those such as the record numbers who turn out for, gee, I don’t know, how about anti fracking protests. There is an ‘industry’, but look at the rural people who are opposing it. Look at the number of people who opposed the factory farms in Saint Anne. Look at the number of people who opposed the Bennett soil treatment plant in Belledune. I could go on, but surely you get that point. David used to often malign the fate of the group that wanted to build a seniors community in a rural area that was basically run out by the government.

    How many ‘protests’ have you seen come from rural areas demanding economic development? Good grief man, rural areas have watched their population dwindle faster than many places that are FORCIBLY emptied with hardly a whimper about ‘gainful employment’. As for people’s WANTS, well, I personally don’t want to be ‘gainfully employed’-I only want the MONEY that will let me live a certain way. My point there was MEANT to be exactly what the above post says-namely that people are different. If you want to know what rural people want-ASK them. Don’t pretend you are smarter than them and know more than they do and ‘know whats best’ for them. The fracking issue is a good example, there you don’t NEED to ask, because they are coming out of the woodwork to OPPOSE that ‘economic development’. That doesn’t mean they don’t want ED though, they simply have conditions.

    That, of course, is what is wrong with the Finn Report. Rural people quite rightly fear being amalgamated by larger urban centres who will then dictate to them how to live-and they will be powerless because they haven’t the numbers to defend themselves.

    As for the last, I don’t know what the heck you are thinking of. Montessori schools basically function ‘teacherless’-and thats at a YOUNG age. In fact, if you look at the literature and where teaching is going, it is FAR less concerned with ‘teaching’ and more concerned with ‘enabling’. Even in NB, which is no stalwart of educational initiative, the Department of Education three years ago had a pilot program where teachers did NO teaching, but only facilitating. This is where education is headed, its the FUTURE, and its people that talk about the status quo that are living in the past. Ever seen a home school co-op? Ironically, one aspect of SOME 1800’s educational policies return to montessori and home school infrastructure-namely, that STUDENTS themselves learn to facilitate the learning of those younger than themselves. In some places this was quite common right up to after world war two when education became more structured and formalized.

    And studies show that these alternative teaching methods do a MUCH better job preparing students for post secondary education. And as I’ve said numerous times, there is pretty clear evidence that the further you have to ship a student to school, the worse their educational outcomes are. Right now the students who do the worst in NB are rural francophones-which are typically the MOST rural. In Vermont, in the nineties they made a point of building more schools in rural areas and within several years saw their testing scores rise to the national average. In NB, they chose the opposite tact, and it lead to predictable results. And in the end you end up PAYING for that lack of education.

  8. “The myth that rural NB does not pay its share has become so embedded in the commentary that no one feels obliged to explain it. Please enlighten me – what are the services that rural NB enjoys and does not pay for.”

    I would say the opposite is true; a large majority of posts on media websites claim that rural residents are over-taxed. In fact there are very little publically-available data one way or the other. However, if you separate out the ‘suburban’ LSDs close to municipalities (which should be part of those munis IMHO) and focus on the ‘true rurals’, I think a survey of their tax revenue would show that they do not pay enough for fire or police services, let alone waste management, road maintenance, zoning, etc etc. I suppose that latter comment will generate the usual “We don’t get those services”, yet I live in an LSD and see town fire vehicles roaring by on their way to an emergency on a daily basis. Likewise with RCMP cars. The overtime costs there must be substantial. The local tax mill rate has not moved upwards for decades; I do not see how the increase in property values can be keeping up with those costs. Then again, we are like mushrooms, are we not – kept in the dark and fed BS.

    There is a $70 million number ‘subsidy’ number floating around, but I have never seen the documentation. Perhaps we can at least agree that we are badly governed and need a good dose of data. I doubt that there is another provice where transparency is so poor, and yet the media (including the CBC) can’t seem understand the importance of that data in a rational debate.

    You can debate the sematics, but GNB is turning services and the costs of running them over to local authorities. Yes taxes will go up. GNB knows that taxes must go up, but they want the towns and LSDs to take the heat of doing what needs to be done. We’d be far better off if mergers took place now. But, the majority of LSD residents no doubt feel as you do that somehow we’d be better off if nothing changed. So GNB goes 1/2 way and sets up another layer of bureaucracy in regional commissions, allowing the local communities to ‘have their say’. I predict that in a decade or so many of these local communities will be heavily in debt, and we will end up with very large municipalities as a ‘solution’ (Cape Breton Regional Muncipality, anyone?). I say ‘do it now’ and spare us the expense.

  9. Not that many LSD’s want NOTHING to change. Lincoln is now trying to become corporate, and as I’ve said, Geary has been BEGGING for years to be allowed to become a village. What they DON”T want is to become part of Oromocto.

    As for costs for services, THAT is something that can be worked out-and usually is. Again, for services, you can do the research yourself, but there was a CBC article months ago that talked about a study from the government that showed that MOST LSD’s were NOT being subsidized (forget the point that municipalities are also subsidized in LOTS of various ways, in fact the feds were just bragging that they send more to cities now than they EVER had before).

    And like I said, the provincial government just passed a law stating that not only would rural people be taxed according to the services they recieve but also the administrative costs. So that covers the ‘cost’ issue.

    And again, I don’t see the media even TALKING about that, so in the end, sorry to be confrontational, but you have educated people like Richard who have ingrained biases about amalgamation, even though the cost issue has already been dealt with.

    The logic is SUPPOSED to be that the further away from city centre you live, the less property tax you pay, depending on your housing structure. That’s because there is a BIG difference between living next door to a fire station, and living twenty minutes away from it.

    Many rural areas have their OWN volunteer fire department, and police services are generally inconsequential. There are no noise bylaws in rural areas, so one of the main functions of city police isn’t even applicable there. And seeing police go by isn’t really indicative of their function or purpose, and doesn’t even get into the cost issue, which again, has been covered a couple of times by the CBC, and no doubt is available on the government’s website.

  10. Hate to double post, but there’s a perfect example of this just recently in Rusagonis. Irving wants to build a Natural Gas Terminal, and far from usual outcry, nobody is really debating whether it should be there or not, however, on the governance issue, here’s some quotes..

    “Irving Energy has been given approval to build a compressed natural gas facility just outside of Fredericton, which has some area residents upset they weren’t consulted and concerned about the possible impacts.”

    But the local service district committee — which usually works with the provincial government on services because the rural community doesn’t have a municipal council — only found out about the project last week, according to committee member David Shipley.

    The province’s rural district planning commission gave the go ahead without seeking input, he said.

    Although committee members are keen on the development, they wanted to attach conditions to the approval, such as a traffic study, increasing the buffer zone around the facility, and the possibility of getting water storage on the site in case a forest fire broke out, said Shipley.

    Instead, they are left feeling powerless and questioning what powers the rural district planning commission really has, he said.

    “As part of the terms and conditions, we were hoping that the rural planning commission would explore this. And the way they explained this is they don’t have the power to attach the terms and conditions. Which, if you were a town or a city, you could attach all kinds of conditions to any project you wanted to,” he said.

    The conclusion was basically preaching both from Irving AND the provincial government that basically says “you go back home and don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of everything and we’re real smart people with only your best interests at heart”

    And if you believe THAT coming from a provincial bureaucrat, dude, you are as dumb as toast.

Comments are closed.