(Originally published in the Dec. 2013 issue of the Nova Scotia Business Journal)
By Fred Morley
Awhile back I was in the boomtown of St. John’s and had a chance to meet Zita Cobb. Ms. Cobb is behind the economic revival taking place on Fogo Island and in particular the development of the now world famous Fogo Island Inn in Joe Batt’s Arm. Zita speaks passionately about the vital importance rural areas play in shaping the character of their provinces. In her view, rural areas are the custodians of our culture and our sense of place. In many respects they make us who we are as a people. Rural areas are not only important they are indispensable.
It’s easy to see parallels in Nova Scotia. Is there a stronger sense of place anywhere in Canada than on Cape Breton Island? Is there a deeper connection to the ocean that surrounds most of the province than in Lunenburg? There is no place with a stronger musical culture. However many of the songs we sing are about leaving.
Rural areas are shrinking. Sometimes the thought is that people are moving to Halifax. But 54,355 people who lived in Nova Scotia five years ago live in some other province today according to the National Household Survey. (To be fair, 50,000 people have also moved from other provinces to Nova Scotia).
The fact is, many rural Nova Scotians are bypassing Halifax and heading west. Our largest urban centre is growing below potential. In 1956, Nova Scotia was about 56 per cent urban. Today, two generations later, that number is the same. Canada has changed considerably over those years and is now more than 80 per cent urban. Despite this, in much of Canada rural areas have not declined and in some places they have even grown. The research is in. Rural depopulation is not a function of urban growth.
So Canada and Nova Scotia and other Maritime provinces have ended up in a different place economically with a much different split between rural and urban. The question is… how would our economy and our demographics differ if Nova Scotia and the Maritimes urbanized at the same rate as the rest of Canada?
New Brunswick economist David Campbell worked some numbers on this and came up with some interesting figures. Looking at New Brunswick, Campbell points out that if that province’s cities had grown at the same pace of the top quartile of Canadian cities since 1951, New Brunswick would have a population today of 1.6 million people. Again, based on the pattern in the rest of Canada, the rural population would be about the same as it was then.
Working the numbers for Nova Scotia, our province would have 1.9 million people today with about 80 per cent in urban centres and no rural depopulation. Much of the population growth would have come from people staying rather than going down the road over the past 60 years. Indeed, our population would have been further bolstered by other Canadians and immigrants attracted to Nova Scotia by our growth.
The implication here is that stronger urban economies actually support a stronger rural economy because those economies are linked. It’s pretty easy to see how this works. Growth in Nova Scotia’s wine industry depends on day trips from Halifax. Marketing and tech firms in Bridgewater partner and work with businesses in Halifax. Rural manufacturing and resource industries depend on Halifax’s port and airport and they, in turn, depend on the business generated by rural companies. It’s the same story of linkage across every sector of our economy.
Unfortunately, for Nova Scotia, many of us are still held captive by the zero sum thinking that if rural areas are declining it’s because urban centres are growing. This is how leaders and policy makers have viewed the urban-rural issue for decades. Zero sum works politically, for a few years, but makes for poor economic decisions.
The reality is that our rural areas are in decline not because our urban centres have grown, but because our cities and towns have not grown fast enough. If we were serious about stopping decline in rural areas we should be stoking the urban growth engines of our economy and allowing them to pull our whole province along. Our rural areas are too important for us to continue on our current path.
You may also be interested in:
Fred Morley is the executive vice president and chief economist of the Greater Halifax Partnership. He has written over 100 articles on economic growth issues and presented his views to dozens of organizations and governments around the world. You can reach Fred at email@example.com.