CBRM's population may be declining, but that doesn't mean it can't be prosperous: researcher
Queen's University professor says population growth should not be sole measure of community success
A planning researcher found Cape Breton Regional Municipality has Canada's most persistent and severe case of urban population decline — but he also says that prosperity is not out of reach.
Queen's University professor Maxwell Hartt recently published a book called Quietly Shrinking Cities, which uses CBRM as a case study to examine urban depopulation, something that he says does not always signal a downturn in the community.
"There are other measures of success that are more important than population, even economic prosperity would be one, but also just in terms of how the community functions and the local well-being," said Hartt.
In his new book, Hartt said CBRM's population has been in decline since 1971. He said the community of Elliot Lake, Ont., has lost more people overall, but its population peak was in 1986.
There are cities in the United States and Europe that have shrunk, but have also been able to prosper in other ways, he said.
What matters is having planners who consult citizens on ways to take advantage of local assets.
"That is the best way to get their input, after all, it's the population that makes a city," Hartt said. "It's not the roads, it's not the buildings, it's the people who live there."
A professor in the geography and planning department at Queen's, Hartt was born and raised in Dartmouth, N.S., but his mother is from Cheticamp and he spent summers there in his youth.
In 2019, CBRM's population grew for the first time in decades thanks to strong growth in international students at Cape Breton University.
Hartt said that's a good sign, but that population increase by itself cannot be counted on to save the region.
"My recommendation is just building in conversations for a wide range of scenarios ... especially when there is so much that's outside of the control of a single university or municipality," he said.
"I think leaning into something that's going well is a great idea, but at the same time, relying on something that's such a global process is inherently risky."
CBRM has hired consultants to conduct a two-year review of its planning and economic development strategies called CBRM Forward.
Hartt said it is important to consider both at the same time, to be able to direct economic development within the region in a smart way that does not increase the cost of services.
CBRM's director of planning Michael Ruus said the overall aim of the review is to grow the tax base in order to pay for the constantly rising cost of municipal services — and to increase the younger population to replace the aging workforce.
"There's really no silver bullet for economic development or community development in general, so our intent with this project is really to pursue an incremental, integrated approach," Ruus said.
The review includes plenty of opportunity for public input and a virtual open house is scheduled for Wednesday evening on the CBRM Forward website, he said.
"The project is really grounded in community engagement and our citizens and businesses will provide a focus on municipal priorities for the future through these two strategies," Ruus said.
Hartt said CBRM is taking the right approach by combining municipal planning with economic development, but he also said focusing solely on growth is not necessarily going to produce results.
"I would personally like to see the assumption of growth not baked right into the planning strategy," he said.
"It's not politically acceptable to not aim for growth and I think that's a bit problematic, and I think that's a reflection of politics in Canada, but also of planning practice."
Hartt said there is not enough research on Canadian shrinking cities to know what is the best way to stabilize and become prosperous, but he is hoping his new book will spark that conversation.
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