Is the death of the small town inevitable?

London - from

London – from

One of those unexpected detours that life presents from time to time saw my husband and me diverted from our carefully-planned path of big-city living to what struck me at the time as a quaint outpost in eastern Canada.  Little did I know when we made that move from London (and previously Montreal) to New Brunswick that, aside from a few meaningful interruptions, it would remain our home – of choice – for the next several decades.  As cities have become bigger and bigger, their costs higher and higher, and traffic worse and worse, the advantages of smaller centers have become clearer, at least to those of us who live there.  Even the big franchises have seen the value of smaller centers as they have looked further afield for places to increase their revenue streams.  So the initial disadvantages – lack of good restaurants and shopping, poor air connections – have diminished over time and the advantages – clean air, short commute times, affordable living costs, and friendly, safe communities – are seen to hold increased value.

My town - from

My town – from

Well, maybe and maybe not.  The reality is that the world is undergoing profound changes.  We know that people have been leaving rural areas throughout North America for some time.  Massive changes in agricultural practices have changed the farming landscape, and now the same is happening with forestry and even the fisheries.  What about our small and mid-sized towns?  How vulnerable are they?  Although you’d think they’d be seen as a welcomed alternative to big city living, the reality is that very few city dwellers sit around contemplating a move from the city (or suburbs), except maybe for retirement.  In order to survive, even currently flourishing small and mid-sized towns must be vigilant about maintaining a stable (or expanding) population.  The attendant complex issues are what municipalities and larger jurisdictions of small populations need to continually address: attracting and maintaining solid employment opportunities, supporting strategic immigration, and generally creating the infrastructure to secure the ingredients of a high quality of life.  Phew, that’s a lot to ask.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I spent the first few days of my Christmas Week reading a book by Doug Saunders called Arrival City: the Final Migration and Our Next World.  The books my younger son gives me are always thought provoking, but this one was particularly so.  Based on many years of research and personal interviews by this journalist, Mr. Saunders has investigated the tidal wave of global migration and has come to some profound conclusions that have stayed with me since putting the book down.  It strikes me that there are lessons to be learned from Saunders’ observations for small and mid-sized towns as well as for big cities, for different reasons.

The underlying narrative of the book is the reality that right across the globe, in developed countries as well as developing countries, people are leaving villages in droves and heading to big cities in search of a better life.  The premise is that in most rural areas, subsistence farming no longer provides a sustainable livelihood for families.  According to the book, the romantic picture we have of villagers growing food for their families on their small plots of land or fishing as their families have been doing for generations isn’t romantic at all.  It is back-breaking work, with impoverished families trying to eke out an existence, but due to plots that are too small, changing weather patterns, worn out soil, and no more fish, they fall further and further behind each year.  They can’t afford to send their kids to school and they have no livelihoods to pass on to them.  The model is broken.

Shacks on outskirts of Lima

Shacks on outskirts of Lima

According to Saunders, what look like slums and shantytowns on the edge of big cities around the world to my naive eye may in fact be successful “arrival cities”,  transitional way-stations through which people pass as they scramble to get a toehold in the city.  The slums that are built on the sand dune hills on the outskirts of Lima, Peru came to mind; I had fallen for the romantic notion of peasants planting potatoes in the fresh air of the Andean highlands and saw the urban alternative as being so grim, but I had been looking through an uninformed lens.

Andean highlands

Andean highlands

If the public policy in a given jurisdiction is supportive, these new arrivals are able to save their pennies, send money home to their parents in the village, save for their kids to go to school, and even start small businesses.  They are investing in the future of their children.  The public policy discussions in Doug Saunders’ book are very instructive, and their implications are brought to life by numerous examples from a diverse range of countries with differing public policy producing strikingly different outcomes.  I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in this important topic.

But, as I said earlier, this book had me thinking beyond the global story of villagers moving to megacities.  I found myself dwelling on the likely future of my own little corner of the world, where outward migration from rural areas is mirroring what is happening elsewhere.  In our small, largely rural province, the three largest “cities” have seen slight increases in population, from people moving in from rural areas and also from some immigration (although we’d welcome more).  But we have a hard time keeping people here, especially young people, as they look to what they see as greener pastures.  And this pressure on population levels close to home, in light of the messages in Doug Saunders’ book, is what motivates the question I ask myself: is there a future for areas of small populations?

To be honest, I think it’s going to be a big challenge.  We cannot be complacent.  I don’t think we can count on our provincial (I can’t say about state governments, but my guess is that it’s fairly similar) and especially federal governments to make our towns their priorities.  One of the best things about areas of small populations is that people care enough about their communities to get involved, but that won’t be enough on its own, nor will the status quo.  In each jurisdiction, people need to appreciate that the greater world around them is changing rapidly.  Wherever people are charged with developing long-term strategic visions for their towns and cities, they should read Doug Saunders’ Arrival City first.  He is writing about the “next world”, the world that is emerging.  If we want to be part of it – and it will be a struggle – we must understand it and determine a viable role in a new order.

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14 Responses to Is the death of the small town inevitable?

  1. Gina says:

    I grew up in Nova Scotia, in a small village of about ~1000 people. I’ve been in Montreal for 4 years (for school) and I gotta say… I really can’t wait until I move back to rural NS. It WILL be harder to find work, and the shopping isn’t as good…. but I’m sick of breathing smog and exhaust fumes, and the constant background noise of traffic. I miss the smell of apple orchards and being able to COUNT the number of cars that go by your house in an afternoon, and WAVING at people (and having them wave back!). Things are so much different in small towns. So much happier. So much simpler. 🙂 Thanks for the great post!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for finding this post. It’s a topic dear to my heart. Living in NB, I couldn’t agree more, but I do have concerns. We need to find and support entrepreneurs who want to set up shop in areas of low population, establishing businesses that can survive and prosper in these areas. Fingers crossed.

      • Gina says:

        Very true. People always look at me strange when I say I’m coming back and ask “why wouldn’t you go west for work?”. To me, the economy in Atlantic Canada is so bad BECAUSE young people keep leaving. We have to start bringing and keeping our skills home in order for things to change.

  2. jane tims says:

    Hi Jane. I love living in a rural area so much. I actually grew up in a small city and knew sidewalks and small yards for most of my early life. We pay in terms of transportation costs, but to me the costs and savings balance. In New Brunswick, we are losing people from rural areas to towns and cities, but we are also losing people to larger cities outside the province! Jane

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know what you mean. We feel blessed to live in this special place. I wish I were less concerned for its future and I wish I had some concrete suggestions for how we can ensure a sustainable and even prosperous future.

  3. bill holland says:

    Jane : We all have to move to larger centres after our schooling to have an oppertunity to get a job and various experiences,which we can bring with us when we move back home. We can then re-new the cycle by teaching our younger generation our experiences before they also repeat the cycle. YOU did and I did and many more will. Unfortunately it takes today almost two wage earners to pay the bills and I cannot blame the younger generation for trying to find that opportunity in the meantime away from home. THEY, like us, WILL BE BACK in due course.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I appreciate these observations, my optimistic friend. That is my hope as well. However, if you think about how much life has changed in our lifetimes (farming life, such as your parents’ livelihood and that of the people who owned the beautiful now-non-farmed land you now live on, has pretty well ended in our part of the world) and how much smaller (and later) families are, it’s a pretty iffy situation. If a third of our kids return at some point, that leaves us needing to replace at least 2/3 of them just to stand still, and very few people from elsewhere in Canada or the U.S. think of coming east except to retire. That’s why immigration (and good jobs, and a community supportive of new immigrants) is/are so critical. Mind you, if we all did as well as you have at keeping our kids close to home, our region would be less vulnerable. So, (1) I like the way you think and (2) I hope you’re right! Thanks for your comments, Bill.

  4. I’ve seen our small county that is 60% national forest grow in astounding ways. When my kids were growing up I knew practically everyone in our small county. We have a small town with a couple grocers, four gas stations, main employer is the school system and county government, one industry of a sand plant that employs about 30, a Wilderness Adventure camp that employs about 20-30 young people, a library,15 – 20 churchs, several hometown restaurants and one school with three sections (elementary, middle school and high school). The school population is around 700 for all three levels. The rest of the county is farming country but so much is turning into developements as the farms are split up. I hate seeing this.
    Now, I go to town and i still see people I’ve always known but they are far out-weighed by the people I don’t know. In the last 10 years we have had scores of people move here from the north and from the far west of the United States. Everyone is looking for the wide open spaces and small towns in my neck of the woods.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      That’s very encouraging news. I’ll have to take a look at what factors might be making such a difference. Our next door neighbor to the west is Maine. Except for the area around Portland, I wonder what their population dynamics look like. Hmm, time for more research! Thanks, Rita.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I should qualify that I don’t see the loss of local farmland as encouraging, but that your rural area is seen as a positive place to live by “outsiders”. That at least ensures that services like local schools,etc. stay vibrant. Better than people “leaving in droves”!

  5. It’s eerie how much your comments ring true here, just a bit further east. ‘Leaving in droves,’ is a bit of a watchword for our rural areas too. It’s a shame — the east-coast rural life has so very much to offer. I shall get a copy of that book the next chance I have; it’s wisdom and advice will no doubt apply here too.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know, it makes me very sad. I guess all we can do is to work hard to make sure our communities remain vibrant and keep our fingers crossed. Personally, I feel blessed that by a stroke of good luck we ended up living in this sparsely populated, scenically and historically rich part of the world.

  6. DM says:

    there are probably 2 dozen small towns within a 30 mile radius of where we live. If I were just starting out trying to buy a home I would live in anyone of them @ this point. I remember the wanderlust I used to feel when I was younger. funny how that perspective changes when you start raising a family.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I agree. It seems like 20 small towns in proximity to a larger center should be sustainable in the long term. I’m not sure about ones that are more isolated or are lacking a critical mass (and employment opportunities) within close range, but I’m sure cheering for them.

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