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.
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.
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.
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.