A number of years ago, with help from two friends, I published a pair of academic articles on the subject of slow urban growth, a topic that had previously received almost no attention, either by academics or in the “real world”. The articles were novel because they a challenged conventional wisdom, in which it was taken for granted that slow urban population growth was undesirable. This view was so entrenched that, for the most part, both academics and practitioners stated it as fact without bothering to argue the case.
In my articles — you can read them by clicking here and here. — I argued that neither slow growth nor rapid growth is inherently good or bad, but that they are different in ways that our decision-makers need to appreciate. On the surface, it looks as if the articles may have had a modest influence, at least in Winnipeg, because today slow growth is often spoken of simply as a fact, not as a blight to be eradicated. But policy doesn’t change as easily as language.
In the articles about slow growth, I argued that our cities can’t be governed intelligently if leaders don’t understand how rates of population growth change the game in such important policy areas as housing, economic development, infrastructure and even immigration. Although in some ways governance has improved since then, in others policy remains mired in the ways of the past. So now is a good time to take another look at the research. Let’s look at those four policy areas, and see what’s changed and what hasn’t.
A major advantage of slow growth is that it keeps housing prices down. Everyone knows that, however much we may complain about rents in Winnipeg, both rental and purchase cost more yet in such growth magnets as Toronto and Vancouver. Finding housing is a struggle everywhere for low income earners, but it is a much greater struggle in Vancouver than here — so much so that, as I have argued elsewhere, gentrification remains a non-issue in Winnipeg.
Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson has courageously declared a policy of ending homelessness, and has made serious progress toward that goal. In a rapidly growing city, everyone understands that the elimination of homelessness is a long shot, but in Winnipeg it would be a much less daunting venture.
Infrastructure and services
Of all the slow growth arguments I’ve advanced over the years, this is the one that has received the most public attention and the least policy response. Some readers, listeners and viewers may well be tired of hearing me argue that Winnipeg city council pursues a de facto policy of allowing developers to locate new development almost anywhere they wish, and accepting an obligation to extend all of its services — from roads and sewers to snow removal and mosquito control — to the far-flung new neighbourhoods.
As a result, we’re spending so much money on infrastructure and services that we can’t even afford to maintain our streets, let alone pursue more ambitious policy objectives –- for example the abolition of homelessness.
In my other two policy areas, governance has become smarter than it was when I published the first of my two slow growth articles. It has long been the habit of slow-growth cities to imagine they can magically accelerate growth by chasing smokestacks and glass towers – using taxpayer giveaways to lure national or international corporations. Those policies were usually disastrously misconceived, for many reasons, not the least of which were that the cost of subsidies reduced or even wiped out any possible gains and that the companies that were lured by subsidies often took their first opportunity to look for better subsidies elsewhere.
For slow growth cities everywhere, these policies were always a race to the bottom and often self-defeating –- a reality that has been increasingly recognized in recent years. Since the early 2000s, Winnipeg’s decision-makers have pursued a line of policy that is both more moderate and more promising, emphasizing the identification of existing areas of economic strength, building upon them, and seeking opportunities for the export of local production, in preference to luring producers from elsewhere to locate mega-projects here.
A particularly successful economic development initiative, for both Winnipeg and Manitoba as a whole — one any self-respecting smokestack chaser would sniff at — has been the promotion of immigration, which takes us to our next topic.
In my original slow-growth article, I argued that, while cities like Vancouver were struggling to deal with a massive influx of immigrants, Winnipeg offered ideal circumstances for a policy of encouraging more immigration. Those conditions included labour shortages and an inexpensive housing stock that stood to benefit from hard-working immigrants looking for “fixer-uppers”. I don’t know if anyone was paying attention to what I was saying, but in fact government has recognized these realities.
The provincial government, in close consultation with community groups, and in co-operation with the federal government, developed the so-called provincial nominee program, whereby many thousands of immigrants have come to Winnipeg to fill available jobs. The program was so successful that it was recognized around the world as a model, because it met both social and economic objectives, by offering good jobs and a place in the community to immigrants while simultaneously addressing critical labour shortages. It remains to be seen whether recent changes in federal-provincial arrangements for immigration, forced upon the provinces by the federal government, will undermine these successes.
At the best of times, smart policy-making is a challenge in an arena where federal, provincial and local governments have to co-ordinate their activities in a complex economic and technological environment. It’s encouraging that the political discourse in Winnipeg has recognized the salience of urban growth rates, and responded to that recognition in some areas. At the same time, it’s disheartening that in other areas policy remains trapped in its old ways, and that backsliding is an ever-present danger.