Cities that are growing slowly are often thought to be in trouble for no other reason than slow growth. The residents and leaders of slow-growth cities often sound as if they’re apologizing for themselves. In reality, it’s not slow growth, but mismanaged growth that’s likely to be the problem.
Take the example of Winnipeg, which has a very modest growth rate and, and, in terms of collective self-image, an ego to match. The word “decline” is often, and inaccurately, used in describing the city’s economy, or population. In self-characterizations, harsh winters and mosquitoes are invariably mentioned, salubrious summer weather and Winnipeg’s acknowledged status as the “performing arts capital of Canada” almost never. If self-deprecation is charming, Winnipeg is Charm City.

The evidence does not support this gloomy self-assessment. Neither the city’s population nor its economy is in decline. Calculating from Table One, I find that Winnipeg’s average annual population growth rate in the decade preceding 2004 was .32 per cent: slower than Frankfurt, the primary financial centre of continental Europe (0.91 per cent annual average, 1985-95); but much faster than Milan, a powerhouse of the Italian economy (-1.59), and Copenhagen, a city of legendary attractiveness and liveability (-0.28).
The population growth rate gives still less cause for concern when we consider it together with the growth of the economy, and when we compare Winnipeg with rapidly-growing Vancouver on both dimensions. Table One reveals that Winnipeg’s economic growth from 1994 through 2003 outpaced its population growth in all but two years, and never fell behind. Vancouver did not fare as well, with the result that Winnipeg’s per capita Gross Domestic Product – a measure of economic activity – steadily gained on Vancouver’s.

(Click on the table to enlarge it.)
However one may interpret those figures, they don’t suggest that Winnipeg is declining. Nor does a comparison of unemployment rates show that Winnipeg is in greater trouble than Vancouver. On the contrary, Winnipeg’s average unemployment rate was the same as or lower than Vancouver’s eight out of 10 years – substantially lower most of the time.

Instead of being characterized as decline, Winnipeg’s slow growth could easily be seen as an asset, since, in part at least, it stems from the fact that the economic base is a well-balanced mix of agriculture, manufacturing, government (the provincial capital and a major regional centre for the federal government) and education (two universities and a community college), not subject to booms, but also relatively well-insulated from busts.

If we want to do an intelligent job of managing cities that are growing slowly, we have to begin by understanding that slow growth is simply a circumstance, not a pathology. We need to appreciate the implications of our city’s rate of growth whatever it may be, in order to manage well. But speeding up the growth – something we’re unlikely to accomplish anyway – will not necessarily improve things.

Want to find out more? Look for a full discussion in Christopher Leo and Katie Anderson, “Being Realistic about Urban Growth.” Journal of Urban Affairs. 28:2, 2006.
To consider some further policy implications of urban growth rates, take a look at Christopher Leo and Wilson Brown, “Slow Growth and Urban Development Policy.” Journal of Urban Affairs, 22 (2), 2000, 193-213; and section 3.2 of Christopher Leo, “Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 39:3, 2006, 481-506.

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