September 9, 2000
The paper distinguishes between cities experiencing high rates
of growth and those growing more slowly and argues that 1) widely-held
North American assumptions to the contrary, slow growth is not a
pathology; and 2) since we do tend to view it as a pathology, we
fail to plan for it, and, instead follow policies more appropriate
to rapidly-growing centres. Using Winnipeg as the primary example
of a slowly-growing city, but drawing on a wide range of data, the
paper considers the following policy areas: housing, management
of infrastructure, economic development and immigration. In each
of these areas the argument is that policies that may be defensible
in rapidly-growing centres are unthinkingly and inappropriately
followed in slowly-growing cities, where different lines of policy
would be more beneficial. Appropriate policies for slowly growing
cities are suggested, and their merits evaluated.
Growth, Slow Growth and Decline
In North America, growth has long been the Holy Grail of city
politics. In both Canada and the United States, the settlement of
the west and the industrial revolution were marked by boosterism
as expanding cities competed for investment. (Artibise, 1981; Wade,
1959) Within metropolitan areas, a similarly growth-oriented and
competitive environment was evident. From the earliest days of suburban
development, much of the outward expansion of cities took the form
of competition among urbanizing municipalities vying for residential,
commercial and industrial development. (Binford, 1985; Markusen,
1984; Logan and Molotch, 1987, 179-99) Throughout, growth was the
It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find a pervasive assumption
in the academic literature that an absence of growth, or even slow
growth, is an undesirable condition. That notion is extended, not
only to economic growth, but also to population growth.
Slow growth as malaise
Frequently the situation of slow population growth is conflated
with that of a declining population which, significantly, is often
referred to simply as "decline". The idea that the absence of population
growth, or slow growth in population, defines a more generalized
failure formed part of the justification for the United States federal
government's Urban Development Action Grants (Urban and Regional
Policy Group 1978), and population change -- specifically "growth
lag", meaning slower than average growth -- was part of the dual
formula for Community Development Block Grants (Bunce 1979). The
occasional skeptic (Weinstein and Clark 1981, Clark and Ferguson
1983) notwithstanding, academic studies have frequently measured
urban "decline" in terms of indicators that include population change.
(Nathan and Dommel 1977, Muller 1975, Peterson 1976).
Even these relatively careful formulations fall by the wayside in
the "growth talk" commonly heard in the real-world arena of local
politics and business. A typical example is a 1998 talk by a Winnipeg
city planner on planning of the Winnipeg region. In his talk, subtitled
"the issue of growth" the planner assumed, without bothering to
argue the case, that slow but steady population growth over a quarter-century
represented malaise. Citing growth figures that we will review in
a subsequent section of this article, he commented: "Whether you
look at Winnipeg or the region overall, that's still less than one
per cent per year. That growth rate is slower than any of the major
prairie cities." (Couture, 1998, italics added)
Turning to figures which showed that municipalities surrounding
the central city were taking a substantial share of regional growth,
the planner expressed concern about the extension of urban infrastructure
to serve a relatively thinly-scattered population as a problem.
The solution he proposed, however, was, not to a slow-down in the
development of infrastructure, but a speed-up of growth.
Among North American readers, a very likely reaction to these observations
is, "So what?" Most of us are so accustomed to growth talk that
any alternative view of the world may seem quixotic, romantic and
idealistic perhaps, desirable even in a better world we might imagine,
but not worthy of serious attention. A glance at some European cities,
however, may give us pause.
Downs (1994, 67) classifies American cities that gained less than
10 per cent population from 1980 to 1990 -- the equivalent of 0.96
per cent a year, assuming a constant growth rate -- as slowly-growing.
If they lost population at a rate of 0.1 to 4.9 per cent over ten
years, they were categorized as slowly-declining. Greater population
losses were categorized as rapidly-declining. By that criterion,
some of the world's great cities would have to be classified as
"suffering" from slow growth, or even decline.
A United Nations study compares the growth rates of European "functional
urban regions", which are characterized as being equivalent to American
Statistical Metropolitan Areas (SMAs). (United Nations Centre for
Human Settlements 1996, 16-17, 60) According to that study, European
metropolitan areas that would have been classified by Downs as slowly-growing
or declining include Vienna, Brussels, Copenhagen, Cologne, Frankfurt,
Hamburg, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples and Rome.
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