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Slow Growth and Urban Development Policy
Average reader rating: 9  
by Christopher Leo and Wilson Brown 03 the future of Urban Development

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 overriding goal.

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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