The population problem: How rural decline is reshaping North America

Fazley Siddiq named a Fulbright Chair for 2012-13

- June 26, 2012

Fazley Siddiq outside of the Woodrow Wilson Center, where he'll be spending much of the next year. (Provided photo)
Fazley Siddiq outside of the Woodrow Wilson Center, where he'll be spending much of the next year. (Provided photo)

The 2011 Canadian census reads not unlike A Tale of Two Cities – or a tale of the city and the country, if you will.

The “best of times” story is that Canada’s urban centres are strengthening in population, boosted in no small part by significant immigration numbers in major cities like Toronto and Vancouver. The “worst of times” story: population declines in rural areas, posing significant political, economic and social challenges for Canada’s future.

“It’s a real tragedy, because the metropolitan/non-metropolitan balance that we’ve had has been altered in a way that’s not desirable,” explains Fazley Siddiq, economics professor at Dalhousie’s School of Public Administration and a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

“It’s one thing to say that we’re becoming more and more urbanized, a modern industrialized country. Those developments sound positive, and they are in many respects. But behind the mask of that success is a hollowing out of much of the rest of Canada. And if it isn’t happening yet in certain parts of the country, the potential for this trend to get a lot worse is there.”

Dr. Siddiq was just named a Fulbright Research Chair for 2012-13. He’ll be spending much of the next year at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., working on a comparative study of population trends between Canada and the United States.

His work will focus on the population growth in the large metropolitan areas such as Calgary and Miami, in the process examining growth trends of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States and six in Canada (those with a population in excess of one million). At the same time, he’ll be looking at the related declines in certain non-metropolitan areas, especially in Atlantic Canada and certain parts of the Northeast and the Midwest of the United States.

The challenges of decline

The research was inspired by Dr. Siddiq’s concern for the declining population in certain parts of the Maritimes – most notably, areas in Nova Scotia outside of Halifax. Over the past five years, the population of the Halifax Regional Municipality increased 4.7 per cent, but Nova Scotia’s overall population increased a mere 0.9 per cent, with many counties experiencing significant declines. Some of the hardest struck areas have been Guysborough County (minus 10 per cent) and Shelburne County (minus 6.7 per cent).

Dr. Siddiq notes that while urban growth is not without its challenges—congestion, pollution, traffic and infrastructure, housing and schooling—the increase in population brings with it more business activity and a larger tax base, which can support solutions for addressing those challenges. And then there are the positives of urbanization: more career opportunities, a younger dynamic population, housing booms and more.

“A declining population, in contrast, I don’t see too many positives associated with it,” says Dr. Siddiq. “It can be quite traumatic for families and businesses when home prices go down, jobs become increasingly scarce and businesses no longer are sustainable in small communities. So then people leave, leading to another reduction in business activity and home prices. It’s a downward spiraling effect.”

He notes that the implications for the public sector are equally significant: a declining tax base for local or municipal governments, and a struggle for provincial governments trying to maintain basic services—schools, hospitals, roads—in these shrinking communities.

Anyone who’s followed developments in rural Nova Scotia over the past few years, from school closures to major industry departures like New Page and Bowater, knows this story all too well.

“Our history has been one of an expanding frontier, and economic activity spilling over. That’s why we have the country that we do. But whether we will continue to be able to sustain viable communities, viable populations, in far-flung areas, is something that causes me great concern.”

Lessons to learn

These trends are not unique to Canada, which is why Dr. Siddiq hopes that a more detailed comparative analysis between Canada and the United States can illuminate lessons for addressing the consequences of the population shift from rural to urban centres.

“The idea of the Fulbright program is to create a broader understanding between citizens of the U.S. and the rest of the world. So I think that by serving as a Fulbright Chair or Scholar is an opportunity for learning that bridges understanding between Canada and the U.S.” In that sense, Professor Siddiq’s appointment as next year’s Fulbright Research Chair in Canada-U.S. Relations at the Wilson Center provides the ideal opportunity to further bilateral understanding between the two countries.       

Dr. Siddiq notes that like in Canada, where the rural decline phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the east, the United States dynamics are also regional: much of the trend is happening in the nonmetropolitan areas of the Northeast and Midwest.

His work will assess these trends and provide a framework for asking the more challenging question: what can we do about them?

“There is no easy answer,” he says. “Can we reverse this? I think that would be a very challenging task. So it’s really not so much a reversal of trend, than a slowing down, so that our communities can better adjust. And for that reason, we need effective public policies that are reasonable and balanced, that will create opportunities right across the Province of Nova Scotia, to take us as an example, without compromising on some of the broad elements of economic growth and development.”


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