A vibrant city
by Don Cayo


How much of the Maritimes long-term regional economic failure stems from our failure to develop a real city? That question weighed heavy on my mind last week during a heady five days I spent in Toronto sopping up Ideas that Matter at a conference of that name.

Ideas that Matter honoured Jane Jacobs, the elderly impish iconoclast whose thinking sets on its ear old wisdoms in city planning, economics, and moral philosophy – to name just a few of her interests. She sees the healthy city, not the nation or the region, as the driver of prosperity in every society throughout history and around the world. And she sees healthy city as close to chaos – awash in diversity and competition, counting only on the constancy of change.

And that’s what I mean by “a real city” and our collective failure to build one here. What we settled for was a few over-grown company towns. In Saint John the company was Irving; in Moncton it was CN. Halifax and Fredericton and Charlottetown grew fat on government and university salaries. Sydney was addicted to coal and steel.

Economists, stung by Jacobs’ tart dismissal of truths that most of them held dear, were slow to look seriously at the theories of this 81-year-old high school graduate. But they’re looking now – and they’re finding in their crunched numbers a lot of substance to what she says. Diversity is key to every successful economy around the globe. Milking one cow – be it a tangible resource like wood products or an intangible one like government largesse – may feed a few folks for a while. But it cannot make an economy strong.

In Jacobs’ view, a strong city spins wealth beyond its fringe. It becomes a hub of new ideas and new markets, a gateway for trade. As a rule of thumb, the stronger the city, the greater the prosperity and the larger the hinterland.

The Maritimes have, for 100-plus years, seen outside cities fill this metropolitan function of guiding and driving our wealth-creation. Boston was a player at one time [and may yet be again.] Montreal had its day. And now Toronto and, as far as government is concerned, Ottawa man our economic tiller.

If history were fair, Saint John would be the Maritime metropolis. But any realistic hope died early, first when Fredericton became the provincial capital, then with Moncton’s growth as a railway hub. Urban energy in New Brunswick has been divided and conquered to the point where, as Cape Breton writer Silver Donald Cameron puts it, “there’s one city – in three locations.”

Halifax has boasted the region’s largest population only since the turn of the century, but its size never gave it true regional clout. Part of the reason – perhaps most of it – is jealousy. Government after government, provincial and federal, studiously avoids policies that might let one city win, no doubt in well-founded fear that the others would see themselves as losers. So they dispense goodies like dealers at cards – one for you, one for you, one for . . .

The result is an economy that is very dependent and not very diversified.

But note that, as the plug is pulled on policies that supported and fostered our dependency, our diversity grows. Look at Moncton. It weaned itself cold turkey from the CN teat – it had to when the railway laid off most of its workers there. What happened? It has bounded back stronger and more diversified than its biggest boosters ever dreamed.

So, too, in Halifax, Canada’s second-most government-dependent city. Its jobs were savaged by government cuts this decade. Yet it, too, is strong and growing.

Other places are also diversifying, albeit less dramatically. Saint John has moved beyond its roots as a blue-collar town; Fredericton is quietly developing a high-tech sector.

The question that lingers is whether all of them – or indeed, any of them – can get strong and diverse enough quickly enough to direct and foster region-wide economic growth. I don’t think it’s in governments’ power to make it happen; I know, however, that governments can do much to prevent it from happening.

We’ve got to stop trying to be “fair” – a strategy that only drags all down to the lowest common denominator. We’ve got to stop skewing investment decisions with subsidies and dumb politics – a process that only skewers real growth in the places it would otherwise go. We’ve got to understand that if we develop just one “real city” its satellites will be stronger than they are now, isolated from the levers of economic control.

I won’t say just let the best city win. That risks a subjective, divisive debate about which is “best”. Worse, that’s a debate that government, with a pathetic record for picking winners, might try to settle.

But we should unfetter the dynamic forces of diversity that, Jane Jacobs tells us, build great cities. If some of our cities win, if any city wins, you can bet the rent it will be “the best”. Best for itself, and best for the region.