Stunted cities, stunted growth.
by Don Cayo


How much of the Maritimes long-term economic weakness stems from the region’s failure to develop a real city? I ask myself that question often, but never moreso than when I read — or re-read — Jane Jacobs’ insightful musings.

Jacobs, if you don’t know of her, is an elderly 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 a healthy city as a place close to chaos — a place awash in diversity and competition, counting only on the constancy of change.

So that’s what I mean by “a real city”. And that’s what I mean when I speak of the Maritimes’ collective failure to build one of our own.

What we in this region have settled for is nothing more than a few over-grown company towns. In Saint John the company was the vertically integrated empire (pulp and ship-building and oil and much, much more) begun by the legendary K.C. Irving and now maintained and expanded by his sons. In Moncton it was Canadian National. Halifax and Fredericton and Charlottetown grew fat on government and university salaries. Sydney was addicted to coal and steel.

Most economists, stung by Jacobs’ tart dismissal of truths that most of them held dear, have been slow to look seriously at the theories of this 81-year-old high school graduate. Her economic ideas were casually brushed off by the “experts” when she first advanced them more than a decade ago.

But a growing number of economists are looking at her theories more closely 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 cities outside our region fill this metropolitan function of guiding and driving our wealth-creation. Boston was a big player at one time [and may yet be again as the Maritimes learn to re-focus on north-south trade]. Montreal also 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 since that time been divided and conquered to the point where, as Cape Breton writer Silver Donald Cameron puts it, “There’s one city — in three locations.” All are small — Saint John, the largest, has (including its several suburbs) a population of only about 125,000 — and none have the critical mass to become engines of growth.

Halifax has just hugely expanded its boundaries, bringing its population to about 300,000. Even without the expansion, it has been the region’s largest city since the turn of the century, but its size advantage 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 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 is growing. Moncton is a text-book example. In the 1980s it weaned itself cold turkey from the CN teat — it had to when the railway laid off most of its workers there. And 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 have been savaged by government cuts — 10,000 good jobs gone this decade alone. Yet it, too, is strong and growing. Its unemployment rate is hovering a half point or so better than the national average.

Other Maritime cities 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 this: Can any of them — or, more likely, any one of them — can get strong enough and diverse enough quickly enough to direct and foster region-wide economic growth?