Halifax urged to create population growth strategy; other stagnant cities should take note

Matthew Coutts
Halifax skyline
Halifax skyline

Stagnant population growth and fears over an eventual decline have sent officials in Halifax in search of a solution and working on a population growth strategy to counteract the negative effects of a waning constituency.

Even in a time when Canada has seen people flock to large urban centres, there are cities who also being threatened by decline and searching for ways to attract new residents.

Cities that have shrinking or stagnant population levels can face serious problems in the coming years. Having fewer residents, specifically young residents, undercuts the economy, tax base and social support system of the community.

A new report suggests Halifax is set to suffer those pains, unless something is done to address the city's shrinking population.

The Halifax Index 2014, released this week, suggests that the city's population grew by only 0.4 per cent between 2012 and 2013 – the smallest growth among cities of its size. The city had below-average immigration numbers and a higher-than-average unemployment rate, giving young people more reason to seek a future elsewhere.

The report suggested they put a population growth strategy into place, with the focus on attracting immigrants to the city and "stemming the outflow" of young people.

Halifax is not alone in its fear of a waning population, though it is certainly isn’t the norm among Canada’s largest communities.

As small towns see residents move elsewhere in search of opportunities, larger urban centres have tended to be the beneficiary. Statistics Canada numbers suggest cities grew at a rate of 7.4 per cent during the census period of 2006 to 2011.

There were only a handful of cities that saw slower-than-average population growth and two that had their population decline. Both Windsor and Thunder Bay, Ont., saw their population fall by more than one per cent.

In a 2013 Conference Board of Canada report, Windsor was again found to be in decline, this time between 2008 and 2012, though the trend had turned around slightly. In that report, Windsor was paired with Sudbury, Ont., as the only two Canadian cities to face a declining population.

Of the 28 largest Canadian municipalities measured in the report, there were eight other cities found to have a growth rate of lower than one per cent, including Hamilton, London, Kingston, Saint John and Thunder Bay.

Meantime, cities in Western Canada led the way in terms of growth. Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton and Regina all had population growth rates at or above two per cent.

The report's author Centre for Municipal Studies director Mario Lefebvre, said population growth was the key driver of economic expansion. A declining population would see a city's economy dry up.

"[P]opulation growth supports economic growth, which will ultimately dictate governments’ capacity to pay for social programs and infrastructure," he summarized. "Every community wants the best possible public services, but without action on productivity in this era of aging population, several communities may not be able to afford them."

In Halifax, the recent index report urged for the creation of a population growth strategy. Municipal growth strategies aren't exactly rare – Windsor has an active population projection document that includes discussion about low- and high-growth scenarios – but such strategies are more commonly considered in a provincial context.

In those cases, the issues are rather uniform. Provinces, specifically in the east, are losing residents to other areas in Canada, and those who do stay are more likely to be older and offer less economic stimulation. The solutions tend to be the same as well. Attract immigrants and give young residents a reason to stay.

According to the Chronicle Herald, a provincial report earlier this year recommended Nova Scotia grows its population through immigration and by convincing students to stay after graduation.

New Brunswick launched its own population growth strategy last year in the face of a population rate growing slower than the national average.

According to Statistics Canada numbers, gleaned by NB Finance, the province was expected to lose 29,600 residents between the ages of 20 and 64, between 2011 and 2020. Meantime, the population of 65 and older was expected to increase by 49,000. That may work out to a population increase, but it doesn't take an expert to see the troubles that lie ahead.

Newfoundland and Labrador is working on its own population growth strategy, as it faces a projected plunge in population over the next two decades.

Perhaps somewhat ahead of the curve, Saskatchewan has had an immigration growth strategy in place for several years, which may help explain why towns and cities in the prairie province are faring better than others.

All of this comes down to a point Canadians are very familiar with. People are flooding to the booming economies of western Canada. What it also shows, however, is that the cities of eastern and central Canada are not immune. And they had better have answers to the questions raised by a stagnant population, and a plan for when those numbers start to decline.

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