Seven strategies for small-town survival

Thomas Bink
The town of Retlaw, Alta., once had a population of 250 people.

With city populations exploding and rural populations shrinking, what will Canada look like twenty or even fifty years from now?

Skeptics paint a grim picture of giant, crowded cities – loud and pulsing places reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with massive advertisements adorning skyscrapers, garbage-filled streets and perpetual cycles of decay and reconstruction. Between these expansive megacities are fewer and fewer towns and villages, most either abandoned or swallowed up by the ever-growing cities and suburbs.

But it doesn’t have to turn out that way, according to Dr. Bill Reimer, professor emeritus at Concordia University in Montreal.

“It’s not a bleak picture,” says Reimer, a former sociology professor who has spent over 30 years studying issues relating to rural Canada. “I wouldn’t represent that small towns are declining. I think they’re diversifying, if anything, and there are some fantastic small towns that are doing well.”

A former director of Canada’s New Rural Economy project, Reimer says that while many remote communities may die out, others can survive the continuing trend toward urbanization by changing how they do business.

“Surviving communities are those that can anticipate and figure out a strategy to deal with these general trends, to mitigate the negative aspects and take advantage of the opportunities.”

Reimer says there are seven key characteristics of a surviving rural community, focusing on diversifying the local economy or social structure.

Surviving communities will be those that look at all of their assets – the social, cultural, environmental, not just the economic – and work at building their capacities at all of them.
  Sociologist Bill Reimer

1. Form alliances with nearby urban regions

A town that can closely partner with a city and show how its community serves as an advantage to the urban place will continue to thrive, Reimer says, citing communities in the Catskill Mountains that are critical to the health of New York City’s water supply as an example.

“New York has a formal arrangement with communities in the Catskills where they exchange community development funds in exchange for the communities being stewards of their water supply,” he says. “Those communities are going to do relatively well.”

2. Go global

“Those communities that figure out what they have that urban people want around the world and market it to them are going to do better,” Reimer says, stressing that the innovation can’t be commodities-based. “Mechanization means that you’re actually going to have fewer people.”

Instead, Reimer points to examples like Warner, Alta., which recently opened one of the premier girls’ hockey schools in Canada, and North Gower, Ont., which has become home to the We-Vibe, a sex toy for couples.

“The local people supported them in financing. They figured out what people want from a world point of view, which is pretty important.”

3. Welcome immigration

According to Statistics Canada, fewer than 5% of immigrants coming to Canada choose to settle in rural communities, which is a key factor in the growth of major centres.

Reimer says towns that open their doors to immigrants will be able to compensate for future population drops, and he points to Steinbach, Man., as an example.

“They sought out newcomers to support a bunch of manufacturing businesses and food processing businesses, and now they have levels of immigration that rival Toronto, which is absolutely phenomenal.

“Rather than circling the wagons and protecting yourself, it’s ‘OK, what kind of people do we want to live here and how can we welcome them and make them want to live here?’”

4. Build a strong social infrastructure

Small towns are particularly susceptible to boom-and-bust cycles, in which closing factories threaten to decimate a community’s population. Reimer says a solution to mitigating the cycle is to make the community so attractive to people that those people will be vested in solving the town’s problems.

“Make it so attractive to the people who are there that they’re interested in coming up with ways to maintain our situation,” he says, pointing to tiny Inuvik, NWT, as an example. In that community, leaders spent boom money on hospitals, schools and an impressive recreation centre to make the region appealing during the next bust.

“If the people love living there, they come up with alternative options and ways to survive.”

5. Exploit all of a town’s assets

Reimer says rural communities need to use the assets that are special to them to woo immigrants and urbanites.

“Surviving communities will be those that look at all of their assets – the social, cultural, environmental, not just the economic – and work at building their capacities at all of them,” he says, pointing to the Cap-a-L’Aigle, Que., annual lilac festival as an example.

“Yes, it’s economic development, but it started out as a bunch of people who were interested in lilacs, who had some knowledge about the networks and built up an internationally-known event.” 

6. Think regionally

Small, rural communities usually aren’t big enough to become travel destinations or appealing to immigrants, but a number of towns banding together regionally could prove more successful.

“Those communities that think regionally are going to do better than those that say ‘We’re going it alone,’” Reimer says. “By joining together with their neighbours, these communities could be really attractive.”

Reimer says Quebec’s regional MRCs (municipalités régionales de compté) have received international recognition for tying communities together.

“They’ve become really good at regional management,” he says.

7. If you’ve got it, flaunt it

“Most of our food, water, energy and much of our recreation takes place in rural areas and unfortunately, because our economy is so dependent on commodity production, it’s easy to forget that our iPads and Ski-Doos and clothes are paid for at a national level by selling off our rural resources,” Reimer says.

“I think that successful communities are those that recognize that inter-dependence and make them visible, particularly to urban policy-makers through things like farm visits or direct marketing.”

We are urbanizing and we will continue to urbanize ... We’ve had towns dying out for ages. Some communities are not going to survive and some are.
  Sociologist Bill Reimer

Unfortunately, Reimer stresses that there are no silver bullets for a town to survive the ongoing population trend towards cities.

“We are urbanizing and we will continue to urbanize,” he says. “That’s been the history of Canada. We’ve had towns dying out for ages. Some communities are not going to survive and some are.”

But through innovation, ingenuity and a willingness to transform, many of Canada’s small towns can thrive and even grow in the next 20 to 50 years.

“There’s always going to be challenges,” Reimer says. “But I know that the people living in those communities are very innovative and often very gung-ho for figuring things out.

“They’re not totally at the whim of urbanization.”