Smaller centres poised to benefit from the coming population boom

The Globe and Mail

Dene Moore Special To The Globe And Mail November 4, 2022

The city of Peterborough, Ont., has a synagogue, a mosque and a Buddhist temple. City hall hired its first diversity, equity and inclusion officer last year. There is a Middle Eastern restaurant operated by Syrian refugees whose shawarma is apparently excellent.

The face of this mid-sized city, population 83,651, 135 kilometres from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), is changing thanks to an influx of new residents drawn by moreaffordable housing, says Diane Therrien, the outgoing mayor. Peterborough also hastwo colleges that bring in a diverse group of students who may decide to stay, and it could be the unofficial Syrian refugee capital of Canada.

”In the past few years over the course of the pandemic we’ve certainly seen an influx of people who moved here because the housing stock was cheaper,” she says. “The demographics have shifted.”

The changes brought in entrepreneurs with new businesses, younger residents and families that revitalized the community, and greater cultural diversity, Ms. Therrien adds. It’s also exacerbated a doctor shortage, driven up housing prices by about 50 per cent, and sent rental costs into the stratosphere with a vacancy rate of less than 1 per cent, she points out.”

“Certainly, it’s been a challenge to try to ensure services are adequately serving thenew population as well as the population that’s been here.”

The new influx gave Peterborough a peek at what may lie ahead for other similar-sized centres in Canada. With a population boom expected over the next 20 years, Statistics Canada predicts the population will grow to between 43 million and 52.5 million by 2043 from the current 38 million.

While metropolitan areas such as Metro Vancouver and the GTA will absorb the bulk, smaller centres like Peterborough stand to reap some of the benefits and face some of the challenges of population growth.

It’s a trend already in evidence: According to the most recent census, the share of immigrants who settled in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal has continued to decline, falling from 56 per cent in 2016 to 53.4 per cent in 2021. Urban centres outside of those cities, including Ottawa-Gatineau and Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo, saw the greatest increase but 4.4 per cent settled in small urban areas and 3.2 per cent settled in rural areas.

Peterborough is trying to prepare. One of its top priorities is updating aging infrastructure that wasn’t built for the current population, never mind an even larger future, Ms. Therrien says. The region will also need better transit, more libraries, improved bike lanes, and a lot more housing and services in order to attract newcomers, she adds.

And it will all have to be funded by current budgets, as municipalities in Ontario and most other provinces cannot run deficits, she points out.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and housing is the main thing. We want people to have safe, affordable, accessible housing. That’s going to be the key to ensure that people want to come here and want to stay here.

”It’s the biggest challenge in accommodating the population boom, says David Amborski, director of the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development and a professor in Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

It’s not known how the population increase will play out, how many people will live in the metropolitan areas or second-tier cities or elsewhere, he says. Millennials are already leaving major centres, he points out.

”We don’t really know how it’s going to unfold yet but one thing we do know is we’regoing to need a lot more housing,” Mr. Amborski says. “We’ve got to make sure we meet that demand and it has to be supply of all types of housing and all locations. It can’t just be the missing middle. It can’t just be the urbanized high-density.”

The existing shortage puts even greater pressure on municipalities to speed up long approval processes and get housing built, he says.

”Some of the smaller communities are probably better prepared.

”Non-urban centres may have cheaper and more land available, though they still face high construction costs and a shortage of skilled labour, Mr. Amborski says. Communities where demand is not as great may be in a better position as the population surges, he suggests.

Rural communities may hope to see a reversal of decades-long population decline. Most have, like Peterborough, put strategies in place to attract newcomers, including the addition of immigrant settlement services.

Those closer to metropolitan areas will see more growth than those further afield, says Doug Ramsay, a professor in the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University in Manitoba.

It may drive up the price of property in those areas, as urbanites who relocate to such communities tend to have higher incomes than existing residents, he says. Places like Nova Scotia and rural communities near Metro Vancouver and the GTA have experienced this over the course of the pandemic, he adds.

Growth also allows the provision of more services that may not have been available as the population – and the tax base – increases enough to justify and pay for the additions, Prof. Ramsay says. Those could include everything from sidewalks to recycling to libraries.

In any event, if rural communities want to take advantage of the potential and avoidthe pitfalls, they need to have proper development plans and zoning bylaws in place, Prof. Ramsay says.

”Haphazard development can lead to problems in the future. A lack of vision could result in growth that the community regrets later on.”