Insight: Even Smaller Cities are Growing

There is much written on the revival (and increased popularity) of city centres, the attraction of dense mixed-use downtowns, the popularity of loft-style offices for start-ups, and the attractions of walkability and street-life. For members of the creative class — artists, those in high-tech, and other professionals and entrepreneurs — downtown-like neighbourhoods are the incubators of the kind of creativity and expression that attracts members of this class.

It is important to note that these trends are true of not only large cities, but smaller cities as well, which can serve as important regional hubs for the creative economy — an example in this regard, the Saint John Census Metropolitan area in New Brunswick which, with a population of 127,761, is one of the smaller metropolitan regions in Canada.

The City of Saint John is a smaller industrial and port city along the shores of the Bay of Fundy in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. For decades, the city had experienced consistent population decline, going from a peak population of 89,039 in 1971 to 68,043 in 2006. While not the scale of decline seen in many American rust-belt cities, this nonetheless represented a steady and consistent decline of Saint John’s population as suburban municipalities such as Rothesay and Quispamsis established and grew during this period.

However, the most recent Canadian census showed a reversal in this four decade trend, with the City of Saint John experiencing 3% population growth, from 68,043 to 70,063.

Saint John boasts a historic city centre — known as “Uptown” — with historic architecture. Promotion of Uptown — including the #livelifeuptown hashtag on twitter and other social media — has made this city centre increasingly appealing — offering loft-style facilities for start-ups and artists. Relative density, walkability, mixed-use structures, and unique architecture are attractions in smaller as well as in larger cities.

The Live Life Uptown movement includes promotion of artists and the arts — a key part of the creative economy. Propel ICT — started in Saint John — has played a key role in incubating and supporting the creation of high tech firms in Saint John.

The importance of density and centralized growth — including investing in the city centre — are core components of the city’s municipal plan — Plan Saint John.

In Saint John, there is growing recognition of the problems of concentrated urban poverty, and a concerted effort to combat poverty — with organizations like the Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative and the Saint John Human Development Council playing important roles in this regard.

There is a clear recognition of the importance of social inclusion in promoting economic growth and prosperity, and of promoting mixed-income housing, such as The Abbey, to prevent ghettoization of the poor or gentrification that prices out lower income residents.

Exhibit 1: Saint John CMA population change 2006-2011

Saint John CMA population change 2006–2011

The City of Saint John’s recent population growth of course does not mean the end of the suburb. The fastest growing municipality in the Saint John CMA is suburban Quispamsis, which grew by 17.4% between 2006 and 2011 to a population of 17,886.

However, while suburbs remain a draw — due to availability (and relative affordability in the case of some cities) of property, and the draw for many of the single-detached home — city centres are increasingly attractive locations, both for large urban centres and for smaller cities that act as regional centres and hubs.

For more information on the creative economy in small cities, see Creative Small Cities: Rethinking the Creative Economy in Place.

For a comprehensive examination of social, economic, and demographic factors in Saint John, see the Vital Signs 2007 Report.

Hassan Arif contributed to this Insight.

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The Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto‘s Rotman School of Management is the world’s leading think-tank on the role of sub-national factors — location, place and city-regions — in global economic prosperity. We take an integrated view of prosperity, looking beyond economic measures to include the importance of quality of place and the development of people’s creative potential.