Insight: The Creative Economy is not just for Large Urban Centres

Large cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto, are important drivers in the global economy, but they are not for everyone. While for many, large cities are exciting and stimulating places, others are deterred by the noise, congestion, long commutes, high housing costs, and hectic pace of life. For many of these people, their preference would be for a small city or town, in an environment they see as friendlier, less hectic, and where housing costs are lower (Arif 2008). For those who prefer outdoor activities like skiing, hiking, or camping, close proximity to nature is a strong advantage.

In a qualitative study of perceptions of Vermont’s forested landscape by local residents, Elizabeth O’Brien (2006) concluded that such forests are an important source of local identity and pride, as well as a strong contributor to quality of life. Participants in the study stated that the forests and natural landscapes of Vermont were, among other things, an important source of recreational activity – including hiking and skiing among residents of Burlington, originally from out of state.

Furthermore, she found that three of the Burlington residents interviewed stated they had opted for lower paying jobs in Vermont, because they wanted to be involved in outdoor activities and live closer to nature – showing the draw of quality of life factors that can outweigh pure monetary considerations (O’Brien 2006). Quantitative studies in the United States have shown amenities – cultural and other facilities and activities offered by a place – were important factors in determining where people located (Brown & Scott 2012).

Telecommunications and internet technologies have enabled collaboration across great distances. Place still matters though – places that are seen as hubs of creativity are an attraction to young entrepreneurs and professionals – but it is worth noting that modern communications technologies, by facilitating instant communications and collaboration across large distances, means it is possible for people in multiple locations across the country and around the world to collaborate. This opens up new possibilities for smaller jurisdictions away from larger urban centres, for example in Vermont where branch offices of IBM are located.

Vermont has established a successful economic niche, building on its advantages of smaller cities and towns and their proximity to rural and forested natural landscapes, preserved through strict environmental and land use regulations. Furthermore, there is a strong emphasis in the state on preserving local small businesses. For example, Vermont was the last state in the Union to have a Walmart (Arif 2008).

The state boasts a thriving year-round tourism industry, and is a draw for people from Boston and New York – including those of the creative classes – seeking an alternative to the big city lifestyle (Arif 2008). A recent Statistics Canada paper concluded that, when level of employment in desired industry was controlled for, small cities were more desired places to move to, with factors in big cities, such as traffic congestion, serving as disincentives (Brown & Scott 2012).

In addition to the IBM offices, Vermont boasts locally-based creative and innovative enterprises that have achieved international fame. These include Green Mountain Coffee and Ben and Jerry’s Ice-cream (both of which pride themselves on socially conscious practices) and Burton Snowboards, which played a crucial role in the development of the modern sport of snowboarding (Arif 2008).

Vermont has a growing population – at 626,431 as per a 2011 US Census estimate – up from 608,827 in 2000. While this rate of growth is slower than in previous decades (Vermont had 389,881 people in 1960) it nonetheless represents a continuing and significant population growth (US Census Bureau, Vermont Population of Counties; US Census Bureau, Vermont QuickFacts).

Furthermore, unemployment rates in Vermont have been consistently lower than the United States average, as seen in the exhibit below.

Exhibit 1: Unemployment rates – Vermont

Exhibit 1: Unemployment Rates - Vermont

While place still remains important in the age of telecommunications and the internet, the benefits of the 21st century knowledge-based economy are not confined only to the largest urban centres, there is potential in less populated regions with smaller cities as the case of Vermont shows. These places can be (and are) attractions for creative professionals and entrepreneurs looking for an alternative to large urban centres.

Monetary value alone cannot capture the intangible value of enjoying forests and other natural surroundings, it is important for policy-makers to account for environmental costs – including the benefits of pristine natural environments for tourism and as a draw for new residents, which entail intangible use values. There needs to be smart policy, an emphasis on environmental conservation, to preserve the natural advantages of such locations, to promote these advantages rather than run away from them or, worse, destroy them altogether.

This Insight was written by Hassan Arif. Hassan is a columnist with Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick and is a PhD candidate in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick. For any questions or comments regarding this Insight, please contact Hassan at

For further reading regarding this topic, feel free to read the following:

Arif, H. (2008) “Sustainable Development in Small Jurisdictions: The Cases of New Brunswick and Vermont.” Canadian-American Public Policy. 75.

Brown, M. & Scott, S. (2012). “Cities and Growth: Human Capital Location and Choice:
Accounting for Amenities and Thick Labour Markets,” The Canadian Economy in Transition Series. 27 11-622-M. (accessed September 2, 2012).

O’Brien, E. (2006). A question of value: what do trees and forests mean to people in Vermont? Landscape Research. 31(3), 257–275.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Employment Situation Summary,” US Bureau of Labor Statistics, (accessed August 29, 2009).

US Census Bureau. “Vermont – State and County Quick Facts,” (accessed August 29, 2012).

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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.