A couple of years ago, I spent a week and a couple thousand dollars to holiday in Detroit — perhaps not the most obvious vacation spot. But for someone from Vancouver — where housing prices shoot straight up like rockets every few years, where there are constant arguments over what kind of growth and development should be allowed in existing neighbourhoods, and where, in spite of a robust mix of many ethnicities and races, we have the lowest Black population of any major city in the United States or Canada — Detroit is endlessly fascinating.
In 1950, it was the richest city in the U.S.— some say the world — on a per-capita income basis. Now it’s the second poorest in the country. It had 1.8 million people at one point, spread out over 370 square kilometres in mainly single-family detached homes, the product of an era when good factory jobs were plentiful. In 2020, the census counted only 639,000 in this metropolis, which is about 60 percent the geographical size of Toronto. And it’s the American city with the highest proportion of Black residents: 79 percent.
All the challenges facing Detroit’s civic leaders are the opposite of those confronting Vancouver: convincing people to go live there, figuring out how to provide services and a sense of safety when it seems as if half of the land is reverting to wilderness, creating viable islands of life and commercial activity amid seas of emptiness.
There is nothing like Detroit in Canada. Sure, there are a few ghost towns here and there. British Columbia has a handful that were built for a particular industry and then abandoned. And many small towns in various rural areas have declined from the days when we were primarily an agricultural country. But for the most part, as Maxwell Hartt shows in Quietly Shrinking Cities: Canadian Urban Population Loss in an Age of Growth, Canada has tended to see more gradual and gentler losses of population in its small and mid-size communities than has the United States. These aren’t, as he says repeatedly, Detroits or Clevelands or Pittsburghs. Many of them are still shrinking, though, and worthy of attention.
Hartt, a professor of geography and planning at Queen’s University, shines a light on a phenomenon that many of us urban and housing nerds don’t think about often: the cities that aren’t growing, that don’t have to worry at all about speculators or foreign investors, the places that would welcome newcomers instead of squabbling over whether or how to accommodate them.
These smaller municipalities matter, though, because they are experiencing a trend that contributes to our current housing crisis but on the flip side. Attention has focused on the incredible escalation in housing costs in so many of the star, job-rich centres in North America. But the flood of people into such areas is, in part, the result of their departure from what used to be a healthy constellation of proud communities that kept the population spread out across the continent more evenly.
Seventy years ago, for example, only 64 percent of Americans lived in large cities. In Canada, for a long time more rural than its neighbour, that figure was 57 percent. Now, 83 percent of people in the United States are found in urban areas, and 72 percent of Canadians live in “census metropolitan areas.” Precise demarcation lines aren’t easy to come by, but generally “urban” and “city” refer to the major centres and their satellite suburbs, not the many, many less glam spots that used to dot the landscape — areas that were once economically healthy and livable thanks to the dispersion of various industries.
But patterns of settlement have changed, Hartt observes in his opening pages: Cities’ fates are no longer tied to local choices. The decisions are made globally. As a result, “the parasitic nature of urbanization actually relies on shrinking cities to lose residents so that other cities can grow.” These growing cities have benefited hugely from the new distribution patterns, while numerous studies have shown that there is more and more of an economic gap between them and smaller places. A 2019 Brookings study, for example, found that 90 percent of tech job growth from 2005 to 2017 was concentrated in just five American cities.
Hartt doesn’t delve into all the consequences of all these people rushing to one side of the population-distribution ship, a task that would be impossible. But the shift is having its impacts everywhere, as explored in another recent book, The Right to an Age-Friendly City: Redistribution, Recognition, and Senior Citizen Rights in Urban Spaces. One critical challenge, Concordia University’s Meghan Joy writes there, is that cities are now viewed as vehicles for “private profit-making” and are “designed for a predominantly working-age population.” That means municipal bureaucracies and others who focus on the city as an economic engine are inclined to see older people not as part of the integral life of the community but as an unproductive group that needs to be reluctantly propped up in some way —“an expensive problem for local government.”
Canadian cities, especially, have exerted a gravitational pull on the economically productive because they haven’t seen the kind of white flight that happened in the more racially divided United States. We avoided some of that by limiting immigration, Hartt notes, which made existing residents much less alarmed about staying put. So although we saw movement toward the suburbs from the 1950s on, it wasn’t as pronounced or along distinct racial lines as it was in the States. Even when our central cities did decline for a while (Vancouver was actually losing population in the 1970s), their populations came back quickly as younger generations rediscovered urban living.
In spite of all that, we still have many shrinking cities that are losing people to a hundred or so “strong” ones. These places tend to be further from the urban growth centres (again, proximity to the metro areas has proven to be one of the differences between relative health and decline), and they are not attracting immigrants.
Hartt structures his book around two examples in particular. One of them, the Regional Municipality of Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia, was once a thriving area with an economy based on coal and steel. Since 1961, it has lost 30 percent of its population. The other, Chatham-Kent, in Ontario, has a history of shipbuilding, agriculture, and car manufacturing. (In the 1920s, its Gray‑Dort Motors factories helped make Canada the country with the second-largest car industry in the world.) And despite it being “one of Canada’s fastest-growing municipalities over the past two decades,” Wood Buffalo, Alberta, which includes Fort McMurray, is likely to face a similar fate as lucrative jobs in the oil industry dry up.
Population decline in such places is not part of an evolutionary cycle that will eventually roll around to another boom, Hartt warns repeatedly. Instead, “it’s a lasting symptom of globalization.” Nonetheless, he argues, depopulation could be a benefit if local politicians and planners would simply accept their new reality and start managing things to take advantage of what that reality might bring.
“Rightsizing” strategies could include rehabilitation, demolition, land banking, consolidation, and greening — which many European cities have pursued, as has Detroit, though with less government support than would be available in Germany or France. I certainly saw a lot of these activities when I visited Motown, where abandoned houses are routinely torn down and there are community gardens and art projects springing up in some of the resulting green space.
Hartt’s essential argument, however, is that politicians and planners should stop their futile chase after growth. They need to change their focus and instead think creatively about “smart decline” and about stabilizing what they have left. Perhaps they should reimagine themselves as niche cities and aim to attract people with some form of local specialization.
Unfortunately, Hartt doesn’t fully expand on that last idea, and that’s where his book, which provides an otherwise useful and mostly readable description of the phenomenon of shrinking cities, left me wanting more. (Word to the wise: Avoid the chapter where unnamed bureaucrats — the social housing informant, the economic development informant — offer a confusing mélange of opinions about what has happened in their communities and what to do next. Some condensing and summarizing to home in on the key points would have really helped here, rather than leaving the reader to zigzag among the anonymous sources and their sometimes contradictory ideas.)
The places that are shrinking are getting older and no less white with each passing year. A quarter of the residents of Cape Breton, for instance, are over sixty-five — a higher proportion than in most growing cities. Half of the students at the local university are Chinese, but they don’t stay and there’s little sign of any migration from elsewhere. The picture is similar for Chatham-Kent.
If such trends continue, local politicians may not even be able to focus on the stability that Hartt recommends. Staying stable will mean finding a way to attract new, younger people — and probably lots of immigrants. That’s not an impossible concept. Immigrants used to move to smaller towns. That’s why there’s still a sizable population of South Asians in Merritt, British Columbia, the legacy of the many who once worked in the lumber mills. But that’s not been common in recent decades.
In its concluding chapters, Quietly Shrinking Cities devotes a lot of attention to solutions for dealing with vanished populations. Strategies include rearranging the physical organization of diminished communities: using places that once had buildings for green space, making sure activities are concentrated in a few key nodes. Hartt offers descriptions of such efforts in Buffalo and Detroit, as well as Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan.
It would have been instructive to learn about cities that have managed to stabilize themselves by going one better and finding ways to actually draw new residents. Such initiatives need not be nostalgic drives to return to past peak populations — but they could build their communities up enough to stay stable, healthy, and appealing to those who want more than just a cheap house. Even as Hartt makes a passing reference to cities developing niche attractions, he offers almost nothing on how that might be done.
One of the reasons that young and not-so-young people have left smaller cities is that they have felt so limited on so many fronts. They look at the shortage of educational opportunities, the paucity of cultural events, and the lack of interest in spending local tax dollars on more than just basic amenities. And then there’s the “soy sauce and basmati rice” factor: what is and is not available in the grocery store besides Betty Crocker.
It’s worth noting that housing shortages are also a problem in Canada’s smaller cities, and, compared with homes in urban areas, the stock is often older. Mayors routinely talk about how they can’t attract businesses or employees because of housing crunches — another by‑product of everyone going to the Big Smokes. Developers and tradespeople are in short supply because they’ve been sucked into the metro areas where everything is bubbling. In other words, it’s all well and good that Smooth Rock Falls, Ontario, is offering plots of land for $500 a pop, but will families be able to afford or even find a general contractor to put homes on them?
The U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies recently issued a report that looked at revitalizing small and medium-sized cities; it summarized many worthwhile efforts and ideas from all levels of government. One strategy in the Quad Cities, which straddle the border between Illinois and Iowa, was to consciously work on the idea of cool places: “While hard to quantify, the aim of ‘cool places’ is to develop and improve amenities that boost quality of life in the region — cultural centers, attractive neighborhoods, recreational spaces, and other places that will strengthen the region’s identity and desirability to ‘live, work, experience, and play.’ ” Turning things around isn’t just about catering to the whims of a few millennials. It’s about understanding that people want more than just a house and a job out of where they live.
The research for Quietly Shrinking Cities was all done before the pandemic, and it would be interesting to see an updated edition that accounts for everyone who has left the increasingly unaffordable metros over the last two years — the sudden flow of city refugees into the Maritimes and various remote parts of Ontario (North Bay, there you all go!). The penalty that distance from cities created for those places was partially erased during the work-from-home boom. But will it last?
The results from the 2021 census — due for release starting in February — might also show evidence of what I’ve seen in my travels outside of the Lower Mainland, in British Columbia, and in northwestern Ontario this past summer. A recent wave of immigrants seem to be willing to settle in smaller cities. From Fort Frances and Creston to Nakusp and Kaslo, I have heard stories about the new South Asian owners of the pharmacy, as well as arrivals from Guatemala and Syria working in the local grocery store or café or mine. And, according to informal reports, there’s been an influx of Korean immigrants in the Okanagan.
If the anecdotes indicate an emerging trend, which could be good for reducing extreme housing demand in big cities across the country and for making life more affordable generally, the towns the newcomers are landing in will need to make sure they consciously enrich all aspects of local life. There’s only so far that cheap housing and a five-minute drive to the lake can take a place — as the shrinking cities have seen.