Quietly Shrinking CBRM

Maxwell Hartt’s book, Quietly Shrinking Cities: Canadian Urban Population Loss in an Age of Growth really made me think.

Maxwell Hartt

Maxwell Hartt

Hartt, an assistant professor in the department of geography and planning at Queen’s University, makes the case for cities accepting rather than fighting population decline and uses the Cape Breton Regional Municipality — “Canada’s most persistent shrinking city” — as a case study.

This was not a case of throwing a dart at a map, Hartt was born in Dartmouth and has Cape Breton roots — his maternal grandmother and grandfather were from Cheticamp and North Sydney, respectively, his mother grew up in Cheticamp and his parents live there now — and he very deliberately chose to study the CBRM, although, he says he’s run into resistance for this decision:

[E]veryone just wanted to talk about Vancouver or New York and, I mean, I’m from Nova Scotia so I was like, “What about everywhere else? Like, the rest of the country, the rest of the world?”…[P]eople weren’t always interested…When I publish about Detroit or the US, it usually goes a little bit easier and smoother, which…just kind of deepens my desire to not only write about those places.

In essence, Hartt’s argument is that we should plan for the people who actually live in shrinking municipalities like CBRM rather than for those who do not; that is, we should adopt policies that improve life for residents rather than policies designed to attract and retain new residents. This means “rightsizing” infrastructure and services and it’s a difficult prescription to swallow in a society where growth is everything and a municipality that accepts shrinkage looks very much like a municipality that has simply given up — a sentiment expressed to Hartt, during the course of his research by an unnamed CBRM “economic development informant” who:

…believed that “the provincial government and administrators appear to be very much in support of rightsizing communities and regions that are in decline.” Although the strategy may be politically acceptable, the economic development informant added that “there is opposition locally to such decisions because people understand the profound impacts that rightsizing will have and that decline tends to beget further decline.”

But as Hartt points out, the CBRM has been in “decline” in terms of population since 1961, when we hit our peak of 120,000, which means we have been coping with the realities of decline for 60 years without ever quite accepting it. Instead, we’ve looked to immigration, foreign students and the infamous “alphabet soup” of development agencies for the key to returning us to our former glory.

What if we just admitted we’re a municipality of about 100,000 and got on with it?


Smart decline

When I spoke to Hartt, I tried to get him to give concrete examples of what “rightsizing” the CBRM would look like — the book contains hints of the kind of measures that might entail, like closing roads, blockading bridges or shuttering library branches — but he was not falling for it, reminding me that he “specifically” didn’t give recommendations in his book:

As a planning professor, the idea of cutting any infrastructure, especially social infrastructure, to me that’s tough, but I guess the real message is it has to come from the community, the people who know it best.

Rather than providing a blueprint for rightsizing CBRM (or Chatham-Kent, his other case study), Hartt says his goal was to start a conversation:

Okay, if push comes to shove, what would we do? Because having that discussion beforehand is a lot easier than the reactionary, emotional response that comes when a decision has to be made and then what ends up getting cut…from looking at case studies around the world, when it’s reactionary, what gets cut isn’t necessarily the best outcome for the people who actually live there.

(I have been trying to think of analogies for this and right now I’m test-driving two: the first is that it’s like knowing what you’d rescue if your house caught fire — having a plan in your head so you don’t panic and end up standing in a snowbank with a frying pan and a couple of couch cushions. The second is that it’s like downsizing from a house that’s been in your family for generations to an apartment. I like this one better, partly because a fire is both too dramatic and too unlikely to be a good analogy, but mostly because I know people who’ve had to downsize this way and I have seen both how difficult it is and how much their lives improve once the decision is made. Of course, there’s a good chance neither of these analogies is actually apt, in which case, please feel free to develop your own analogies.)

Hartt says these conversations about rightsizing and “smart decline” should be taking place all over this country:

Realistically, we know Canada is an enormous country, very unique in that it’s just huge…with these very small pockets of growth and also population and…if you look forward…five or 10 or maybe 15 years, the way the global economy is going, you don’t see a bright future for every town in Canada…[T]o me, that needs to be, first of all, just a discussion, just to say, “Okay, we need to rethink this, how we think about our country and what success is. It can’t all grow endlessly and find these new pockets of economic development and not everywhere can be a tourist haven or [attract] international students…there’s limitations on this, so I think there’s a big conversation that needs to be had…

I suggested that here in CBRM, we seem to have been making decisions about rightsizing without admitting that’s what we’re doing and Hartt said:

And if you let it happen “naturally” you put a lot of power in a small group of decision-makers who, hopefully, have the best interests of all the residents in the city at heart but not necessarily…

Transparency in “participatory processes,” he says, is always important but particularly so in a place like CBRM, where our limited budget has raised the stakes. In the conclusion to his book he writes:

My call to “act small” recommends that decision makers in shrinking cities start by being transparent about the trends in their city and incorporate the possibility of nongrowth-oriented strategies.


Motor City

The CBRM has not incorporated nongrowth-oriented strategies into its thinking. Instead, council came out of its (closed-door) planning sessions this spring with a list of priorities that looks like this:

CBRM top 5 priorities

Mind you, in its refusal to contemplate permanent shrinkage, CBRM is not alone — as a topic among municipalities, permanent shrinkage is pretty much taboo.

But this attitude is beginning to change, according to Hartt, whose own interest in shrinking cities dates to his PhD studies, when he “plugged into” the Shrinking Cities International Research Network (SCiRN), joining its PhD Academy and getting to know many of the world’s leading scholars on shrinking cities:

I was very fortunate in so many ways but one is that I started really getting serious about this topic just before the Detroit bankruptcy, [after] which…the topic kind of blew up in a big way…[I]n the 2000s, it was a pretty tiny area of research and there was this core group that started at Berkeley, and they started publishing and it caught my eye. I really liked the German and the European view of things…as per usual, US combined with European kind of gives you Canada a little bit, and so I really liked that idea and thinking about a post-population growth world or a post-growth world and what that might look like…

A word about Detroit:

At its peak in 1950, the Motor City had a population of over 1.8 million and, writes Hartt, “was considered by many to be the future of urbanism and the embodiment of the American Dream.”

By 2017, as a result of a variety of factors (including white flight and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs), the city had been forced to declare bankruptcy, its population had dropped to just over 670,000 — a decline of 64% — and Detroit had become the “poster child” for shrinking cities. The city has rebounded since its bankruptcy, which was approved in 2014, but it becomes clear when I ask Hartt for an example of a city that has rightsized effectively that Detroit isn’t necessarily it:

Detroit’s a strange one, I’m talking about Detroit often…and some people could say, right now, it’s a success story — the downtown is very vibrant and anyone who went to Detroit even 10 years ago probably wouldn’t fully recognize downtown now. It’s very exciting, there’s a lot of development, a lot going on, but you cross a certain street and then it drops off in a huge way. Other people would say that Detroit’s gotten worse because inequality has grown between the periphery and the downtown…



The question then arises, says Hartt:

Who’s the city for? Is it for creative types of a certain demographic who can come downtown and afford [to] play in an exciting city? Or is it for the people who’ve lived there and who’ve kind of gone through this whole process?…I think there are some good things that have happened, but it’s tricky and like all cities, nowhere’s perfect.



In his book, Hartt, also references Leipzig, a city in the former East Germany, as a municipality that has rightsized, but when we discussed it on the phone he admitted it’s another example he hesitates to use, for an interesting reason:

…Leipzig is one that I used to bring up all the time because…after the Wall fell, people left for West Germany in droves and then Leipzig suffered huge population loss and they turned inward, they said, “Okay, you know what? There’s good infrastructure, it’s a pretty town, let’s just concentrate on what’s happening here.” And they started doing a lot of interesting initiatives. I was there in 2015, maybe, and they started doing things like using abandoned and vacant buildings and you could apply to have a pop-up event, you might have a DJ…you know, all kinds of really cool German things like they have. And they had support from the city, the region, the country and also the EU; they had all this vertical support from different governments, but then what happened is that, they ended up growing [laughs].

They started attracting a lot of attention because they were…just doing things well. So all of a sudden…they had headlines like being called “Hypezig” or the “Better Berlin,” for people being priced out of Berlin, and so they’ve got some great examples of strategies but I’m kind of hesitant to use it because…someone could look at that and say, “Well, okay, that works for them. They managed to grow,” and that’s not what I’m trying to get across.

Leipzig panorama, 2013

Leipzig panorama, 2013. (Photo by Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

To be clear: Hartt has no problem with Leipzig’s population growing, he is not “anti-growth,” he just thinks population growth is not always necessary to achieve economic growth.

Here in Canada, we’ve depended on immigration to increase our population for decades — to maintain population through natural increase, a country should have a replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman and Canada, like most developed countries, has been below that for 50 years. In 2019, Canada had 1.47 births per woman putting us “more than half a kid short of replacement value,” as Ipsos Public Affairs pollster Darrell Bricker told the National Post.

But immigrants, as Hartt explains, are attracted to a handful of large Canadian cities, so are not the answer for shrinking cities. (And with fertility rates declining throughout the world, some researchers think countries will soon be competing for immigrants. I wandered into a roiling scientific debate about just how deeply fertility rates are expected to fall and when and at what point world population will peak — estimates for the latter ranging from 9.7 billion in 2070 to 11 billion in 2100 — but all three organizations whose estimates are discussed in this Nature article seem to agree that fertility rates will fall, the debate is over the magnitude of the decline.)

The bottom line is that immigration probably won’t save us and that global fertility rates rank among the “external forces” over which our municipality has a “relative lack of control.”


Different opportunities

In the North American context, says Hartt, no city has “really kind of swung for the fences” in terms of accepting — and planning for — its shrinking status, but he thinks it’s “just a matter of time until someone decides that they have no other recourse and they start to look into this a little bit more.”

And it needn’t be viewed as surrender. Cities that have decided not to focus on unending growth, he says, offer “different opportunities.”

[T]here’s a lot you can do in somewhere like Sydney that you can’t do in downtown Toronto. There’s a little bit of room to be creative, and that’s very context dependent, but I think that’s something that gets forgotten sometimes in these conversations as well.

In his conclusion, Hartt says:

My goal is not to convince others that growth is not desirable but simply to demonstrate that population growth is not always necessary. I believe that distinguishing between population and economic growth is an important first step toward a more sustainable, happier future.

(I think we will have to accept that endless economic growth is not possible either, but am now wondering if letting go of population growth is not the first step toward this — which confirms what I told you at the outset of this article, Hartt’s book made me think.)

I really recommend it. He says he’s had to warn students that the first three chapters — which define “shrinking cities,” and determine the exact number of such cities in Canada (96), and explore the forces that cause cities to shrink, and consider the relation between industry and shrinking cities — are not as easy to read as the final four chapters, which get down to case studies, but I found the entire book interesting and although undoubtedly academic, thoroughly readable.

And as I told Hartt, it’s nice that someone is talking about us at all.