City versus frontier: 21st century economic development

Whitehorse is on the battle lines of a big debate in economic development. Will big cities rule the 21st century, or will growing populations and the need for space give another push to geographical expansion?

Whitehorse is on the battle lines of a big debate in economic development. Will big cities rule the 21st century, or will growing populations and the need for space give another push to geographical expansion?

Former Yukon News reporter Tristan Hopper, writing in the National Post, an Outside newspaper, recently wrote a fascinating article on 1960’s visionary Richard Rohmer and his proposal to develop “Mid Canada.” An estimated 90 per cent of Canada’s population lives within 100 miles of the US border. Rohmer, whom you might recall as the author of entertaining eco-nationalist Canadian thrillers such as Ultimatum, wanted to develop a band of cities stretching across the country one geographic tier North.

Mid-Canadian planners foresaw cities such as Flin Flon, Thunder Bay, Labrador City and Whitehorse connected by nation-building infrastructure such as railways and highways, and growing into Calgary-sized cities by the year 2000. Canada would have a population double what we have today, and would rival France or the United Kingdom in economic and geo-political clout.

It didn’t turn out that way. According to Hopper, Rohmer met with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who had other priorities, and the idea stopped there.

A version of the vision was recently revived by thinkers at the University of Calgary, who proposed a “Northern Corridor” infrastructure program that would stretch 7000 kilometers across the country from Prince Rupert through Fort McMurray to Northern Ontario and Labrador. Including road, rail, pipeline, telecommunications and other infrastructure, the scheme would cost in the range of $100 billion.

Nation-building prime ministers like Macdonald or Diefenbaker would approve.

The map showing the Calgary report’s master plan does not include infrastructure to the Yukon or Alaska. Either the academics missed the northwesternmost 2.2 million square kilometers of the continent and its resources or — more worryingly — they’ve written us off economically.

Meanwhile, another influential school of thought sees Canada’s future differently. Richard Florida, a well-known professor at the University of Toronto, thinks the future belongs to the big city. He penned an op-ed shortly after Justin Trudeau was elected with his thoughts on how the new government should spend its $125 billion in proposed infrastructure money.

Florida pointed out that, contrary to our national mythology, Canada is actually one of the most urbanized countries in the world. Our top five cities produce half our economic output, double the comparable figure in the U.S. Florida’s research leads him to believe that big cities drive economic development and higher-paid jobs. These cities have “clusters of research universities, networks of companies and talent, where ideas come to mate.”

Florida thinks we should double down on our existing cities, reinforcing urban infrastructure and all the things that make knowledge workers want to live in San Francisco or Toronto instead of Flin Flon.

The rise of big cities is a global trend. You’ve likely seen it yourself. Parents in Yukon communities note wistfully how their kids are drawn to Whitehorse. Parents in Whitehorse see their kids move to the big city Outside. Meanwhile, parents in San Francisco complain their kids can’t afford to move out of the basement because so many people are moving to the city.

What does this all mean for the Yukon? We are on the front line of this battle. If Florida is right, we face an uphill battle attracting people and investment for the next 50 years. And I might be wrong, but I don’t see any government in Ottawa putting $100 billion into grandiose nation-building schemes over the next decade or two. Canada’s aging population and the infrastructure requirements of our vote-rich cities mean that Ottawa may even struggle to maintain current levels of spending in the North.

The best strategy for us is probably to place a few chips on both bets. We should keep trying to attract investment from mining, oil and gas companies. But we should also do what we can to attract “urban economy” activities and reap some of the benefits of the knowledge economy.

This means making the Yukon attractive to highly productive workers and business owners. For example, smaller communities in Washington State have benefitted from what they sometimes half-jokingly call “California refugees,” people looking to escape the traffic and house prices of San Francisco or Seattle. They move to places like Bellingham, Washington and telecommute or start businesses.

The policies to pursue are dialling our income taxes a bit lower, making lots available and keeping housing cheap, investing in schools, building that backup internet cable and maintaining cheap air links to Southern gateways. We won’t ever put Silicon Valley out of business, but combined with our fantastic quality of life here in the Yukon, we stand a chance of attracting a steady stream of knowledge workers to build our communities and economic base.

It might not work, of course. But take another look at the policies I am talking about, such as lower taxes, cheap housing and good schools. Even if we miss out on the big 21st century urban trend, these policies will benefit those of us who stay in the Yukon and occasionally visit Richard Florida’s big cities.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won last year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show.

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