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The Value of Place for Small Communities

While considering the history of Rossland, I was struck by the fact that at it’s peak population last century, there were about 6,000 people living in the mountain community, mainly because of the quantity of gold being extracted from under its feet and the surrounding mountains. Since that time, the community has waxed and waned, becoming a tidy downtown tourist destination, with a rocking hardcore ski hill. Will this be enough for the community to survive in the future? The City of Trail, just down the hill relies extensively on Teck Ltd’s Lead and Zinc smelter operations for employment and taxes, will they be around forever? The City of Castlegar has a pulp mill and non-operational lumber mill, both of which rely on international buyers for the bulk of their products.

Without significant change, none of these small rural centres will survive another generation in anything resembling their current form. Small communities need to be one of several things to survive. These are described below in order of importance.

Castlegar
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An Employment Centre

First and foremost, a town or city needs to be a source of employment. Diverse economies promote diverse culture and provide fertile ground for support service industries. Reliance on single large industry has been commonplace in British Columbia, with Mines and Forestry forming the backbone of many communities. Trades, goods and services that are locally useful have in recent years been outsourced by big business and cookie-cutter industries. As the tide of globalization rolls back, these forms of employment and the necessary skills that accompany them will be in increasing demand.

A Junction

Not all junctions are created equal. Highways, railways, airports, rivers, mountain passes, political borders and industries have all formed junctions of one type or another. Traditionally, The more overlapping reasons for a junction to be formed, the more likely that the town will grow. Likewise, as the economy becomes more localized, opportunities for travel will likely be reduced and the more important junctions will be the centers that survive, making use of trade routes and geographic features to their benefit.

An Agricultural Centre

[ad#200-left]Local economies need local food. A city, particularly a rural town needs to be the economic centre of agricultural activity. This is counter-intuitive to many communities, particularly those who have relied on heavy industry, this goes for lumber mills and mining operations in British Columbia, to Car Manufacturing Plants in Eastern Canada and US. However, these industries are typically less than 150 years old, and have relied on unbridled economic growth as the incentive for the industry to thrive. Agriculture comes in two flavours, large scale monoculture and small scale diversified. In my opinion, both types will be required to support populations in the future, but most local agriculture will be the smaller scale diversified style, with a smaller carbon footprint.

A Destination

I include this fairly unwillingly. What purpose is a town as a destination if it is none of the above? A seaside village might be a popular tourist destination, but can it exist in true resilience outside of tourism? What about a ski resort? It is conceivable that some of these “destinations” will remain viable towns in the future, but I believe that only the best and most convenient or unique will survive well into the future as oil prices rise and availability declines

Closing Thoughts

Bridge over the Kootenay
Image by urbanworkbench via Flickr

Places such as towns, villages and cities around the world survive and thrive for many different reasons, but these are the boundary conditions that encourage resilience as a community. The ability to remain viable as a community is largly dependent on that communitiy’s usefulness to itself and the world around it. If there is somewhere easier, closer, cheaper, or safe, community competition will come into play and the concepts of emotional attachment or sunk costs are all that may keep some places alive.

Is there an easy way to improve the value of place? I’d suggest that encouraging small scale agriculture and local enterprise for employment are easier that manufacturing a junction or destination out of a community that may not be either of these in the long term. The model of Transition Towns gives hope for communities to develop their own path to resilience within a framework of knowledge and reasonable predictions. If you haven’t read about transition towns, check out this site for a primer.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

2 thoughts on “The Value of Place for Small Communities

  1. Not much of a future for towns where large industries refuse to pay municipal taxes. It certainly sets an interesting precedent for the rest of us taxpayers and it must give local gov’t serious concerns.

    1. This is true, particularly when the Mayor says [paraphrased], “We need the tax dollars to survive!”, and the city crews have been out planting new beds of annuals to beautify the town.

      Essentially, the industrial tax rate has been a business income tax in all but name, and has been based on the premise that they make a whack of money, so why not whack them for some taxes. There could be a solid legal challenge on this issue, certainly Castlegar is not alone in the practice, so it will have consequences in all BC municipalities if the courts rule in favour of the industries.

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