Neil Lovitt
Neil Lovitt, Manager of Planning Division


The Urban-Rural Balance

Among the strongest barriers to growth identified by the Ivany Report was Nova Scotia’s urban-rural dissonance. This is unfortunate because when it comes to the urbanisation rates of a population, the real divide exists in prosperity, not personality. As illustrated above, across 190 nations and city-states, urbanisation is a strong determinant of economic progress as measured by per capita GDP, and more importantly, social development by more holistic measures such as the UN Human Development Index. The UN determined in 2008 that humanity, for the first time, lived predominantly in urban areas. Given the link between increasing urbanisation and improvements in a host of vital societal characteristics, it is a big deal that the global population is majority urban.

It is important to note that in this context, “urban areas” is defined by Statistics Canada according to population size and density. It does not inform us about the type of built environment the urban population inhabits and it sets the bar for “urban” is very low. Thus we are not talking about city versus suburbs, or even city versus small town, but more the contrast between populations organized around even modestly sized communities, versus spread out in decentralised settlement patterns.

As the crossing of this global threshold is being driven by developing countries, we suspect the full impact of this milestone may be lost on most of us in the developed world. Canada for example has been a majority urban population since before the Great Depression. In fact, today 81% of our national population resides in urban areas. Though Canada is a highly urbanised country, it is also large and diverse; national averages tend to conceal substantial regional variations. Nova Scotia for example started out heavily rural like the rest of the country, but urbanised at a slower pace, reaching a majority decades later around the end of WWII. However, while the country as a whole continued to trend upward, Nova Scotia stayed roughly where it was. The 2011 Census puts its urban population at 57%; the story for the rest of Atlantic Canada is generally the same.

Now obviously quality of life outcomes are driven by numerous factors. Urbanisation is an inseparable part of progress, but still only a part. Additionally, economic prosperity itself drives urbanisation; an urbanising population is both a means and a result of progress. However these considerations do not diminish the fact that increased urbanisation is a key ingredient of positive economic development. The chart at the opening illustrates this relationship superbly. Continuing research affirms this it in both the economic histories of developed countries and the current transition underway in the developing world. Notice the association is less clear between prosperity and total population. When it comes to human capital, it’s not what you’ve got, but how you use it.

Our Urban Opportunity

By saying this, we are trying to illustrate the opportunity before us. Urbanisation produces twin economic benefits; significantly improved resource consumption efficiency, and enhanced economic productivity. The more urban our population, the cheaper and easier it is to provide high quality public services and infrastructure. Simultaneously, the more productive our economy is, and the better our general welfare. Society doesn’t just get more, it gets more for less.

Yet, we have something of a neurosis when it comes to the topic. The Ivany Report specifically highlights ideological conflicts that fall along the urban-rural “fault line” as a barrier to positive unified action. More locally, Halifax’s recent Regional Plan 5-Year review process offered numerous examples of conflict arising from the perception of one population group benefitting at the cost of the other. This is the debate we are familiar with; one that confuses support for urbanisation with passing judgement on individuals, and one that is grounded in how the built environment evolves as populations urbanise.

However, for now the point is that we surely can agree that there is much to gain from a basic shift in our urban-rural balance. At the very low end, achieving a minimum total population of 1000 people and a density of at least 400 people per square kilometre (“urban” as defined by StatsCan) is relatively easy and uncontroversial.

Looking at our standing relative to the rest of the country, we ought to recognize that Atlantic Canada has plenty of room to make these easy gains. Even dramatic changes do not threaten to eradicate rural lifestyles for those who choose them. We must also recognize that our own perception of urbanisation’s value is muted. We have been shielded from the full brunt of our economic reality by the equalisation we receive from the larger and more urbanised population in the rest of the country. We stand to benefit from urbanising, but it is difficult to build consensus around the idea because we exaggerate what we risk to lose, and underestimate what we stand to gain.


Regardless of where you live in the Maritimes, you should be concerned with our current rural-urban balance. Adopting a vision for the region that is more urban is important if we are going to mount a serious attempt at meeting our economic and demographic challenges. It should be something we can all agree on because:

  • Supporting urbanisation isn’t about choosing one segment of the population over the other; it’s about choosing prosperity over stagnation.
  • If we totally ignore urbanisation, but are still successful in promoting economic development, it’s essentially guaranteed to happen anyway.
  • The current decline of rural areas means it is already happening, has been for the last few decades, and will likely continue in the event that we fail to achieve meaningful economic progress.

If urbanisation is going to continue either way, let’s make it happen for the right reasons, and make the most of it while we’re at it. Focusing policy and investment strategically around urban areas amplifies the return on our effort. There is a great deal more we can do, but even engaging at this basic level will pay dividends. Strengthened urban communities reduce our fiscal challenges and improve our economic competitiveness. In turn, they support stable, vigorous rural communities. Embracing that goal should not be a polarizing idea.

About the Author:

Neil Lovitt heads up our Planning Division and can be contacted at or 1 (800) 567-3033. For a deeper examination of urbanisation in Atlantic Canada, see his full article at the following link: