Understanding Newfoundland and Labrador regions: a new approach
Dr. Alvin Simms, associate professor, Department of Geography.
By Rebecca Cohoe
There's a lot of talk about the state of rural communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. New research at Memorial is helping to back up the conjecture with statistical fact, along with some practical suggestions for future success.
The findings are part of a multi-year research project to identify more effective ways of organizing economic development efforts in the province. The project, Rural Urban Interaction NL – Understanding and Managing Functional Regions, is a joint collaboration between Memorial's Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development, the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) and faculty members from Memorial's Department of Geography and the University of Kentucky.
The research was undertaken by Dr. David Freshwater, professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Kentucky, and adjunct professor, Department of Geography, Memorial University; Dr. Alvin Simms, associate professor, Department of Geography, Memorial University; and Dr. Kelly Vodden, assistant professor, Department of Geography, Memorial University.
Work was also guided by an advisory committee comprised of individuals representing federal and provincial departments and agencies, municipalities and development organizations, as well as collaboration and communications with partner organizations in each of the three case study areas: the Irish Loop, Twillingate-New World Islands and the Labrador Straits.
In addition, the ongoing work was presented semi-annually at various MNL meetings to obtain feedback from local elected officials.
"Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador has been researching and promoting regional collaboration for several years now," said Craig Pollett, executive director, MNL. "Municipal collaboration -- rural and urban -- is at the heart of regional success. This research has provided us with useful new perspectives on, and valuable new tools for encouraging, regionalization."
At the heart of the project is the concept of functional regions. Unlike administrative boundaries, such as municipal lines or Regional Economic Development Zones, functional regions are defined by existing patterns of spatial interaction. More simply put, functional regions group populations based on the way that people live their lives. Unlike traditional administrative boundaries, functional regions account for the movement of people within a region, and the impact that that movement can have upon planning and development.
One outcome of the research project is the Regional Economic Capacity Index (RECI). RECI is a web-based tool that uses statistical data to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a community. It standardizes all data inputs such that socio-economic scores are expressed as percentages and are translated to textual information so that users can quickly assess the strengths and weakness of a community.
"RECI takes different types of data and shows how it all works together," said Dr. Simms. "It's about creating useable information out of raw data."
Understanding current economic, demographic and governance structures provides information on how individual and collective economies might evolve in the future. The comparison function is particularly useful when assessing the strengths of adjacent communities. Some may serve a specialized function, such as a fish plant location, while others may be particularly well suited to provide retail services. With those strengths in mind, communities may employ different development strategies based upon the larger regional context.
Collaboration is also at the heart of the second element of the project: governance. Historically, rural communities in Newfoundland and Labrador place a high value on independence. However, with declining resource industries and demographics, collaboration may be the best path to a viable future.
According to the researchers, paying attention to functional regions could lead to more responsive and relevant governance at local and provincial levels. Because functional regions are defined by spatial interaction, they avoid the problem of placing boundaries in inappropriate places and of making regions too geographically large for activities that are based on daily interaction.
Dr. Rob Greenwood, project chair and executive director, Harris Centre and the Office of Engagement, said it must be noted that the researchers aren't advocating municipal amalgamation.
"This research highlights the many opportunities for neighbouring municipalities to work together to their mutual benefit, while maintaining their independence as democratic governments," said Dr. Greenwood. "Much collaboration is already taking place, but our hope is that this research and the RECI online tool will enable much more. It will also assist the federal and provincial governments, school boards, health boards, Regional Economic Development Boards, businesses, non-governmental organizations -- all those who are trying to plan their activities at the regional level."
To read the reports and access RECI, please visit the Harris Centre website at www.mun.ca/harriscentre.