Research from the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development at Memorial University of Newfoundland suggests that a change in the traditional approach to regional planning and development may enhance economic success for communities and regions across Atlantic Canada.
The report, titled Local Labour Markets as a New Way of Organizing Policies for Stronger Regional Economic Development in Atlantic Canada, proposes a shift from planning based on administrative regions, such as municipal boundaries, school districts, postal codes, etc., to a functional economic region (FER) model.
“Traditionally, governments tend to divide regions in order to make administering programs easier; however, that approach may result in boundaries that do not correspond well to how local economies are actually organized,” said Dr. Rob Greenwood, executive director, Harris Centre. “FERs define local labour markets based on day-to-day human behaviour including work, shopping and access to services and recreation. For example, an individual might live in one municipality, commute to another for work and do most of his or her shopping elsewhere.”
The researchers used statistical data on commuting patterns to identify 259 distinct FERs within Atlantic Canada. Those FERs were then sorted by five size categories. Size of population is correlated to the size and complexity of a region’s economy, workforce skills, accessibility of public services and connectivity — roads, airports, internet access, etc.— meaning regions of similar size from different provinces are likely to have more in common than with larger or smaller regions in their own backyards.
This shift in thinking may have policy implications, both in terms of funding and planning.
“Government programs are typically structured so that different sized regions receive similar types of support,” explained project lead Dr. David Freshwater, professor of agricultural economics, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and adjunct professor, Department of Geography, Memorial University.
“Providing uniform programming addresses concerns about equity, but the approach doesn’t necessarily ensure that regions receive programming that is relevant to their specific needs.”
Dr. Freshwater notes that the idea of offering different supports to different sized regions has the potential to be controversial – some might argue that it could lead to regions being favoured over others; however, this is not the recommendation of the research.
“By providing support tailored to the different needs and capabilities of regions of different size, you actually avoid the problem of having to choose winners. Regions with similar situations could be offered similar support,” he explained. “A policy focused on types of FERs levels the playing field so that all regions have the opportunity to compete within the appropriate bracket.”
The research demonstrates that economic success is largely the result of the people in a region identifying potential strengths and acting to make their region economically stronger. While the national and provincial governments can play an important role in supporting local action, stronger local economies are largely the result of stronger local communities. The research may also be useful for local leaders by helping them to identify other regions across Atlantic Canada experiencing similar situations and learning about ideas and experiences that could be successful in other jurisdictions.
“This research shows the importance of towns and communities working together and reinforces our work on regional government,” said Churence
Rogers, president, Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador. (MNL). “This tool will be a valuable asset for MNL members as we work with larger municipal councils on pioneering a new approach to regional economic development via the Urban Accord and with smaller municipalities on our first ever rural forum planned for this October.”
The study was funded under the Atlantic Policy Research Initiative, delivered by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA). View the report here.