Growing your Region, Myth #3: Regions NEED to grow

Need to grow....?

This post is part of the series Growing Your Region. Read the full series here.

In the last post, I started by observing how I often sit in meetings and workshops where regional growth is spoken of as something urgent, a matter of survival for rural regions. Yet it isn’t always very clear what kind of growth the participants are talking about. Growth is one of those shiny words that attracts nearly everyone, yet it is slightly blinding when it shines.

When regional growth is the topic, the next question should always be: what kind of growth, exactly? Is it population growth, or productivity growth? Growth in businesses or growth in jobs? When someone starts to talk about growth, ask: Which growth, exactly, do you mean?

In this series we have discussed nine kinds of growth that are relevant to rural regions. We have seen that growth – of different kinds – can be positive, negative, or a bit of both. We have also seen that the impacts of growth may look different depending on who you are.

In none of these conversations, however, have we seriously challenged the idea that growth in some form is central to the future of rural regions. But spring is heating up, we’re on the cusp of summer, and it’s time. Here is the hot question: Do rural regions really need to grow?

Myth #3: Regions need to grow (the ‘If you don’t grow, you die’ myth)

Do regions need to grow, in order to survive and thrive?

There are some lines of thought that suggest they do. A region that does not grow may be portrayed as stagnant, or even in decline. It may be seen as essentially unsustainable, unable to to offer opportunities and so unable to retain people and prosperity.

The old saying goes, if you don’t grow, you die. Is this true for rural regions?

The flip side of the argument is that growth itself can be unsustainable. Growth consumes resources; growth puts pressure on ecosystems. Since most resources are finite, growth cannot be infinite.

So is growth sustainable, or isn’t it? Is it part of the solution, or part of the problem?

The answer is, very simply, it depends.

  • It depends what kind of growth you’re talking about.
  • It depends on what kind of region you’re talking about.
  • It depends on how much growth you’re talking about.
  • And it depends who you are… and what you value in your region.

Take, for instance, population growth. A region with a strong and diverse population probably does not need to grow. A region with a small population on a fragile ecosystem probably should not grow – at least, not much. A region with a small and declining population may need to grow in order to survive – or at least, for local services and businesses to remain viable.

With population growth, it’s often a question of balance: enough people to provide critical mass and vibrancy; not too many for the local community and environment to absorb. But there is no scientific precision behind ‘enough’ and ‘too many’: regions aren’t rated with a carrying capacity! Enough and too many are largely questions of human preferences. What is your preferred people to tree ratio?:

Does this preference change if you are running a retail shop, or an artist’s retreat? Does it look different when you are collecting council rates, than when you are mapping species diversity?

Population growth is seldom a necessity – after all, many rural regions have survived for hundreds and thousands of years with small populations. Population growth may, however, be a preference – even, a preference masquerading as necessity. In the end, what you prefer depends on who you are.

And what about economic growth? Many definitions of regional development put productivity growth at the centre. Successful regions, through a traditional economics lens, are expected to grow their productivity – continually. But how much, for how long, can productivity grow?

Traditional calculations of productivity are problematic when they fail to put a value on the resources that are consumed in order to produce more. This is a recipe for healthy statistics and unhealthy regions. Over the long term, this kind of ‘productivity’ is a race to the bottom as it drains resources from the local place.

Productivity, therefore, must be balanced with sustainability – growth should not deplete the resource base. Some regions may need to grow their productivity; it may be the only way for them to create or buy the resources they need. But it matters what is being produced, what it costs to produce it, and who benefits. Bigger factories don’t necessarily generate more school books.

Similarly, growing jobs or incomes may be vital for regions where people lack secure livelihoods. But be careful of assumptions. Is it really more jobs that are required, or making existing jobs more accessible? Simply adding more jobs won’t solve problems like lack of access to transport or child care.

Growth is a necessity sometimes… and sometimes, it isn’t what is needed at all. Growing human capital may be necessary in regions where the population is under-educated. But again, be careful of assumptions. Are more qualifications needed, or more recognition of what local people already know? Are more formal courses needed, or more informal learning opportunities?

The next time you’re in a room and someone says growth is the goal for your region, ask, What kind of growth?

Ask why it is needed, and what it will achieve. Ask, What are the costs?

And importantly, Who will benefit?

If you like the answers… then you’re good to grow.

Published by The Bush Prof

Professor Robyn Eversole is a practical regional development academic based in rural Tasmania.

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