Growth Shouldn’t Be Our Focus

Ever since campaigning for council in 2018, there has been this message floating around that Sarnia needs population growth. Somehow it worked as a campaign strategy for councilors saying they were going to focus on growing our population. More recently the mayor has been touting that “we need to get that percentage number up,” said Bradley, calling it an “ambitious” and “critical” goal for the community. “We’re seeing growth and all but it needs to be much higher.”

This is not uncommon speech for politicians. I would put this kind of rhetoric on the same level as when politicians shout about how they are going to lower taxes. It’s a talking point that to the untrained ear seems like a vision and something important to go for. It’s low hanging fruit to get some press and pretend that there is some grandiose plan for change for the better. It keeps everyone’s head in the clouds and avoids having to face into the reality in front of us.

At the risk of alienating some, I’m going to push back on this narrative about Sarnia and suggest that we don’t need to grow at all.

Historically Sarnia’s population has been pretty much stagnant since the 1960s and projections estimate that it will remain static until 2036. I’m not one to believe in projections or even care what the historical precedent was, but I do think the numbers are telling. For 60 or so years, our population hasn’t changed and we don’t have reason to believe it will in the near future. So if growth is a priority, we are up against the past and the projected future.

However, the bigger issue I see though is the unanswered question is why? Why do we need to grow? What does growth get us? What is lost? What are the risks?

In Strong Towns, growth is considered an ancient and harmful goal for municipalities.

“Growth is an old economy objective. For local governments seeking to create successful human habitat, the centrally orientating objective needs to shift to wealth creation. Broad-based wealth creation. Cities must sacrifice growth to build stability, to close the gap between private wealth and long-term public liabilities.”

Charles L. Marohn

As a consequence of how cities have been built, growth has almost always meant a decline somewhere else in the city. As Sarnia grows outward with new developments being planned especially in Bright’s Grove and the Rapids, we are feeding a vicious cycle of allowing our most valuable assets to decline, become increasingly undesirable and blighted. We have been building these new areas over the last 5 decades, all of who’s infrastructure now get added to Sarnia’s liabilities to maintain forever into the future, and we have the exact same population to cover those costs. It isn’t sustainable to keep growing.

There are increasing amounts of dissent about the conditions of our already existing roads and infrastructure across the city. There is lead in some of our pipes, the sewers are aging quicker than we can get to them, the potholes are ruining our vehicles and we have an entire commercial district that hasn’t been shown love in decades (Mitton Village). So a focus on adding more will only distract us from maintaining what we already have.

I think a nuanced and wise strategy for Sarnia should not be population growth at all. Instead we should be focusing on health.

Health can be approached in a variety of different ways and it will improve the life of all of us. Let’s fix what needs to be fixed, let’s invest in neighborhoods that fund the rest of the city (just look at how successful the renovation of our downtown was for the entire city), let’s maintain our parks and trails, let’s restore neighborhoods and facilities that have grown defunct.

My vision for Sarnia is not that we get bigger, but that we grow stronger. I want Sarnia to stand out among all communities as a place that is pristine, full of things to do and keep us active and healthy. I’m sure it’s a lesson our parents taught us at one point as children: learn to care about and appreciate what you have, because you do that and the growth and new opportunities will present themselves when the time is right.

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