Building for the Future: Rural Infrastructure and Regional Economic Development
Communities of all sizes are facing the challenge of balancing fiscal realities, changing economies, aging infrastructure, changing demographics, climate change, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as they work to manage their core infrastructure assets and accommodate and/or address new infrastructure and service needs. Rural communities, however, face different challenges than their urban counterparts – and the diversity of rural communities that these challenges change from place to place. Rural communities are at a critical turning point following decades of dramatic change: the out-migration of young people and skilled labour, economic restructuring, and an uneven investment in infrastructure (often focused on moving resources out of peripheral regions) – the combination of which appears to have left the futures of rural communities up to decisions by external actors to invest external funding. Additionally, rural communities experience varying capacities to respond to infrastructure pressures and opportunities. As climate change and technological breakthroughs challenge traditional means of managing infrastructure, rural communities must have the financial, technical, and human resources to adequately plan for a future that may look very different from their past. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated just how important planning for multiple uncertain futures is to community and economic well-being – and the critical role of investing in infrastructure such as broadband, outdoor recreation amenities, and collaborative governance for navigating challenging times. Rural communities’ capacity to meaningfully manage infrastructure in this context has a critical impact on their ability to address challenges and opportunities in ways that meet their current and future needs, influencing the outcomes of both immediate and long-term economic development efforts.
Understanding the capacity- and regulatory-related pressures and opportunities facing varying types of rural communities is critical for developing effective policy and programming that adapts to the size, type, and context of individual communities, and ultimately, for supporting the current and future economic vitality of rural Ontario. To address these critical issues, a cross-Canada research team has been working with the Ontario Good Roads Association, the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, and the Government of Ontario to investigate the capacities of rural Ontario communities to respond to infrastructure pressures and opportunities and how that capacity (or lack thereof) affects a community’s current and future long-term economic development.
The research team conducted a province-wide survey in Ontario municipalities and completed case studies on regional municipal collaboration on planning and infrastructure management, municipal approaches to green infrastructure, and the implications of under-investment in broadband infrastructure for rural communities ability to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. This presentation will share the results of this work. The overarching themes from this research highlight the reality that many policies and programs designed to support municipalities in their infrastructure and economic development initiatives are not appropriately aligned to rural realities and that rural communities need place-based, holistic, and transparent approaches to investing in infrastructure that will support rural community economic development now and into the future.