Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Using amenities for rural economic development

The natural and cultural assets of an area are key determinants to human settlement. In Canada’s rural areas, these assets have contributed to settlement patterns and a legacy of rich heritage. For many of Canada’s rural regions, these assets were utilized to develop economies based on the extraction of natural resources. As time has evolved, numerous external pressures and new global realities have reshaped the relationship that rural residents have with these resources. Now, many rural areas are rethinking how they can utilize their rich natural and cultural heritage to keep their communities alive. The same assets are now being viewed as amenities that have the potential to reshape economic development strategies by bringing people (visitors and residents) into rural areas instead of simply exporting natural resources out.

Awareness of the influence of amenities on rural population patterns has been growing. Residents of urban areas are seeking out the amenities of rural areas for outdoor recreation and tourism or as key attributes in resettlement for either part time (second home ownership) or full time residence. Booth (1999) found in studies in the western US that high population densities are oriented to amenities such as ski areas, national parks, and to universities and colleges. Clark and colleagues( 2002) found evidence that cultural amenities are key contributors to settlement in urban areas and are key to economic vitality. Overall, studies have shown that there is a correlation between amenity rich areas and higher levels of employment, population and income growth (Henderson & McDaniel, 2005; Hunter et al, 2005; Nzaku & Bukenya, 2005).

While there is still a lot to learn about how communities and regions can use their amenities in economic development, there appears to be enough consensus that they can be strong contributors and should be factored into discussions. For starters, here are some questions worth considering:

1. Are you in an amenity rich location? If so, what are they? Natural (weather, topography, settings) or man made (culture, heritage sites, etc). Is your perception of your own amenities consistent with what outside audiences know about your area?
2. Are you incorporating these amenities into your economic development or tourism development strategies? Are they listed as assets that are central to your economic strategies? Are they identified, understood and promoted to attract entrepreneurs, firms, residents or visitors?
3. Are you seeking to attract people as residents? Remember - attracting people attracts jobs and concentrations of people create demand for services. Note that natural amenities have been associated to higher economic activity (jobs) for some industries more than others. For example, recreation and tourism based industry growth fits amenity rich locations whereas manufacturing is not as good a fit (due to higher land costs and adverse effects of some manufacturing activity where emissions or environmental issues are evident).

That ought to keep you thinking about amenities for awhile. Recognize that using amenities as an economic development strategy has both pros and cons, much of which we are still learning about. I will write about this in a future blog as communities who have used their amenities well to diversify are teaching us a lot about what others can do to maximize the positive and minimize the negative outcomes.

Further resources:
Booth, D. E. (1999). Spatial patterns in the economic development of the mountain west. Growth & Change, 30(3), 384.
Clark, T. N., Lloyd, R., Wong, K. K., & Jain, P. (2002). Amenities drive urban growth. Journal of Urban Affairs, 24(5), 493-515.
Henderson, J. R., & McDaniel, K. (2005). Natural amenities and rural employment growth: A sector analysis. Review of Regional Studies, 35(1), 80-96.
Hunter, L. M., Boardman, J. D., & Saint Onge, J. M. (2005). The association between natural amenities, rural population growth, and long-term residents' economic well-being. Rural Sociology, 70(4), 452-469.
Nzaku, K., & Bukenya, J. O. (2005). Examining the relationship between quality of life amenities and economic development in the southeast USA. Review of Urban & Regional Development Studies, 17(2), 89-103.

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