02/14/2012 01:18 EST | Updated 04/14/2012 05:12 EDT

There's Growth in New Brunswick -- But is it Smart?

Numbers from the latest census show that New Brunswick's population has grown over the last five years -- while less than the Canadian growth rate of 5.9 per cent for this period, and further behind the western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, which are at 10.8 and 6.7 per cent respectively -- New Brunswick's growth, of 2.9 per cent to 751,171, is good news after years of concern over stagnation and population decline.

Looking more closely at the numbers for New Brunswick, the population growth in the province is largely centered around the urban/suburban regions of Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John. This urbanizing/suburbanizing population does warrant more spotlight on urban issues, such as urban poverty in places like the south end and old north end of Saint John, where concerns include mass transit for poorer residents who do not own a car.

Particularly notable is the rapid growth of New Brunswick's suburban communities -- showing a suburbanizing population -- with Dieppe growing by 25.6 per cent to 23,310, and Quispamsis by 17.4 per cent to 17,886. To put things in perspective, Dieppe and Quispamsis have larger populations than each of the northern New Brunswick cities including Miramichi.

In Fredericton, there has been a lot of new residential construction in suburban-like neighbourhoods on the city's northside and significant growth in the suburban communities of Lincoln (12 per cent) and Kingsclear (10.5 per cent).

So what are the policy implications of this for the leading urban/suburban municipalities of southern New Brunswick? While we need to continue the conversation about population growth strategies for the province, there also needs to be a conversation about growth itself -- what kind of growth and development do we want?

We need a smart growth strategy that focuses on sustainable development, efficient in use of space -- conserving rural areas and natural landscapes -- while building liveable neighbourhoods that foster the spirit of community which is an important part of life. While a different issue, the debate over fracking has brought to light the need to balance growth and development with environmental sustainability and quality of life.

Growth too often brings sprawl -- generic cookie-cutter neighbourhoods and sprawling box stores and strip malls with vast parking lots that take up inordinate space. These landscapes are aesthetically interchangeable with sprawl developments throughout North America. Furthermore, this development is oriented more to cars than people, neighbourhoods are not walkable, and generic landscapes can ruin the unique character of New Brunswick.

These sprawling developments also bring greater infrastructure costs -- for roads and hydro -- and air pollution from greater car use. We need development that focuses on preserving and enhancing city centres and building new neighbourhoods with downtown-like characteristics -- with emphasis on walkable and bikeable streets that foster community, creativity, and collaboration -- good factors economically (entrepreneurship, art, and culture) and in enhancing quality of life.

In the census, it is also worth noting that for the first time in half a century the City of Saint John posted population growth -- at 3 per cent -- which seems to attest to the success of initiatives to promote the city centre -- Uptown as it is known in Saint John. This gives vindication to move forward on Plan Saint John which focuses on centralized development and pedestrian-friendly streets.

While the growth of New Brunswick's urban and suburban areas is not on the scale of larger cities in Canada, there are lessons to be learned from these larger centres where, after periods of rapid growth which led to vast landscapes of generic car-oriented sprawl, there has been a backlash and a desire to return to more walkable downtown-like neighbourhoods.

In Calgary, Naheed Nenshi went from being a long-shot candidate to the winner in that city's mayoral race in large part on the promise to promote more walkable and sustainable neighbourhoods in a city characterized by vast landscapes of sprawl.

The Greater Toronto Area has also seen a reaction against vast landscapes of box stores, parking lots, and car-oriented neighbourhoods, after decades of post-WWII growth. As an example, the suburban municipality of Mississauga has embarked on an ambitious plan to build a walkable, bikeable, downtown centre with that city's Downtown21 plan. This plan was developed through public consultation and is aimed at building a greater sense of community.

I hope things in New Brunswick will not have to get out of hand before there is a real conversation on smart growth. Such efforts to revitalize downtowns and build walkable neighbourhoods should also include the province's towns and villages in promoting them as places of business, culture, and tourism.

Furthermore, with the urbanization and suburbanization of New Brunswick, and greater population concentration in the south, it is important to not write off rural areas or the north -- promoting economic growth in areas of population decline must be a priority as well. Also, it is important to preserve the legacy of Equal Opportunity for these regions which has enabled a range of services to be provided equitably across the province regardless of local tax base.

We must have a conversation in this province that includes north and south; rural, suburban, and urban. We must encourage not only growth, but smart growth that preserves our natural landscapes, while building neighbourhoods and communities that embody the unique qualities and culture of New Brunswick -- communities we can take pride in, which are social and creative centres.