Grow Regina to 1 Million: How Regina can capitalize on the boom

Commentary, Immigration, Steve Lafleur

The saying "Go west, young man" used to apply to all of the Prairies. For the last 50 years, it has mainly applied to Alberta.

While Saskatchewan's cities stagnated, Alberta's cities boomed. In 1940, Calgary, Regina, and Edmonton all had less than 100,000 residents. Calgary is now the fourth-largest city in Canada with 1,242,600 citizens, and Edmonton isn't far behind at 1,176,300. Regina has only 215,100 residents.

For decades, Saskatchewan has watched its young people leave, but the province has now turned things around. Saskatoon is the fastest growing city in the country; Regina is third. Saskatchewan is well positioned to do in this century, what Alberta did in the last. To ensure that Regina capitalizes on the boom, it is important to learn from the successes and failures of a city like Calgary. To sustain the boom, Regina will need a million people by the end of the century. In order to accommodate this growth, the city should take heed of the following lessons:

First, accept more immigrants. Between 1961 and 2010, Calgary grew by 429 per cent. If the boom here is anywhere as big as Calgary's, Regina could grow to well over a million by the turn of the century. Saskatchewan has the country's oldest labour force, which will be stressed by the cost of supporting retiring Boomers, and major labour shortages in key areas such as health care. The provincial immigrant nominee program has increased immigration levels recently, but it isn't enough. Saskatchewan needs to join with provinces like Manitoba and Nova Scotia in pressing the federal government to expand their quotas under the program.

Second, build up, and out. There is always debate about whether cities should build up, or build out. If Regina is going to grow to the size of Calgary, the answer is both. This doesn't mean that city hall should just lay down a road anywhere a developer pleases. Growth needs to be self-financing so that existing residents aren't subsidizing new arrivals. If developers pay the full cost of development, we could expect Regina to develop organically into a less-sprawled city than Calgary. But some sprawl will be necessary, including major growth in nearby towns, as has happened in Calgary.

The city should also embrace some job dispersion instead of attempting to force development into a dense downtown core surrounded by single-dwelling housing. This is the pattern Calgary has attempted to follow, and Calgarians spend far more on roads and transit per capita than any other Canadian city.

Third, mobility is more than just shunting people across the city. Calgary spends plenty of money shuttling people downtown with its expensive LRT system, but does an inadequate job of getting people to other areas of the city via public transit. While this makes it easy to get downtown, it makes it harder to get around specific areas of the city. Incremental improvements to Regina Transit will be required, but they must be financially sustainable. Improvements to roads and pedestrian infrastructure will also be essential.

Fourth, the market can provide affordable housing. Recently, there have been some calls for rent control in Saskatchewan. While short term fluctuations in rent are painful, the long-term costs of rent control are worse. Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck once wrote that "rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city – except for bombing." Since landlords often can't generate enough revenue to pay for maintenance in rent-controlled units, they leave them to crumble. Moreover, no one wants to build apartment units in rent-controlled cities. If anything, rent control would give more of an incentive to build single-dwelling homes or condo units, which lowers the supply of rental units, putting upward pressure on rents. Rather than creating that vicious cycle, housing costs will need to be addressed from the supply side. It is important to avoid regulations that artificially increase the cost of housing, or unnecessarily delay construction.

Finally, there will be hiccups, but things will work themselves out. Housing prices will fluctuate. Crime will occasionally spike. Bouts of unemployment will happen. All of these things will happen either with a modest growth rate, or an aggressive pro-growth strategy. It is important to keep in mind when these things happen that in the end the city will be better off because of all the amenities that come with growth.

This city has had nearly 80 years of stagnation. It's time for Regina to flourish.