Despite a recent Statistics Canada census report showing the number of Canadians living in rural areas continuing to decline, a University of Guelph rural planning expert says the pandemic could cause these overall numbers to reverse.

According to the report, the number of Canadians living in rural areas has dropped for the ninth census in a row.

Dr. Wayne Caldwell
Dr. Wayne Caldwell

Dr. Wayne Caldwell, a professor at the Ontario Agricultural College, says the pandemic-driven surge in employees being able to work from home has encouraged people to leave city life for smaller towns.

“I think the growing shift from urban to rural brought on by the pandemic could change this trend of people leaving rural areas. You have to remember this census occurred in 2021 just partway through our current reality.”

However, not every small town will benefit from the new growth, he adds.

“There will be successes across the country of people moving to rural communities, finding their home there and being able to telecommute or even change the location of their occupation by creating new opportunities such as starting their own businesses,” he said. “However, there will also be other areas that continue to struggle because they lack services, access to urban communities and lifestyles and find it difficult to overturn long-term trends.”

In the end, it depends on how the census data is interpreted. When it’s looked at from a community level versus a provincial level, how rural communities are affected varies significantly across the country, he said.

“There are many communities in rural Ontario that are losing populations,” said Caldwell. “So, to try to encourage their growth, I think, is in everyone’s collective interest.”

With their new growth, communities have a chance to revive themselves by investing in their basic services, amenities, and main streets. Doing so, Caldwell says, could build diverse and well-designed communities ideal to both work and live in, from cradle to grave.

“By attracting new people, these communities may have a revitalized future that they otherwise might not be able to achieve,” he said.

That in part, he says, will depend on communities’ responses to immigration, something Canada still heavily relies on when it comes to stimulating new growth.

“Some communities will be more receptive to immigration and will be successful, while others may struggle both in terms of local acceptance and also in terms of having the services to attract new populations.”

Reconciling the demand and the visions for reinvigorated communities will require dealing with the impediments to the low housing supply and rising housing prices.

Caldwell listed several ways in which to do so, such as improving servicing constraints for infrastructure planning, making processes for rules and regulations more efficient and effective, and educating residents on housing density.

In January, Caldwell was on an expert panel on TVO’s “The Agenda” to discuss the demands, supply and planning policies of rural housing.

His current research projects, within the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, include healthy rural communities and populations, rural community economic development and planning for rural resilience.

He is available for interviews.

Dr. Wayne Caldwell