Trailing places: #4 Can we stimulate growth without major investment?

Decarbonization will mean doing everything differently. Policymakers and planners can use this momentum to unblock the potential of lagging regions

October 2022

Words by Katie Puckett

“We need to recognize that, moving forwards, the way we create wealth will look very different to the past. Every region, every community, has its strengths and its opportunities”

Chris Tyrrell, WSP

Policymakers may have little control over global markets, but they do wield significant influence over local ones through regulation. With a bit of joined-up thinking, there are a lot of relatively low-cost interventions that can make a massive difference, says Chris Tyrrell, an urban planner with WSP in Canada, who has consulted on many growth strategies and improvement plans.

“There’s always a very high importance on having predictable regulations for business, for economic development, for project approvals,” he says. “That is not expensive in the context of many programmes and policies that we talk about relative to decarbonization, or levelling out disparities, but it can have a huge impact on creating a level playing field.”

Maltfabrikken in the port town of Ebeltoft, eastern Denmark. Praksis Arkitekter has revived an abandoned malt factory as a cultural centre with creative workshops and start-up spaces. Photo Jens Lindhe

Higher education can be a good incubator, but only if intellectual property rights are protected too. Similarly, retraining and development programmes can be relatively inexpensive — and will be essential as economies decarbonize. “We need to recognize that, moving forwards, the way we create wealth will look very different to the past. Every region, every community, has its strengths and its opportunities, and it becomes a question of how you leverage those within one’s means to deliver.”

Perhaps the simplest way to create new opportunities is just to re-evaluate your priorities: “The programmes and policies that we’ve had in place were targeted at one outcome, and had intended and unintended consequences. So can we look again at how we provide housing, deal with mobility, what kind of employment-generating activities we encourage and approve, through a decarbonization lens? That can be neutral from a cost and budgeting standpoint.”

Decarbonization may indirectly increase the value of left-behind areas — for example, rising material costs or a greater focus on embodied carbon might shift the balance in favour of adaptive reuse projects. “One thing a lot of underperforming regions have is vastly underperforming real-estate assets — hundred of acres of industrial land that already has power access and a lot of useable built infrastructure,” says Peter Liebowitz, vice president in WSP’s US planning practice. “So maybe we have to put more emphasis on brownfield redevelopment. Currently we only do it on the margins and in strong markets where high land values make it more feasible. We give it lip service, but then we don’t require it.”

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Meanwhile, emerging technologies such as green aviation will be viable over shorter distances first, potentially reinvigorating regional airports in remote locations, suggests Mattias Frithiof, director of advisory services at WSP in Stockholm. “You could certainly see a revival of areas that until now have been very peripheral. That could enable people to live there and still transport themselves over large distances. I think that’s probably one of the best possibilities for the rejuvenation of a lot of areas.”

Shrinking with dignity: life (and death) outside the clusters

But what about places that just can’t catch up? By definition, not everywhere can be part of a cluster, and it is typically remote, rural populations who risk being forgotten. “Usually the conversation is all about dealing with growth — how major cities need to handle congestion or housing shortages,” says Frithiof. “But actually, those problems really only affect a handful of areas. Of the 290 municipalities in Sweden, at least half are shrinking. Public authorities in these places need a policy to deal with the fact that the labour force may not be big enough to staff elderly care homes. At some point, you will even have trouble staffing municipal offices and public transport systems too. So we need to find other ways of making sure they have the labour and financial resources to provide the services they’re mandated to provide. It’s a matter of survival.”

Frithiof and his colleagues call this concept “shrinking with dignity”. This is not about arresting the decline so much as slowing it down, by finding innovative ways to deliver key services with fewer resources, or using tourism to attract enough residents to plug the gaps.

"There’s a lot of work going on around distributed power and microgrids — that’s what we should be exploring, to move away from very big, expensive pieces of infrastructure that need economies of scale"

Vivienne Ivory, WSP

The transition to a net-zero economy will play out differently in the regions, presenting greater challenges than in cities but also opportunities to address longstanding issues. Like many developed countries around the world, a lot of New Zealand’s infrastructure was built after the Second World War and is now coming to the end of its life. “There’s a recognition that the way infrastructure is planned and funded is becoming less and less viable, for lots of reasons,” says Vivienne Ivory, a social scientist and transport equity researcher with WSP in New Zealand. “It’s barely working in our cities, let alone in our regions. At the moment, our power comes from a connected network and we’re very reliant on big generation centres, but that makes us vulnerable. There’s a lot of work going on around distributed power and microgrids — I think that’s what we should be exploring, to move away from very big, expensive pieces of infrastructure that need economies of scale.”

Mobility is already a tricky problem for remote, ageing populations, and it will become increasingly difficult as cities electrify and decarbonize. “The distribution of healthcare becomes really challenging when you have people living in those rural or semi-rural places,” says Ivory. “How do you fund the services that they need without them having to travel long distances? The shift away from private vehicles is great when you have alternatives. But what happens in rural, or even peri-rural settings, where people are still going to be reliant on private, probably petrol, vehicles to get around? It’s going to become incredibly expensive, not only to fuel your car but to maintain it. Are we still going to have the mechanics to keep those cars going? And what happens when we can’t — will we all be on bikes? Because that then changes the scale of what it’s possible to do. With an e-bike, you can go maybe 20km, so it’s definitely increased the range for a trip, but it’s still quite a big ask.”

Groningen Airport
Groningen Airport Eelde in the Netherlands is seeking to generate green hydrogen using its on-site 22MW solar farm. Green aviation has the potential to reinvigorate regional airports as it will initially be viable only over shorter distances. Photo Kas van Zonneveld / Groningen Airport Eelde

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She thinks ride-share schemes or transport-on-demand could be a solution — in the coastal town of Timaru, an underused bus service has been replaced with an on-call shuttle, for example, that uses smart scheduling to route vehicles between virtual bus stops. “It’s not a taxi, but it’s more on-call than a regular timetable. We need more of a continuum around what we call public transport — there has to be something between your private vehicle and a big bus.”

For these types of services to work, there would need to be investment in digital connectivity, notes Edgar Pacheco, a researcher in Ivory’s group looking at human-computer interaction and accessibility. “There are opportunities in terms of digital tools to enhance people’s engagement and participation in different activities, but there are still challenges in terms of access to them — broadband, for example, as well as skills, attitudes and preferences. Not everyone has an iPhone, especially in the regions, and not everyone has the confidence to use digital tools, so there is a still a digital divide.”

The bigger picture is that funding any core infrastructure in remote regions will become increasingly difficult, as natural hazards increase and economies of scale diminish. So if we still want those places to exist, we need to find a way of articulating why, and making it into an investment case.

"Digital tools can enhance engagement and participation but there are still challenges in terms of access — not everyone has a powerful iPhone, especially in the regions"

Edgar Pacheco, WSP

“One thing we can do is to value their contribution to the diversity of a country,” suggests Ivory. “We talk about how diverse workforces and boards contribute to better-functioning companies. We can think of the urban form in the same way — we don’t all want to live in the same way.” It’s not just about lifestyle: thriving rural areas are an essential component of resilient food systems, particularly in a changing climate. “When we recognize we need that diversity, I think we’ll get a better investment in maintaining it.”

The Covid pandemic has highlighted both of these in different ways: bans on international travel gave city dwellers a new appreciation for the countryside around them, while revealing vulnerabilities in globalized supply chains and food systems.

Looked at another way, widening regional disparities are one symptom of a world in which carbon emissions have rocketed, the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development is deemed “in grave danger”, and which is ill-prepared for the ravages of a more extreme, hostile climate. Perhaps the question should not be whether we can afford to rebalance national economies, but how much longer we can afford not to.


Solving regional disparities

Within countries, the gulf between rich and poor regions has never been so wide. How can we arrest the decline of post-industrial areas, and stop major cities from sucking them dry?
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Why invest in transport where there’s no traffic?

It’s hard to justify new infrastructure in shrinking regions when there’s congestion elsewhere. So maybe we need to rethink how we calculate value
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Can the green transition save declining regions?

The zero-carbon economy will create new industrial heartlands — but sustainable growth depends on many other factors, too
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