Look north, Census-watchers

There are many signs of advancing middle age. Seeing old friends retire is one of them. Seeing old ideas resurface is another.

One old idea in particular came to mind as the first dribble from the 2016 Census came out earlier this week.

A decade and a half ago, Brockville was promoting itself as “the South End of Silicon Valley North,” a phrase that was cringeworthy enough before Silicon Valley North’s own numbers started going south.

The desire to lure tech firms southward from the Ottawa hub is not dead, as North Grenville Mayor David Gordon demonstrated yesterday, but turning Brockville into some sort of satellite hub still seems a remote possibility.

The broader idea of southward migration, however, is what needs to resurface now, as the south end of Leeds and Grenville struggles to maintain its population levels while the north’s numbers skyrocket.

The census data show the unmistakeable result of exurban migration, with Ottawans, still relatively prosperous long after the bursting of the tech bubble, heading across the Rideau to find lower-priced homes and lakesides, hunting and fishing close at hand.

In Thursday’s interview, Gordon pointed to one advantage the south still retains: The busy Highway 401 corridor. While North Grenville is doing a marvellous job of luring new residents, manufacturers and warehousing operations are unwilling to stretch their logistics chain up the 416, when a Giant Tiger, for instance, has land available to it close to the 401.

So, our southern geography is good for attracting industry... but there are complications.

The past decade has taught us there is far less industry to go around. It’s also shown that, as Brockville officials are quick to point out, today’s manufacturing-sector employers want more land but fewer people.

Industry, then, is just one of many pillars of any strategy for population growth.

Another, perhaps more solid pillar is that old idea of southward migration.

Brockville may never be the South End of Silicon Valley North, but the time may soon come when Ottawans looking longingly for quieter neighbourhoods are attracted to our waterfront, our islands, our cycling lanes and walking trails... and most of all our stagnating housing prices.

(Mayor David Henderson has said repeatedly, after all, that the boom in waterfront condo towers we expected a decade ago would be a long game.)

We will likely not see a population boom of the kind enjoyed by Kemptville, which is much closer to the capital, but telecommuting from our river city might be an attractive option to growing numbers in Ottawa’s civil service/tech economy.

Besides, the physical commute up the 416, while not exactly pleasant, is far more endurable, and shorter, than the trips to work many Toronto exurbanites must suffer.

It won’t happen overnight, and it will require the kind of densification our planners have been talking about for a while, but if we want better results in the next Census, we need to look more often to the north.