The Higher ED Blog: Six lessons for improving collaboration across the urban-rural divide
Danielle Collins / July 20, 2015
Ontario is a highly urban province. Since resources and authority tend to concentrate in urban areas, that leaves rural communities to largely fend for themselves.
This lack of capacity and resources in many of Ontario’s rural communities presents a real challenge to undertaking economic development. Recognizing this shortfall, Ontario’s policymakers have considered the value in collaborative regional approaches to economic development. This follows from an extensive body of academic and policy literature that touts the value of regionalism, which—in short—argues that the region is more than the sum of its parts.
A regional approach to economic development might help rural communities gain access to and exploit the additional expertise, capacity, networks and resources in neighbouring urban communities. But regional economic development efforts require buy-in from, and collaboration between, all stakeholders. How can we bridge the urban-rural divide to ensure inclusive and collaborative regional economic development initiatives?
In my research, I focused on Niagara Region and Windsor-Essex County in Ontario to explore this question. Geographically, both regions border the United States and bodies of water, contributing to an identity of both independence and isolation. With a similar industrial economy and agricultural base, Niagara Region and Windsor-Essex were an ideal pair for exploring urban-rural dynamics within Ontario.
I interviewed 48 representatives from business, community and government organizations in the two regions. The interviews explored barriers to collaboration between organizations and communities, challenges implementing regional economic development initiatives, and the dynamics between urban and rural communities within each region, particularly in the agricultural sector.
Several themes emerged from my research, leading to six key lessons for how collaboration can be improved across the urban-rural divide.
1. Promote a regional mindset
Parochialism and siloed mentalities, or even the perception alone, can stifle collaboration. One economic development officer from Niagara Region explained:
“The Niagara Region was an amalgamation of Lincoln County and Welland County, so there’s North Niagara, South Niagara. In some ways, that’s still the divide. There’s the perception that North Niagara gets all of the attention, gets all of the funding. […] It goes back to parochial attitudes that used to exist. They do flourish from time to time.”
Collaboration can be improved across the urban-rural divide by promoting a unified vision of the region through inclusivity and facilitated engagement.
2. Increase awareness and education of rural challenges
Interviewees in rural areas felt that urban and regional economic development organizations tended to overlook rural challenges as economic development issues, particularly economic and policy barriers in the agricultural sector.
Niagara Region has a good system in place to overcome this division. The Agricultural Policy and Action Committee is a group of farmers, advocates, and employees of the Planning department that advise the Regional Municipality of Niagara about agricultural issues. The Committee provides an opportunity for urban and regional organizations to learn about challenges and work toward policy solutions. Through this consultation, topics such as value-added agriculture, irrigation and a regional agri-food strategy are discussed, and revised, based on community input.
Following Niagara’s lead, regions can improve collaboration across the urban-rural divide by providing education for urban economic developers on the importance of the rural economy and agricultural sector, and integrating these issues into regional economic development strategies.
3. Identify leaders and champions
Strong leadership was essential for organizational success and collaborative spirit. The Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce recognized the need for a regional agri-food strategy. They spearheaded the effort by developing an Agri-Food Committee and consulting with private businesses, government leaders, and community stakeholders, such as Workforce WindsorEssex and the Windsor Essex Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC). The result was an advocacy paper with recommendations that had their collective weight behind it.
The ability to mobilize regional economic development partners on agricultural issues is a large step for rural communities. Collaboration can be improved across the urban-rural divide by seeking out organizational and regional champions that can bring community members from both urban and rural areas to the table.
4. Foster inclusivity and integration
Urban interactions were easier to facilitate in most instances, while a focussed, concerted effort was needed to engage rural areas. In Niagara region, one municipal government representative was frustrated by a history of “things that the Region does without getting the buy-in first of the area municipalities”. Conversely, the new regional model has the municipal governments acting as “spokes in the wheel, and [the regional government is] kind of the hub, as opposed to it being hierarchical.”
Collaboration can be improved across the urban-rural divide by actively integrating rural communities into regional approaches and by developing a culture of collaboration.
5. Formalize partnerships
Trust and linkages between regional actors varied over time, depending on the staff at each organization. One organization in Windsor-Essex indicated that established partnership agreements can create sustainable relationships. Without a memorandum of understanding (MOU), the interviewee found that partnerships tended to fall apart. For example, the organization’s relationship with the WEEDC was once very strong, but after a key staff person left, it was “like the door was shut”.
Collaboration can be improved across the urban-rural divide by embedding collaboration into an organization’s DNA, or by mandate if necessary.
6. Consider co-location to improve coordination
It can be difficult to coordinate collaborative regional efforts when an organization’s information flow is mostly internal. However, there are several examples of where co-location dramatically improved communication, particularly between urban and rural actors.
In Windsor-Essex, the Essex Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC) office in the Town of Essex hosts satellite offices for the regional innovation centre, WEtech Alliance, and the Small Business Centre, associated with WEEDC. The co-location of these offices provides an opportunity to share information and utilize each other’s resources and expertise. It also improves links to Essex County, since the main offices are in downtown Windsor.
Collaboration can be improved across the urban-rural divide by considering co-location of services, a satellite office, or a ‘one-stop-shop’ to improve ease in service delivery and efficient resource use.
Collaboration can be very difficult, especially in regions where municipalities have traditionally acted independently. However, partnerships between urban and rural communities can strengthen an initiative, be an efficient use of limited resources, and improve economic development outcomes. Using these six lessons learned, communities can work together to bridge the rural-urban gap for regional economic prosperity.
About the Author
Danielle Collins holds a Masters’ degree in Local Economic Development from the University of Waterloo and a Bachelor of Science (Honours) from the University of Guelph. Her research was supervised by Dr. Steffanie Scott as part of a broader project, Evaluating Regional Economic Development Initiatives (EREDI), led by Dr. John Devlin (University of Guelph) and Dr. Tara Vinodrai (University of Waterloo) and funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Danielle lives in Guelph and is a Labour Market Research Coordinator at the Workforce Planning Board of Grand Erie. Her research interests include agricultural and food systems, rural and regional studies, and community economic development.
About the series
Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.
Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.
The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.