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Oshawa offers lessons on population growth as other cities struggle

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New restaurants popping up, an art gallery opening, university campuses expanding — the changes have appeared over time, but to Shanti Fernando they're all signs of an actively growing city doing everything it can to attract new residents.

Fernando lives in Oshawa, Ont., a community perched on the eastern edge of the Greater Toronto Area which has typically been identified as a blue-collar automotive manufacturing hub in years past.

But that image is changing.

With the latest census figures highlighting the city as a metropolitan area with population growth exceeding the national average — one of just four such areas in recession-weary Ontario — Oshawa is a bright spot in a province being somewhat eclipsed by the success of the West.

"The character has changed from being a one-focus city to having a number of different things that they are getting known for," said Fernando, who teaches community development at the city's University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

"It is really diversifying."

With a population growth rate of 7.7 per cent, Oshawa ranks above the national average of 5.9 per cent. Ontario's growth rate, on the other hand, was just 5.8 per cent for the latest census period, down from the 6.6 per cent reported in 2007.

To Fernando, there are three main reasons for Oshawa's good news on the population front.

"It's the bedroom community (for Toronto), it's economic growth in a number of areas with business and education, and then immigration," she said.

As other manufacturing cities in Ontario struggle with plant closures and residents migrating to the resource-rich western provinces, Oshawa has been working hard to break its dependence on General Motors for jobs, particularly after the auto sector's meltdown in 2008.

"Oshawa doesn't just mean GM to people," Fernando said. "It can mean something else."

The city is working on revitalizing its downtown, expanding its health-care services and is also developing a suite of support services to attract immigrants to the area. The big driver of growth, however, seems to be Oshawa's proximity to Canada's most populous city.

With frequent express trains into Toronto's downtown core, observers say Oshawa allows residents to commute to work in the country's financial capital while still being able to afford larger houses to raise a family in.

"It's not so much what's going on locally... increasingly people are just living there and working elsewhere in the GTA," said John Andrews, director of the Queen's University real-estate roundtable.

"Oshawa is an affordable alternative."

The rate at which people are buying comparatively cheaper homes in Oshawa may slow in the future, however, as Toronto’s condo market soars and Canadians choose downsizing over commuting to work, Andrews warned.

"It's not like people are going to be fleeing the suburbs, but if the government doesn’t get the public transit system under control, you're going to see tremendous intensification in the inner city."

Oshawa’s story is significant because it shows just how much of an effect a large urban centre can have on neighbouring cities. And the impact runs both ways.

The Ontario border city of Windsor, which sits across the river from Detroit, was once very similar to Oshawa — a gritty, blue-collar city with an economy utterly dependent on a bustling auto manufacturing industry.

The most recent census data shows Windsor is one of just two metropolitan areas in the country to experience a drop in population. The other was the Ontario forestry hub of Thunder Bay.

Alan Phipps, a professor with the University of Windsor and a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners, has seen that decline first-hand. Just as Oshawa has benefited from growth in Toronto, Windsor has been shrinking in the shadow of Detroit.

"Oshawa is just insulated from any impact from loss of manufacturing by being in the suburban commute zone of the GTA," Phipps said.

"Windsor is in the international commute zone of an incredibly declining city."

To turn things around, Windsor is trying to change its identity and brand itself as more than an auto city, but that evolution could be a long time coming, he added.

"They keep talking about it being a retirement sort of place … but I wouldn’t come here thinking I could retire, because it’s a de-industrializing kind of place."

That being said, Phipps noted that housing in Windsor is among the cheapest in the country and is drawing some buyers looking for affordable vacation homes.

Despite Ontario's apparent decline in light of the rising West, analysts are quick to point out that Canada's most populous province is, in fact, still growing.

"It's flirting with the national average," said Mario Lefebvre, Director of the Centre for Municipal Studies at the Conference Board of Canada.

With nearly 12.9 million residents, Ontario accounts for 38.4 per cent of Canada's residents. While February's census figures indicated more people were migrating west, analysts say it's unlikely population levels in the western provinces will surpass Ontario in the next decade.

Once the U.S. economy strengthens further and housing prices in the west rise as those in Atlantic Canada drop, the population will eventually spread out more evenly across the country over the long term, Lefebvre said.

"These things come and go," he added, noting British Columbia was once a big benefactor of inter-provincial migration in the 90s, followed by Alberta.

These days, it's Saskatchewan that's attracting the bulk of the migration. For now.

"As things turn around, these trends will change."

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