Helping communities break the boom-bust cycle

Book offers framework to find solutions as individual as the communities themselves.


How does a community too reliant on oil, coal or any other single industry survive the inevitable boom and bust cycle? The answer, according to a new book by a group of University of Alberta experts, is different for everybody.

“Strategies have to come out of self-analysis, not simply copied, for instance, from other places they see, because they almost certainly will not work. The whole idea of best practices is wrong,” said researcher Kristof Van Assche.

In search of answers, UAlberta planning experts Van Assche and his wife Monica Gruezmacher spent two years visiting communities across Alberta and B.C. in their Volvo station wagon, racking up 15,000 kilometres and countless conversations over coffee, lunch and even the occasional beer with small-town folks.

The result, Boom and Bust: A Guide, is a primer for communities that have been battered by a change in fortune. Aimed at leaders, politicians, administrators, academics, students and everyone else who makes up a community, it pulls together the research and collective wisdom of Van Assche, Gruezmacher and seven other U of A experts who’ve been studying the problem of sustainability for years.

The stark reality is, there is no easy fix to rising above the boom and bust cycle, said Van Assche.

“Every community is different, no matter how much they look the same on the surface. Each place has its own stakeholders, institutions, expertise and stories.”

Instead, communities should customize their approaches to long-term sustainability.

“It’s crucial for each city, town, county or hamlet being hammered by Alberta’s struggling economy to take a long view and be willing to figure out for themselves what works for them, instead of pinning their hopes to one policy or plan for revitalization,” Gruezmacher added.

A blueprint and a toolkit

Boom & Bust discusses more than a dozen communities and is split into two parts; one that offers readers a blueprint for self-analysis by reflecting on their past, and a second section outlining a toolkit for self-therapy which gives residents an idea of what they might want for the future, and a more informed assessment of the risks and benefits of going in a certain direction.

As they traveled and conducted their research, Van Assche and Gruezmacher noticed one recurring, troubling theme in the communities they visited: what Van Assche terms a ‘concentration problem.’

“There were fewer stakeholders, less diverse stories, fewer tools. It seems to work very smoothly because everybody agrees, so you create this simple world that is structured for making money in one way, but the downside is, it becomes hard to move in a different direction in the long term.”

Communities tended also to not retain necessary long-term expertise provided by planners, social workers, hydrologists, historians, even consultants. “So the community loses that diversity of perspective.”

Taking a multi-pronged approach to survivability is key. The authors of Boom & Bust took care to make sure the book didn’t identify with just one discipline or with one type of expert, Van Assche noted.

“We are not saying the expert opinions always have to be very important or that one type of tool or strategy is preferable. But what we can do is ensure that decision-making about their own strategies is more informed.”

Self-strategization makes risk and alternatives for community sustainability more visible, he said.

“We want to see communities that are in a certain track thinking about what they’re doing and why. A community strategy can have many forms, as long as there is long-term perspective and ongoing discussions.”

Revelstoke finds its keys to sustainability

One of the success stories in the book is Revelstoke.

The B.C. city, formed in the 1880s, went through a number of booms and busts as forestry collapsed, a railroad servicing centre closed and big dam and highway projects came and went. But over the long run, it morphed into a case for how long-term planning pays off, Van Assche noted.

The city’s overhaul began in 1984, as major dam-building projects were winding down.

“We knew there would be a void in our economy, so we came up with some thought about what we would do,” said Geoff Battersby, who was mayor of Revelstoke for almost 10 years. The city asked the province to fund an economic development strategy. Consultants interviewed 100 local people who provided ideas that fuelled plans to pump up and protect the area’s key features centered around tourism and forestry.

“The big thing is, you’ve got to take inventory of what your local assets are that can do something for the local economy,” Battersby said. “And don’t think you’re going to do it without spending money and lobbying.”

Revelstoke’s strategy included financially rescuing the local ski hill to grow tourism, investing $3 million to revitalize the city’s downtown core and lobbying the provincial government for an increased quota of harvested wood to feed the local lumber mill. The city also started its own tree farm.

All were locally-driven ideas that didn’t necessarily happen easily - ”none of these things happened without downsides” - but they were doable because the community believed in what it had to offer, Battersby said.

“If people want their communities to revive, they are the only ones who can do something about it and they’ll be passionate about it.”

A multi-pronged approach is the best approach

Boom & Bust encourages communities to work on different levels at the same time, as Revelstoke did, Van Assche noted.

“While asking themselves what they can do with their current assets, resources and powers, they should also be exploring how can they expand those. That can involve dealing with outside companies, the provincial and federal governments, as well as finding informal ways to increase local autonomy and assets. It can even mean capitalizing on troubled times, for instance, when a municipal government has an opportunity to buy land at a cheaper rate. “Smart shrink is as important as smart growth.”

Though it is still early days, Boom & Bust is stirring some interest; it’s being picked up for publication by the Association of European Schools of Planning and Van Assche is making presentations over the next year in Medicine Hat, Grande Prairie and as far away as the Northwest Territories and Newfoundland.