Rapid growth and decay of rural communities has been a hallmark of Western Canadian development for decades. This is not necessarily problematic, and it may not be desirable to impose a rigid sustainability paradigm, but in many cases it has interfered with communities achieving desired outcomes and has resulted in environmental degradation. The link between these boom-bust patterns of change and the management of natural resource development is often strong, and is often presented as natural. We suggest that there are more resilient paths of development, even with a strong emphasis on natural resource development as a means of economic generation. Our central concept is governance, the taking of collectively binding decisions in networks of governmental and other actors; governance is understood as the result of the previous steps in governance; rules and roles emerge in this evolution, and influence the way new actors can find a role, and new policies, laws or plans will be implemented, or not.
Using a framework based upon evolutionary governance theory, which integrates theory from governance studies, institutional economics, environmental planning, legal studies, natural resource management, and development studies perspectives, we aim at a comparative study of towns in Alberta and British Columbia different phases of the boom and bust cycle. We intend to discern the impact of different governance policies and practices on the development pathways of small towns which are tied to resource industries. This can help to delineate interventions options which could be implemented to improve the patterns of future growth and development, as well as to improve how communities deal with downturns in their local economies. This research can lead to a larger theory of boom and bust and possible ways to tempering these cycles; such theory is not only of significant academic interest, but also of practical interest, as it can inspire governments at all levels, particularly municipal governments ,to consider governance options in a different, more nuanced way, that employs a diversity of policy tools to enhance both resilience and sustainability despite being tied to resource economies. Currently, there is a common reliance on rather generic ‘best practices’ or policy transfer from elsewhere. This however can be problematic as it does not necessarily reflect the local governance context well or the specific challenges facing the communities.
Without prescribing any formula for sustainable development, we believe it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the options available for sustainable development, and for tempering boom/bust cycles. This can be achieved by analyzing pathways of governance including the present and absent forms of innovation in these paths and the spaces available for intervention in a given governance path, with its actors, institutions, power relations, and forms of knowledge.
A strong reliance on one natural resource can make governance paths more rigid and less susceptible to a deliberate intervention towards a more diversified future. For an understanding of possible tempering mechanisms, it is important to grasp the reduction of policy formation and implementation options that can take place when one industry or one company restructures governance, inserting forms of expertise, affecting power relations, influencing laws, policies, plans, and a selection process of like-minded people in politics and as residents. Not only does this undermine checks and balances, but also it can instill a degree of immunity against expertise and innovations that deviate from the worldview permeating the industry or company. Our hypothesis in this regard is that such immunity has two negative effects: the rigidity mentioned, and a neglect of environmental quality and community assets which could be used later in a new phase. Thus, resilience and reinvention options are threatened.
The impact of this study on academia can be the establishing of new linkages between disciplines in the analysis of boom and bust, and more broadly of sustainability planning and policy. More specifically it can help in the elaboration and testing of an evolutionary theory of governance in which these linkages are codified and stabilized. Policy-wise, the research can be valuable in increasing reflexivity with local governments regarding their steering options, regarding the cultivation and safeguarding of resilience.
The topic of boom and bust is not unique, but the approach is distinctive, by means of an interdisciplinary team, using the method explained below, and using an evolutionary governance theoretical perspective. At the same time, there are enough linkages with other existing perspectives and theories to maintain a place in mainstream academic discourse, and to borrow and possibly exert influence there (we mention post- modern public policy, institutional economics, environmental policy analysis, planning theory, public administration). The team consists of people with proven expertise in complementary fields: Lars Hallstrom [rural development, policy analysis], Monica Gruezmacher [natural resource management, development studies], Kristof Van Assche (governance & planning), Leith Deacon (environmental planning & policy), Kevin Jones (public administration, regional policy), Robert Summers (planning, institutional economics), Michael Granzow (cultural geography, sociology).