Amenity-Influenced Migration in British Columbia's Mountain Communities


 Migration into British Columbia’s smaller towns and rural areas historically has been an important factor in driving population growth and perhaps even more important, in generating economic activity and developing a dynamic and progressive society.  Part of this migration is comprised of people moving to a community because of a job offer, and in such cases, it is the employment opportunities that drive in-migration.  In contrast, many people choose to move to a community because of the lifestyle opportunities.  This may be to take advantage of lower housing costs in many smaller communities; the ability to transform housing wealth into more liquid assets.  In addition, however, many people look at the natural, environmental and social amenities that a community offers, lifestyle enhancing attributes such as having parks and protected areas nearby, having easy access to hospital facilities and educational opportunities, having relatively low crime rates, and the like.

The academic term to describe the migration of people who move to smaller communities because of the amenities offered is “amenity migration”.  As a definition: amenity migration is a term describing the movement of people from (usually) urban centres to smaller communities and/or rural settings that offer high social, public, environmental and natural amenity qualities. 

While the academic definition is a useful term, statistically it becomes very difficult to assign such motivation to in-migrants, particularly since the motivation for many, many migrants involves both employment and amenity/lifestyle opportunities.  Consequently, for the purposes of this study we have adopted a slightly expanded concept: amenity-influenced migration.  These are migrants who move to smaller communities and/or rural areas in part because of the amenities offered by the community but exclude those whose only purpose for moving to a community is for the employment opportunities.  Statistically, an amenity-influenced migrant is defined in this study as any person moving into a community who does not take or whose spouse/partner does not take employment in a natural resource-based industry.

People moving have a choice of a number of different potential communities.  For the purposes of this study we have stratify the communities of BC into a number of different groupings which have a set of common attributes that will attract a particular type of person.  “Ocean communities” (e.g. communities on Vancouver Island), for example, provide a temperate (especially mild winter) climate, access to ocean waters, possibly year-round golf, and the like.  In such cases, “mountain communities” such as Fernie or Smithers are unlikely to ever attract these migrants no matter how expansive, rich and available their town’s amenities are.  For the purposes of this study, we examine only mountain communities, although we could easily have chosen to examine other areas of the province.

The following points highlight the major general findings of this study.

The influx of amenity-influenced migrants into mountain communities peaked in the early-mid 1990s, experienced a steady decline during the remaining years of the 1990s, reaching its nadir in 2001, and then began a slow recovery in the 2000s, but was still some 25% lower in 2006 than in 1994.

Amenity-influenced migration into mountain communities from the rest of BC (intra-provincial migration) declined from close to 15% of all intra-provincial migration in 1994 to 12% in 2006, although it still exceeds population share.

In contrast, amenity-influenced migration from the rest of Canada (ROC) into mountain communities increased over the 1990s, peaked in 2003 at roughly 10%  and since then has declined, remaining under population share.

 Amenity-influenced migration from the rest of the World (ROW) into mountain communities represents a very small proportion of total ROW in-migration (roughly 1%), a share that has continued to fall throughout the entire 1991 – 2006 period.

 The econometric analyses of different migration groups (males/females 19-29, 30-54, and 55+) from each place of origin provide validation of the importance of a number of community characteristics/amenities to attracting migrants.

 Variables tracking the economic dynamism of a community (unemployment rate, number of incorporations, local business tax rate) are strong indicators of community attractiveness;

Equally or perhaps more important are variables related to housing: housing availability (defined in this study as relative housing stock per capita), relative house prices, relative property taxes, and relative average rent costs;

Social amenities also prove important: crime rates, the existence of public elementary and/or secondary schools, hospital facilities and a local college generally influence migration patterns, although the degree of importance varies for each migration group;

 The surrounding natural amenities proved to be very strong attractive qualities.  Parks (both National and provincial parks) were strongly correlated with in-migration with almost all groups.  Not as strong, but still generally important, were the levels of recreational facilities provided by the community;

 Recreational activities in the form of local golf and ski facilities were important to a number of different amenity groups, although it was interesting to note that migrants preferred less difficult courses and hills, partially, we believe, due to cost;

 Another characteristic that was found to relate significantly to higher migration patterns was the proportion of people in a community who are university educated.

 A large number of other characteristics/amenities were assessed, but very few had any general influence on historical migration patterns.  One amenity that a priori was thought to influence migration was the existence of a scheduled airport in the general region.  Surprisingly, this variable was not significant for any of the migration groupings.

It is important to remember that the analysis is NOT saying that particular variables “cause” in-migration of amenity-influenced migrants.  Simply having (say) a Hospital or a College will not, in itself, “cause” anyone to move to a community; nor should the building of a Hospital or College in a community be considered by itself a precise predictive variable of increased in-migration.  Rather, the analysis has found a concordance or a relationship between those migrating to mountain communities and those variables and accordingly, one can say that there is good predictive power of the variables as a group.  If the analysis is to be of any value to local stakeholders in their quest to understand the attractiveness of their community to potential migrants, however, stakeholders must examine the totality of their community’s characteristics/amenities; merely attempting to change one amenity in hopes that migration patterns will change likely will not meet with success.