Rural Communities Fighting Back: The Example of Tumbler Ridge

tumbler ridge2-01Recognizing change, recognizing rural

Part 1 of a 2-part review of Sullivan, L., Ryser, L., & Halseth, G. (2014). Recognizing change, recognizing rural: The new rural economy and towards a new model of rural service. The Journal of Rural and Community Development, 9(4), 219-245.

In their 2014 article “Recognizing change, recognizing rural: The new rural economy and towards a new model of rural service,” authors Sullivan, Ryser, and Halseth are convincing in their case that local education, health, and government services benefit both community and economic development. And they see their work as highly significant:

“understanding the relationship between services and local capacity helps determine which rural communities will thrive in a changing political, economic, environmental, and social landscape.” (p. 220)

In this era of growing challenges to rural communities, this article draws attention to variables that are often overlooked yet which appear to have far-reaching impact.

NRE LEGACY OFFICIAL LOGODrawing upon research from the New Rural Economy (NRE) project, this paper highlights the role that services play in recruiting and maintaining both businesses and residents. Services help to support the local economy, employment, the training of new workers, the development of social cohesion and social capital, and the overall quality of life across all ages and stages of life. More broadly, the NRE project highlights the relationship between the capacity of residents to manage change and the stability of services that exist within place.

Beginning in the 1980’s, governments and government-funded services began to retrench from the reach that had grown significantly in the postwar era. Lesser-populated areas saw local services replaced with regional services offered from larger communities. According to Sullivan, Ryser, and Halseth,

“This retrenchment of services undercut the capacity for small communities to respond to change and threatened short- and long-term community sustainability.” (p. 221)

Retrenchment in the ‘new rural economy,’ as they call it, also leads to emerging conflicts. Conflicts arise from competing values and visions about the use and control over limited resources in small communities. These conflicts happen between newcomers and long-term residents, across different economic and social sectors, between permanent and transient residents, or between supporters of different development strategies.  

It is how communities respond to retrenchment and conflict that signals how they will fare in the future. Local and regional leaders, as well as civil society, who respond to change by leveraging place-based assets will fare the best. These assets can be used to foster innovation and build capacity in the face of challenges such as departure of a major employer or an aging workforce.


Case study: Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia

Tumbler_Ridge_map2One illustration of change and community response lies with the mining town of Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia (NRE Site #28) which the authors have been studying since 1998.

Tumbler Ridge was created out of the wilderness as an instant mining town and was incorporated in 1981. In the planning phases of development, the creators implemented state-of-the-art resource town development strategies and sophisticated social design principles. The design principles included consideration of the changing nature of the social and economic fabric characteristic of resource towns, including government retrenchment, and focused on elements that created a foundation for community capacity among residents. Local infrastructure included a recreation centre, swimming pool, and water treatment plant.

Community participation was not only encouraged but was supported through the creation of a Social Development Officer (SDO) within the initial appointed local government in Tumbler Ridge. Though this position was eliminated several years later, volunteering and community engagement had by then already been integrated into the fabric of local life and community expectations.

Mine closures in 2000 generated discussion about the possible closure of Tumbler Ridge, the most likely outcome in a small community losing its major employers. This didn’t happen in Tumbler Ridge. Instead, and in the face of provincial skepticism, local and regional leaders created the Tumbler Ridge Revitalization Task Force.

The article details some of the tasks undertaken by the Task Force that helped to transition Tumbler Ridge from crisis to stabilization and revitalization. In essence:

“the Task Force focused on services—municipal, educational, community health, and social services—and the ability to deliver services to a viable and stable community infrastructure. Special emphasis was put into creating an economic environment to stimulate diversity.” (p.228)

One facet of the project was to develop a rural care needs index (RCNI) to evaluate how services available in Tumbler Ridge compared with the types of services available in other north BC communities.



The case of Tumbler Ridge provides evidence that local cohesion and vision can help to offset even the greatest challenges to a small community. It illustrates the positive impact of services in rural and small town transition and renewal, and the authors are articulate in calling for greater recognition and understanding of the specificity and uniqueness of the rural context. However, the authors are less convincing in their ability to show how rural areas might be able to attract and sustain various services.


In the next post, I present the new model of rural services proposed by the authors. Stay tuned!

Sarah V Wayland

Sarah Wayland, Principal Investigator

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