The Higher ED Blog: Who are commercial counterurbanites, and what brought them to your community?

About REAPontario’s guest authors for this week…….

Michelle Madden is the editor of Higher ED. She is also the Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a graduate of the LED master’s program.  She has authored a number of the articles in this series on behalf of the students, and has published several of her own blogs on as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.

Lindsay Leung is a recent graduate from the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development (LED) master’s program. Through the LED Internship, she began working as a Business Development Assistant at the Town of East Gwillimbury in 2013. In this role she worked on several economic development initiatives for the Town but mainly focused on the development of the Mount Albert Downtown Revitalization Strategy. Recently, Lindsay has taken on a new role within the Development Services department. She now works as a Permit Coordinator with the Building Standards branch.


Every year, many people move from rural areas to cities, a process called urbanization. This is the common direction of migration, but there are always some people who buck the trend and move from cities to rural areas. These people are known as counterurbanites in the academic literature. When those migrants subsequently open a business in their new rural community, they’re called commercial counterurbanites. Lindsay Leung, a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development master’s program, wondered what motivates commercial counterurbanites to leave the city and start a business?

For her major research paper, Identifying Commercial Counterurbanites as lifestyle-oriented vs economic-oriented entrepreneurs, supervised by Clare Mitchell, she sought to answer the question by surveying and interviewing commercial counterurbanites in Mount Albert, Ontario.

Motivations of commercial counterurbanites in Mount Albert, ON

Mount Albert is a community of 4,200 within the Town of East Gwillimbury, 65 km north of Toronto. The community’s Mount Albert 2 location abutting protected green space and its relative proximity to Toronto (among other traits) have made Mount Albert attractive to migrants—in fact, the population is expected to grow by 40 per cent by 2031.

After soliciting all commercial businesses in the downtown core, Lindsay received 11 surveys (41% of those contacted) and six of those respondents agreed to participate in a follow up interview.  Her survey respondents represented a variety of demographic groups, but were primarily female (64%), 40-49 years (64%), university graduates (46%) married (82%), and had children living at home (55%). All but one previously lived in a city (making them counterurbanites) and most of them migrated from urban communities within the GTA.

Mount Albert 4When the counterurbanites were asked about what motivated them to move to the Mount Albert area, family reasons had the strongest response. Women in particular become business owners for the flexibility it can provide while taking care of young children, both in terms of total hours worked and the timing of those hours. Opening a business can also help the ‘sandwich generation’ be close to and care for their aging parents.

The next strongest motivation was that Mount Albert was not too far from a larger centre. The respondents wanted to be in a rural area, but they also wanted easy access to a city. In this study, the driver was classified as economic, but respondents probably appreciated the access from a lifestyle point of view as well.

Lifestyle opportunities in general were also deemed important. Several interviewees said they were passionate about the service they provided (decorating business, arts and crafts store), while others valued the slower pace of life it afforded, or that the business allowed them to live in a rural area. The reasons for wanting to live in a rural area are varied, but one that featured prominently in the survey responses was housing affordability. For those who want the affordability of a rural area, the options may be to commute into the city or open a business locally—commercial counterurbanites choose the latter option.

Economic vs lifestyle entrepreneurs

Based on the findings above, it would be reasonable to assume that most of the respondents could be classified as lifestyle entrepreneurs, rather than economic entrepreneurs.

In academic literature, the former are characterized by their drive to live a certain lifestyle. Whether they’re looking for a balanced way of life, more time with their families, more time for leisure, or to live in a certain location, the business is primarily a means to achieve that lifestyle, rather than a means to produce wealth. In contrast, economic entrepreneurs are driven by wanting to be their own boss, to capitalize on a market opportunity, or simply to support themselves financially.

Mount Albert 5

Despite family and lifestyle reasons dominating, when asked to classify themselves as either lifestyle or economic entrepreneurs, the respondents were evenly split.

What does this mean for economic developers?

Lindsay’s research has implications for how rural economic developers support the entrepreneurs in their communities. Understanding their fundamental motivations is important in helping them achieve their goals, and may also explain their actions—such as an interest (economic) or lack of interest (lifestyle) in expansion and growth. A better understanding of their drivers can also improve communications and relationship management, and ensure buy-in of initiatives.

Mount Albert 6Her findings also indicate that counterurbanites are common in rural communities on the outskirts of cities. Migration is a critical contributor to rural development so communities need to consider implementing policies and programs that will bring back former residents and attract new ones. That might include initiatives that eliminate barriers to business development or marketing strategies that promote the family, lifestyle, and economic opportunities listed above. Lindsay also recommends performing an economic needs assessment to connect aspiring entrepreneurs with local needs.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

Written by Michelle Madden February 22, 2016. Her contact information is

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