Our rural towns could learn something from Disneyland.
It might be a theme park but it’s also a community of sorts. Like all of Disney’s parks, it is filled with different places, cultures, and people. Yes, they are idealized and it’s not as if anybody would use Mickey’s Toontown as a blueprint for future community development. Then again, the EPCOT theme park at Disney World in Florida was initially designed to be just that: an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
Disneyland is a place where everyone is welcomed, everyone is respected and everyone feels safe. With 19 million visitors annually, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Earth.
People look forward to going to Disneyland because they are never disappointed, they know what to expect and the quality is consistent. What happens if we take inspiration from Disneyland in designing our communities to attract newcomers and immigrants?
I am not suggesting your community build a giant Sleeping Beauty Castle downtown, but every town needs to understand that in order to thrive, not just survive, they must offer more than essential services. Childcare, healthcare, education, connectivity, adequate housing, and recreational opportunities are merely the baseline for all of us, but especially newcomers, to even consider your community as a place they would want to live in, work in, and invest in. Newcomers are looking for more than just the bare minimum.
And newcomers are sorely needed in our communities.
It’s no secret that many small and rural communities in North America are struggling to maintain their populations due to a variety of reasons including youth out-migration, declining birth rates, and an aging population. In response to these challenges, attracting new residents to settle in smaller centres is crucial to revitalizing rural areas.
People are seeking communities that offer access to various ethnic foods, inclusivity of sports beyond what is “normally” practiced, and to feel appreciated and respected when arriving in the community and adapting to their new place. Notice I said ‘adapting’ not ‘assimilating’. No longer do people want to assimilate, but especially young people. They love diversity and inclusion. They want to see a rainbow of colours, hear different languages, and learn about others who are not the same as them. If your community doesn’t offer up some variety, they will go where they can find it.
Enticing young people to move out of the cities is one tactic. Another is to attract international immigrants to your community. Not only are they the largest pool of newcomers a community can access, but it also means communities are not actively spending resources to poach people from each other. Unfortunately immigrants are not flocking to rural communities. They tend to gravitate to big cities. In Canada, the centres attracting the most immigrants are Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. Among the top destinations in the United States are San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and San Jose. This focus on large urban centres, though, should not be seen as a barrier to smaller cities and towns, but an opportunity.
A January, 2023 report from the Conference Board of Canada, for example, entitled Spreading the Growth: How Canada’s Smaller Cities Can Make Bigger Gains, offers some tips. It points to federal and provincial programs designed to encourage immigrants to settle in smaller centres. But that’s not enough. “Marketing the benefits of living in smaller communities, building public awareness on immigration, and ensuring a welcoming environment and appropriate settlement services can all go a long way to retaining newcomers,” says the report.
A December, 2022 report from the Texas-based Bush Institute is focused on cities from the self-evident title – Immigrants and Opportunities in American Cities. However, its advice holds true for smaller centres, too, when it says communities “can and should use the following tools to become high-opportunites places for immigrants: opportunity-oriented policies; explicit welcoming policies for immigrants,” as well as “proven high-impact policies” that include helping immigrants learn English.
Next time you are planning on ways to grow your community, instead of just taking inventory of what you have, dig a little deeper and find out what makes your community a place where people feel safe and wanted. Ask yourself honestly what will inspire newcomers to stay. In other words, what is your community’s magic? Again, I am not saying your town should be viewed as a theme park. I am just suggesting you look at how your community can create diversity and celebrate the differences that will be the asset that keeps you thriving. The ultimate question is how will you design your community’s “theme” to attract the diverse skilled workers you need to sustain your business needs and help your community flourish?
Another lesson from Disneyland is its ability to offer a multitude of experiences. There is something for everyone whether that be a leisurely ride for the little tikes on It’s A Small World, a stomach churning spin on Space Mountain for the teens, or a family friendly jaunt on the Jungle Cruise. What happens if you look at your community that way? Are you a “digital” community where lots of people work from home and your downtown core is made up of restaurants and gathering spots to provide a social connection people crave after work? Or are you an “entrepreneurial” community where you have mixed-use planning of people living on top of the businesses on mainstreet.
Your town might be able to attract younger families looking for affordable housing or a walkable quiet community but that doesn’t make your community unique. You have to offer attractions that are not the same as everybody else. It is a bit of a chicken and egg syndrome where the more newcomers you attract the more diverse your community will be, which will in turn attract more people and more diversity. But you have to make the first step.
Perhaps it’s as simple as setting up a Facebook page to describe your community in several languages. Some communities such as North Bay in Ontario and the North Okanagan region of British Columbia offer loans to qualified newcomers to help put down roots. Don’t expect to attract newcomers by the busload. You have to focus on attracting the first one first, and then you will be able to attract more as word spreads and testimonials build. You can then enhance your theme to build on it and make it bigger and better.
You needn’t look far for advice. There are plenty of resource materials available. A report from the University of Guelph in Ontario entitled Attracting and Retaining Newcomers in Rural Communities and Small Towns says don’t lose hope if immigrants initially move to a city, not your community. They can still be enticed to move again. “Primary immigrants are those who arrive in a community as their first choice whereas secondary immigrants are those who might arrive elsewhere and then subsequently migrate to another community. There are important opportunities to encourage secondary migration once immigrants become familiar with Canadian society and culture.”
The universal key piece of advice: Become a welcoming community; a truly welcoming community. “Being a welcoming community means focusing on creating connections between newcomers and established community members,” says the U of G report written in 2017, but it is just as relevant today. “This can help in eliminating barriers to social and economic integration, and addressing racism and discrimination.” Among the practical bits of advice: offer support to newcomers; be open to new ideas and customs; accept and appreciate the contributions that newcomers make. And here’s a simple one: adopt a no-wrong door policy. That means having the agencies in your community coordinate themselves so that no matter which agency a newcomer contacts, they receive help.
Disneyland likes to call itself “The happiest place on Earth.”
I’m not suggesting your community dare call itself that. But when it comes to attracting a new generation of excited, skilled and promising immigrants you could take inspiration from Disneyland and strive to be “The most welcoming place on Earth.”
Passionate about rural economic growth, Lindsay Rubeniuk of 100th Meridian Immigration works with communities, businesses and local government to develop community capacity and skilled labour through immigration and settlement. Interested in developing your community through immigration? Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out 100thmeridianimmigration.ca/community-development/