Imagine the Fraser Valley had 100,000 more residents today.
Today’s Fraser Valley might seem busy, but two decades ago, planners expected the region to have far more people by the 2020s. Hope, they thought, could add 4,000 residents in the coming two decades. Abbotsford, meanwhile, could hit the 200,000 mark by the 2020s.
But Abbotsford does not have 200,000 people by now. And Hope’s population has only slightly ticked upwards. Those and other projections badly missed the mark.
Now, as the Fraser Valley Regional District again tries to plan for the next two decades, they’re once again trying to predict how many people might call the valley home in the future. This time, though, they’re lowering their expectations.
The crystal ball
This year, the Fraser Valley Regional District is trying to predict the future. The task is partly a bureaucratic requirement—the body is updating its growth strategy, a document required by provincial law. But the projections also have very real consequences and implications.
(Because the Fraser Valley Regional District includes communities between Abbotsford and Hope, for the purposes of this exercise and this story, the valley and the projections about its growth don’t include Langley, which is in the Metro Vancouver Regional District.)
Estimating how many people is crucial for local governments as they consider how to work together, and how to expand services like transit to meet the public need.
“They’re an important consideration,” FVRD Chair, and Chilliwack councillor, Jason Lum told The Current. “They are trying to project what kind of demand there’s going to be on the services that the Regional District provides.”
Over the last decade, the FVRD has taken a prominent role in providing regional transit connections. Most prominently, it has launched the Fraser Valley Express bus that connects Chilliwack and Abbotsford with Langley and now the Lougheed SkyTrain service. It also helps manage and co-ordinate bus service to Agassiz and Harrison Hot Springs.
“We’re looking at how we develop our transportation priorities, where we think the public is going to want to travel in and around the Regional District,” Lum said. “The population projections are key because we’re trying to anticipate those pressures before they happen and they help us plan accordingly.”
But in trying to project the region’s population over the next 20 years, FVRD planners will hope to be more accurate than their counterparts two decades ago.
The department of prognosticating
In the early 2000s, the FVRD’s planners and officials started work on a big project: a strategy to guide the region’s growth for the coming decades.
Local governments regularly create strategies of various sorts to plan for the future. Such endeavours usually focus on promoting overall growth, guiding it towards certain areas, and setting out the infrastructure that will be needed to accommodate more people.
Population forecasts are an important part of any such project. A government doesn’t want to build a road or a transit system that will prove insufficient to handle the demand. At the same time, they don’t want to waste money preparing for more people who will never show up.
The provincial government, luckily, has a whole department and program devoted to predicting the future.
The provincial system is called PEOPLE, a long acronym for an incredibly long program title—Population Extrapolation for Organizational Planning with Less Error.
The province’s PEOPLE system uses a range of data to prepare population projections for communities and geographical areas all across British Columbia. The projections can be, and are, used by a range of institutions. Health authorities use them to predict how many people hospitals will need to treat. Cities use it to figure out whether or not new recreational facilities are needed (among other purposes). And companies can use the data to gauge local markets’ demand for their goods and services.
But when the FVRD and its consultants started working on their new growth plan two decades ago, they were skeptical about the provincial population projections.
The province’s prognosticating programs and professionals didn’t expect the region to stagnate or shrink. Indeed, they forecast the valley’s population to swell by more than 100,000 people between 2001 and 2021.
The FVRD’s planners, however, thought the region would grow even faster. They thought BC’s projections tended to under-estimate population growth; in their final strategy, they would declare that the projections are “sometimes viewed as conservative.”
So they enlisted a private consulting firm—Urban Futures—to predict just how many people might live in the valley by the 2020s.
They looked at transportation infrastructure, land supply, housing demand and other factors and concluded, as the FVRD described in its completed growth strategy, “there was a considerably larger growth potential in valley communities than recognized by the B.C. Stats projections.”
The consultants suggested that, by the 2020s, 450,000 people could live within the FVRD’s boundaries—between Abbotsford/Mission and Hope. Abbotsford was expected to be home to more than 200,000 residents and Chlliwack would have more than 130,000 people.
But predicting the future is hard. And with the benefit of hindsight, we can now look back and see the province got it nearly right and the consultants got it wrong.
The consultants and the FVRD overshot reality by more than 100,000 people—a population larger than modern-day Chilliwack. Today, the region has around 330,000 residents. It’s busier, to be sure. But much less crowded than had been projected.
Meanwhile, revisiting the figures show which communities have grown faster than expected, and where growth has lagged behind.
Missing the mark
Looking back, it’s unclear why the FVRD deemed BC Stats projections untrustworthy in 2004. Leading up to that year, the region’s population had grown by around 1.3% annually over the previous five years.
PEOPLE projected even quicker annual growth—a little more than 2%—in the decades to come.
And the consultants predicted even faster growth. They suggested the population would grow at an annual rate between 2.2% and 3.4% (depending on when in the 2020s sets the prediction’s end date—which the consultants did not).
Two decades later, the region’s population has grown dramatically and at a speed that has led to a housing shortage. Many residents have said the region is changing too quickly. Even so, the region hasn’t broken the 2% annual rate forecast that the FVRD believed to have been too conservative.
No Fraser Valley community will come close to hitting the FVRD projections for this decade. Abbotsford is 40,000 residents away from their forecasted population, Chilliwack is 30,000 people short. And in Mission, where the consultants suggested some 65,000 people might live by now, the population still is less than 45,000.
And in the region’s smaller communities, the projections were even further off base.
The consultants thought Hope and Kent would have 10,000 residents by this decade. The provincial projections largely agreed. But both communities have seen stagnating growth over the last two decades, with the population growing by less than 1% each year. Neither municipality has yet to crack the 7,000-people mark. It’s a similar tale for both Harrison and the region’s rural electoral areas.
The FVRD is once again trying to predict the future. But this time, its outlook appears to be much more realistic.
As it creates a new growth strategy, the FVRD is again projecting populations for the next three decades. And once again, it’s using self-admitted “high estimates.” But those projections are far more modest than 18 years ago.
The FVRD thinks the population of Abbotsford and Mission might grow by nearly 50% over the next 30 years. It suggests the combined number of residents in both communities could hit 300,000 by 2051. Chilliwack is expected to grow even faster, with its population forecast to hit 152,000 by 2051, an increase of about 57%. That would put the city’s population close to where Abbotsford’s is today.
All of that sounds like dramatic growth. And it would be but those predictions imagine growth mostly continuing at the present rate, rather than accelerating like the 2004 prognostications envisioned.
Similarly, projections for the region’s smaller communities are more modest than two decades ago. All are expected to grow, in some fashion. But 2050’s Fraser Valley is expected to have around the same number of people that forecasters once thought the region would have today.
And for the smaller communities, neither Kent nor Hope is thought likely to crack that 10,000-population mark within the next 30 years. The small towns will, it seems, remain just that: small.