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Canada is a more suburban nation

New research shows more people than ever are living in the suburbs.

Using updated Canadian census data, Queen’s University urban planning professor David Gordon has determined Canada is a suburban nation and, despite the planning policies of most metropolitan areas, its population became more suburban from 2006-2016.

More than 80 per cent of the population in large metropolitan areas, including Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal, live in the suburbs. The study also shows the number of people living in metropolitan areas in Canada grew by 15 per cent, or 3.2 million people, between 2006 and 2016. That’s more than the entire population of Toronto, Canada’s largest city.

“Canada is a suburban nation,” Dr. Gordon says. “Its downtowns may be full of new condominium towers, but there is often five times as much development on the suburban edges of the cities. The good news is that some of the largest cities (Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver and Ottawa) have increased growth in more sustainable active core and transit suburbs in the centres of the metropolitan areas and some sustainable cores are emerging in Vancouver suburbs such as Richmond, Surrey and Burnaby. But the contrast in most peripheral areas is extreme. Their populations are growing far more quickly and in less sustainable automobile suburbs and exurbs. For example, more people now live off the Isle d’Montreal than on it, and in the Toronto region, far more people live in the 905 area code than the 416.”

The purpose of Dr. Gordon’s new research was to update the article Suburban Nation? Estimating the Size of Canada’s Suburban Population, published in the Journal of Architecture and Planning Research (JAPR) in 2013. The JAPR article was based upon 1996 and 2006 census data, while the new working paper updates the research using the 2016 census data that was released in late 2017.

His research for the 1996-2006 period estimated that 66 per cent of all Canadians lived in some form of suburb. This proportion rose to 67.5 per cent by 2016. In the new census data, his research team found that within Canada’s metropolitan areas, 86 per cent of the population lived in transit suburbs, auto suburbs, or exurban areas, while only 14 per cent lived in active core neighbourhoods.

“Politicians, planners, academics, and journalists focus much of their attention on inner-city issues, while ignoring suburban expansion,” Dr. Gordon says. “Partly, that’s because it’s too easy to see the growth in the inner-city. There are all those tower cranes in Toronto and Vancouver, and every single building is a political controversy; an article in the newspaper. Meanwhile, as city council argues furiously over whether to permit a new tower with a few hundred residents in the downtown, thousands of new homes replace farmland on the urban edge, and not enough attention is paid to that.”

This new data was recently presented at the Canadian Institute of Planners national conference and will inform debates on regional planning across the country.

To obtain a copy of the study, visit the Council for Canadian Urbanism website and for more details on the research program visit the Canadian Suburbs website.