City Hall Take Note: You Can’t Fight Suburbia: Sprawl winning population battle in Canada

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Housing Affordability, Media Appearances

Nearly all of Canada's population growth over the past five years occurred in the suburbs, according to a new analysis of the 2011 Census data by an urbanist who says government policies are driving people out of the city – and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

While the downtowns of Canada's six largest metropolitan areas made modest gains, urban cores have been "dwarfed by the scale of suburban population increases," which made up 93% of the nation's growth, Wendell Cox, principal of Demographia, a St. Louis, Mo., demographics and urban policy firm, wrote in an analysis this week posted on the website

This continued growth comes despite what Mr. Cox calls "anti-suburban policies" that outlaw development on large swaths of land, creating scarcity and increasing housing prices.

He believes governments should build more highways instead of trying to get the public riding mass transit. More highways, he argues, will cut down on traffic congestion, which leads to air pollution and less productive cities as workers spend more time on the road.

Instead of trying to keep Canadians in their cities, Mr. Cox said governments need to realize this creep past the city limits and into the suburbs isn't going to change any time soon.

"All things being equal, more people prefer to live in lower-density surroundings with a little patch of ground than they prefer to live in the condominiums and the high rise," he said. "In the long run, people's preferences are really going to drive how things work regardless of the policy instruments that are used to try to change their behaviour."

Mr. Cox, who used federal electoral districts and the 2011 Census data released last week to compare growth in city centres and their outer regions, found that in some cases, central municipalities account for only one-fifth of the growth of their metropolitan areas – Montreal being the slowest growing major metropolitan area at a rate of 5.9%. It saw the area outside the core make up 95% of the population increase there.

Major metropolitan areas Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa-Gatineau and Vancouver also saw significant growth outside their core, Mr. Cox's analysis showed, with non-core areas making up for 97% of growth in Calgary, 98% in Edmonton, 94% in Ottawa-Gatineau and 87% in Vancouver.

The Census data revealed that Toronto was surpassed for the very first time by the ballooning population of its neighbouring "905" region.

The numbers don't surprise Glenn Miller, vice-president of education and research at the Canadian Urban Institute, a not-for-profit organization that has been tracking the outward expansion of Canadian cities. It has watched businesses move out of cities' downtown financial cores and into the suburbs; a report it released last April showed only 20% of the Toronto region's office jobs are in Toronto's core, compared to 63% three decades ago.

Most of these companies have moved out to the "905," to places such as Mississauga, Brampton and Vaughan, suggesting a need for expanded transit systems so those who have moved out to the suburbs don't need to drive to work.

There's also a need to make the suburbs a better place to age, Mr. Miller said. "The more we can design our communities so that you're not designing for just one segment of your lifespan when people are in their family formation years moving to the edge of Brampton because it's affordable, the better," he said. "That's acceptable for 10, 15 years. But the suburbs are no place to grow old."

A more efficient agricultural industry uses far less farmland than it did 50 years ago and, according to a Sierra Club of Canada report he cites, doubling the density of a neighbourhood will increase traffic congestion by 60%, thus leading to more air pollution.

"You can't improve commute times if you make the city more dense. You can't have housing affordability if you make it more dense."

It makes less sense for a Canadian to live in an urban centre as housing prices in the city continue to skyrocket and employees commute to work in suburban offices, he said.

"You start drawing down a line around cities like they're doing in Toronto and like they've done in Vancouver, you drive housing prices through the roof, young people won't be able to afford houses…. [As well, all the] data indicate the more dense you make a city, the higher you make the traffic congestion."

Jebb Brugmann, an urban strategy consultant and author of Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing The World, said that if high-growth suburban municipalities had more authority over their expansion (much of that tends to rest with provincial jurisdictions or otherwise), they could create more innovative communities that can "urbanize" these regions with fewer big-box stores and more mixed-use residential and business buildings.

He said an exodus to suburbia is really just the product of uneven market regulation, and points to the subprime market crisis in the United States, which saw almost 50% of the housing foreclosures in 2008-2009 happen in nine suburbs of major cities.