Suburban Nation: The Queens University Research

A team of researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario has announced groundbreaking research that classifies the populations in the 33 census metropolitan areas (CMAs) by urban core, transit oriented […]
Published on September 17, 2013

A team of researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario has announced groundbreaking research that classifies the populations in the 33 census metropolitan areas (CMAs) by urban core, transit oriented suburban, automobile oriented suburban and exurban lifestyles. Findings were made available to the media and will be published during the autumn in an academic journal.

Suburbs and Urban Cores: The Complexities

Professor David Gordon, director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University summarized the research as indicating that: “Canada is a suburban nation.” This may be surprising, because of the tendency to think of suburban areas as those parts of metropolitan areas that are outside the core city. However, this definition has long since become obsolete with the substantial annexations of Calgary and Edmonton and the forced consolidations of Toronto, Montréal (parts of which were reversed) and Ottawa.

Even the core city of Vancouver, which has had essentially the same boundaries for at least 60 years, contains considerable expanses of suburbanization beyond its urban core. Even in the core city of Toronto, Scarborough, North York and Etobikote are more suburban rather than urban core, as is also the case for much of the core cities of Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa and the ville de Montréal.

To get around this difficulty, we use federal electoral district data to do an early analysis of urban core versus suburban growth for when the 2011 census data was released. Our findings were that the greatest share of growth had been in suburban areas (See: Special Report: Census 2011: Urban Dispersion in Canada). The Queens University researchers went considerably deeper, and showed that 95 percent of metropolitan area growth had been in suburban areas between 2006 and 2011, a somewhat higher figure than the seven percent derived from the federal electoral district data.

The Queen’s University Approach

Gordon and the research team divided in metropolitan areas into the four classifications at the census tract level. The census tract level is ideal for this type of analysis, because it is the closest approximation to the neighborhood. The Gordon et al analysis is thus fine grained, and may be virtually unprecedented in the world.

The research uses criteria developed from journey to work mode data (such as transit, walking, cycling and automobile) and residential densities. Gordon et al called their urban core classification “active core,” to note the substantial dependence of residents on walking and cycling for commuting to work. They divided non-rural suburban areas into transit and auto suburban areas, and designated the rural areas of metropolitan areas as exurban (Note).

The findings may be surprising. When urbanization is examined at the neighborhood level, little of the metropolitan population is in the urban core. Overall, the average urban core is approximately 12% of the metropolitan area. This varies little by population category.

In describing the results, Gordon noted that there is a tendency to “overestimate the importance of the highly visible downtown cores and underestimate the vast growth happening in the suburban edges.” This is especially evident in the largest metropolitan areas.

Major Metropolitan Areas

Among the six major metropolitan areas (those with more than 1 million population), the urban cores also average 12 percent of the population (Figure).

In relative terms, Vancouver has the largest urban core, at 16% of its population, followed by Calgary with 13% of its population. Toronto, Montréal and Edmonton all have urban cores with approximately 11% of their population, while Ottawa is at 12% (calculated using the entire metropolitan area, which is in both Ontario and Québec). This means that the major metropolitan areas are, on average, 88% suburban or exurban.

There is also relative consistency with respect to the populations of the transit oriented suburban areas. The largest are in Toronto and Montréal, at 14%. Vancouver and Edmonton have 12% of their populations in transit oriented suburban areas and Ottawa 11%. However, transit’s reach is much less in Calgary, where the transit suburbs have only 3% of the population.

From 73 percent in Vancouver to 85% in Calgary of the major metropolitan area populations are in the automobile suburbs and exurbs. Toronto, Montréal, Ottawa and Edmonton all have between 75% and 77% of their population in the automobile suburbs and exurbs.

Smaller Metropolitan Areas

Generally, the level of suburbanization was similar in the smaller metropolitan areas. However, Gordon’s method did not require an urban core. This is illustrated by the Abbotsford (BC), where there was neither an urban core nor transit suburban areas. This is an understandable result, since Abbotsford has grown largely in the post-World War II era, during which newer metropolitan areas tended to have much smaller urban cores and little transit, with nearly all travel by automobile.

Further, there were two instances of transit suburban areas being oriented toward urban cores outside the metropolitan areas. In Oshawa, to the east of Toronto, a transit suburban area is located away from the core, along the GO Transit commuter rail line to Toronto’s Union Station. Similarly, in Hamilton, a transit suburban area is located far from Hamilton’s core, on the GO Transit commuter rail line to Toronto.


A Country of Suburbs provides maps for each of the metropolitan areas, showing all four land use classifications.

Professor Gordon and his associates have made a significant contribution to the better understanding of modern cities.


Note: Metropolitan areas always include rural areas – areas that are not urban. This is because metropolitan areas are employment market areas and people invariably commute from outside the population center (formerly called the urban area by Statistics Canada). The rural areas of metropolitan areas are routinely far larger in geographic expanse than the population centers.

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