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Canada is a suburban nation

Statistics Canada has started releasing some of the results from its 2021 survey and there is a new classification that is now being used in its analysis of Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs). Instead of organizing city regions jurisdictionally, it is now using a new functional classification that is based on travel times to downtown.

This has resulted in five new geographic categories: Downtown, Urban Fringe (<10 min to downtown), Near Suburb (10-20 min to downtown), Intermediate Suburb (20-30 min to downtown), and Distant Suburb (over 30 min to downtown). Below is chart from a recent Globe and Mail article that summarizes these classifications, but keep in mind that percentage growth is different than total population growth (the next chart from New Geography covers this one).

This is more granular than their previous approach, which used to be fairly binary: city core vs. the suburbs. But at the same time, it reflects a very suburban and monocentric view of cities. Downtown is in the middle. People generally need to drive to said downtown for things like work and entertainment. And so how long does it take to do that?

Though in all fairness, this lens is our reality. When you apply the above classification and look at Canada’s 41 largest metropolitan areas, only 4.7% of us live in a downtown and only about 28.5% of us live in what is presumably an urban setting (downtown + urban fringe). And the numbers are actually less urban in a CMA like Toronto, where 11.5% live in the urban core (downtown + urban fringe) and 88.5% live in the suburbs, whether near or distant.

However, one could argue that we are at least becoming slightly more urban. Only 11.5% of Torontonians might currently live in the urban core (2021), but 16% of our growth from 2016 to 2021 went to it (see above chart). Of course, this is an incremental kind of shift. About 84% of our population gain also went to the suburbs, with the vast majority of it going to distant suburbs (a 30 minute commute in Toronto is nothing after all).

As Wendell Cox points out in this recent New Geography article, Canada remains a suburban nation.


  1. Kenneth Whitwell

    Having only one “down town” is fine for a small city but large CMA’s have more than one downtown. For example, down town Oakville is an urban environment, quite different from a sprawling subdivision; to say nothing about Mississauga which has a high density down town of its own. I would define an urban area as one where you don’t need a car for daily life; walking and transit would suffice.


  2. This is a silly classification. All it means is how car-dependent a city is. If there is poor mass transit, as I suspect there is in Toronto, it’ll take 30 minutes to drive just 5 miles and park from home, after circling blocks, or looking for a rare garage and maybe walking to your final destination (is that part even included in the survey?). Subways, light surface rial, buses, trolleys, ferries where there’s water, which is true of most highly dense cities and is why they become vertical in the first place; all of these can change the entire classification for 100s of thousands of people.
    NYC, where I live, could not even exist without the subways and to a lesser extent, the even more extensive bus system.

    I guess one should expect such a report from someone who works for the misnamed Urban Reform Institute, which praises such articles as: “Sprawl is Good — The Environmental Case for Suburbia” and highlights positively such paragraphs as:
    Over even a medium-term time frame, the increasing adoption of hybrid, electric, and autonomous vehicles will almost completely sever the connection between VMT (vehicle miles traveled) and greenhouse gases. Those who are attempting to redesign cities, projects that will take decades or even centuries, merely to reduce the use of gasoline-powered cars are thus engaged in a futile exercise that will only become more futile with time. It would be like attempting to redesign cities in 1900 to reduce horse manure. The technology will change faster than the city will.”

    Why should it take decades to add bus lines, ferry terminals (here in NYC, we’ve created an entire new ferry network in just a few years), or even light rail or trolleys if the will and money are there? Even subways can be extended in less than 10 years.

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