Between 2016 and 2021, and according to this recent report from Statistics Canada, the population of the Toronto CMA (Census Metropolitan Area) grew by over 274k people:
The population of the Montréal CMA grew by nearly 188k people:
And the population of the Vancouver CMA grew by over 179k people:
These are the three largest CMAs in the country and they, not surprisingly, also have the three largest “downtowns.” As of the spring of 2021, the most populated downtowns were as follows: Toronto (275,931 people), Vancouver (121,932 people), Montréal (109,509), Ottawa (67,169 people), and Edmonton (55,387).
In this exercise, Statistics Canada breaks down each CMA into 5 categories, which are generally based on two things: (1) your typical monocentric city model (downtown in the middle with a declining gradient of surrounding sprawl) and (2) how long it takes to commute — by car during non-rush hours — from downtown to the surrounding areas.
The good news in all of this is that Canada’s downtowns seem to be doing just fine. Broadly speaking, they are growing at a faster rate than their respective CMAs and growing at 2x the rate of the previous census cycle. Halifax’s downtown grew at 26.1% from 2016 to 2021 and Calgary grew at 21%, to give two more examples. So I think you can safely ignore what you may have heard about a pandemic exodus. Those people are now returning from the country after realizing that there aren’t any pretentious coffee shops and expensive butcher shops.
But something else is also going on in Canada’s largest urban centers. The concurrent trend is continued urban sprawl. The biggest downtowns are growing quickly, but so are the distant suburbs (30 minutes or more from downtown). And they are growing at a faster rate than everything in between. This is not entirely surprising, but it is obviously concerning from a climate change perspective and because it suggests that people are being forced to do the old “drive until you qualify” thing.
These two phenomena are the most pronounced in the Toronto CMA. If you scroll back up to the top of this post, you’ll see that downtown absorbed a decent chunk of the population growth (about 14%), particularly considering its small footprint. But then if you look at the distant suburbs (the mustard color), you’ll see that it’s where 72% of new entrants went!
The question I like to ask with all of this is, “are people choosing to move to the distant suburbs because that’s the housing and location that they truly want, or are people choosing it because it’s all they can afford?” There is an argument out there that sprawl is a natural market outcome and that we shouldn’t be forcing people to live in higher-density housing. And I am certainly sympathetic to giving people as much choice as possible.
But how much choice are we really giving people in our biggest cities? We have figured out how to intensify our downtowns through mid- and high-rise development. And evidenced by the growth rates, many people are enjoying this form of housing and the kind of urban lifestyle that comes along with it. But if it happens to not work for you, our current solution is, “either be rich so you can remain close to downtown or go for a drive.”
What is clear from this latest census data is that we haven’t yet figured out the in-between. The missing middle is still missing. And that’s because we have clear mechanisms in place to more or less ensure this is the case: (1) We restrict meaningful growth from taking place in our single-family neighbourhoods and (2) we have made a habit out of shifting some of the incumbent tax burden to new entrants through things like development charges.
Overall, it’s a devilishly clever system where two things happen: “Sorry, you can’t build that kind of housing here. Build it somewhere else. By the way, I’d like to keep my property taxes as low as possible, so not only do I not what you close to me, but I’d also like you to help pay for some things. Cool?” This is the arrangement that we are seeing playing out in these charts. It can be easy to ignore, but it’s there.
Charts: Statistics Canada
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