Special Report: Census 2011: Urban Dispersion in Canada


Canada now has fastest-growing population in the G-8 (Note 1), according to the results of the 2011 census, released last week. Canada's growth rate from 2006 to 2011 exceeded that of the United States by nearly one-third and is nearly one half greater than just a decade ago. The population rose from 31.6 million in 2006 to 33.5 million in 2011.

The move west continues. For the first time in history, the provinces west of Ontario (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia) account for more population than the provinces east of Ontario (Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland). Two-thirds of the growth was due to immigration, a development cited in a census editorial by the Toronto Star as a solution to the nation's fertility deficit.

... we need to make more babies. But we are not, to the extent we need to. Canada’s birth rate of 1.67 children per woman is well below the minimum of 2.0 required. Therefore, we need to get more immigrants, which we are.

The Major Metropolitan Areas

Canada's six major metropolitan areas (over 1,000,000 population) grew even half again as quickly as the nation --- 9.3% over five years. Within these metropolitan areas, the pattern of urban dispersion continued, with 83% of the population increase in the largest metropolitan areas (Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver) occurring outside the central municipalities. For the first time, the population in the suburbs of "905" (so-called for its area code), exceeded the population of the amalgamated municipality of Toronto. Similarly, for the first time, the island of Montréal (this includes the ville de Montréal and other municipalities) had a smaller population than the rest of the metropolitan area. According to the The Gazette:

Most of the people who leave the 514-area (the island -ed) for the 450 (off the island -ed) do so reluctantly. They are often young people with children (or who hope to have children). They enjoy the city's stimulation and its proximity to workplaces, shopping and entertainment. But they leave because there's not enough suitable housing in their price range. The taxes are also high and services spotty. Not the greatest place to to raise a family.

Dispersion continued in Ottawa- Gatineau, Calgary and Edmonton, though not as obvious because most suburban areas are inside these proportionately larger central municipalities. Even so, 56% of the growth in the six major metropolitan areas was outside the central municipalities (Table 1).

Table 1
Metropolitan Area Population Trend:
Central Municipalities & Peripheral Municipalities
Population (000) Change (000)
Central Muncipality Surrounding Muncipalities Metropolitan Area Central Muncipality Surrounding Muncipalities Metropolitan Area
Toronto         2,615            2,968          5,583            112               358             470
Montreal         1,650            2,175          3,824               29               160             189
Vancouver            604            1,710          2,313               25               171             197
Ottawa-Gatineau            883               353          1,236               71                 31             103
Calgary         1,079               136          1,215               90                 28             118
Edmonton            812               348          1,160               82                 43             125
Total         7,643            7,689       15,332            410               791          1,201
Change in Population Share of Growth
Central Muncipality Surrounding Muncipalities Metropolitan Area Central Muncipality Surrounding Muncipalities Metropolitan Area
Toronto 4.5% 13.7% 9.2% 23.8% 76.2% 100.0%
Montreal 1.8% 7.9% 5.2% 15.3% 84.7% 100.0%
Vancouver 4.4% 11.1% 9.3% 12.9% 87.1% 100.0%
Ottawa-Gatineau 8.8% 9.8% 9.1% 69.4% 30.6% 100.0%
Calgary 9.2% 25.5% 10.8% 76.7% 23.3% 100.0%
Edmonton 11.2% 14.1% 12.1% 65.5% 34.5% 100.0%
Average 6.6% 13.7% 9.3% 43.9% 56.1% 100.0%


Urban Core Analysis

Recent amalgamations and aggressive annexation policies make more difficult an analysis of the growth between urban cores and more suburban areas. Only one of the six central municipalities retains boundaries that reflect the core urbanization that preceded the explosive automobile-oriented suburban expansion (Table 2). The same situation exists in US metropolitan areas, where only 19 of the 51 largest metropolitan areas have central municipalities with boundaries that have remained relatively constant over the past 60 years (see Suburbanized Core Cities).

Table 2
Metropolitan Area Population Trend:
Urban Core & Outside
Change in Population Change (000)
Urban Core Outside Metropolitan Area Urban Core Outside Metropolitan Area
Toronto            703            4,880          5,583               45               425             470
Montreal            930            2,894          3,824                 9               180             189
Vancouver            604            1,710          2,313               25               171             197
Ottawa-Gatineau            218            1,019          1,236                 7                 96             103
Calgary            128            1,087          1,215                 4               114             118
Edmonton            123            1,037          1,160                 2               123             125
Total         2,705          12,626       15,332               92           1,109          1,201
Change in Population Share of Growth
Urban Core Outside Metropolitan Area Urban Core Outside Metropolitan Area
Toronto 6.8% 9.5% 9.2% 9.5% 90.5% 100.0%
Montreal 0.9% 6.6% 5.2% 4.6% 95.4% 100.0%
Vancouver 4.4% 11.1% 9.3% 12.9% 87.1% 100.0%
Ottawa-Gatineau 3.2% 10.4% 9.1% 6.6% 93.4% 100.0%
Calgary 3.0% 11.8% 10.8% 3.1% 96.9% 100.0%
Edmonton 2.0% 13.4% 12.1% 1.9% 98.1% 100.0%
Average 3.4% 10.5% 9.3% 6.5% 93.5% 100.0%
Urban core based upon federal electoral districts (see text)


The core versus suburban trends are better illustrated by examining areas more representative of the historic cores. This following analysis uses federal electoral districts that roughly conform to the urban cores as they existed in the early 1950s, at the beginning of the automobile oriented expansion. Federal electoral districts generally had a population of approximately 100,000 in 2006.

Toronto: The Toronto metropolitan area grew 9.5%, adding 470,000 new residents.

The central municipality of Toronto contains considerable post World War II suburban development, as a result of a late 1990s municipal amalgamation imposed by the provincial government. Federal electoral districts (Note 2) that roughly match to the former municipality of Toronto's early 1950s boundaries grew 45,000, from a population of 658,000 in 2006 to 703,000 in 2011. This 6.8% increase represents some of the strongest growth in 80 years, though the population of the former municipality tended to hover between 600,000 to 700,000. The core growth between 2006 and 2011 was concentrated in the Trinity-Spadina and Toronto Centre electoral districts, where the population rose 38,000 (16%). These two districts have grown strongly as a result of Toronto's high rise condominium boom. The balance of the urban core grew only 2%.

Areas outside the core added 425,000 population, nearly 10 times the increase of the core. The percentage increase was also stronger, at 9.5%. Approximately 85% of this region’s growth was outside the municipality of Toronto, which The National Post characterized as explosive.

Montréal: Montréal was the slowest growing major metropolitan area, at 5.9%, adding 189,000 new residents.

Like Toronto, expansion of Montréal's municipality boundaries include considerable amounts of post-war development. Yet the core of the ville de Montréal has become considerably less dense. In 1951, the ville de Montréal had a population of 1,022,000 people in 131 square kilometers. By1996 (before an amalgamation), the population had dropped to 1,017,000 in 186 square kilometers. This represents a 30% loss in density. Between 2006 and 2011, nine federal electoral districts (Note 3) in the urban core experienced 0.9% population growth from 922,000 in 2006 to 930,000 2011. No significant densification was evident in these districts.

The areas outside the core added 180,000 people, 95% of the population growth. Nearly 90% of this growth was outside the ville de Montréal.

Vancouver: The Vancouver metropolitan area grew 9.3% between 2006 and 2011 and, despite all the popular literature about the city’s “smart growth” policies, most growth was dispersed. "The population of the City of Vancouver, the urban core, is flat-lining or even declining notes the Globe and Mail. In contrast, "Surrey, Coquitlam and ... Port Moody are growing fast --- shifting Metro Vancouver's centre of gravity east." The Vancouver Sun reported that suburban Surrey would surpass the population of the municipality of Vancouver in the next decade (Note 4).

The municipality of Vancouver has retained virtually its early 1950s boundaries. The municipality grew 4.4% from 2006 to 2011, adding 25,000 residents. One -half the growth was in the densifying Vancouver-Centre electoral district, which includes downtown and English Bay. The rest of the core municipality grew at only one-fourth the rate of downtown. Despite the downtown gains, the suburbs accounted for 87% of the metropolitan area growth. Seven new suburban residents were added for every new resident in the municipality of Vancouver.

Ottawa-Gatineau:  The Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan area straddles the Ontario-Québec border, with the national capital in Ottawa. Ottawa-Gatineau added 9.1% to its population between 2006 and 2011, rising to 1,236,000.

A 1990s amalgamation brought much of the former suburban area into the central municipality. Two federal electoral districts (Note 5) that are representative of the urban core grew 3.2%, from 211,000 to 217,000. Areas outside this core grew 10.4%, from a population of 923,000 to 1,019,000. Non-core area growth accounted for 94% of the metropolitan area's population growth.

Calgary: The Calgary metropolitan area grew 12.6%, to a population of 1,215,000 (Note 6). Calgary is one of the world's most successful post World War II metropolitan areas. Like Edmonton, Phoenix and San Jose, Calgary has virtually no pre-automobile core. However, uncharacteristic for a new metropolitan area, Calgary has developed one of the strongest central business districts – largely due to the oil industry – in North America, and Emporis ranks Calgary's skyline as 57th in the world, just ahead of Seattle.

The core federal electoral district (Calgary-Centre), the most dense in the Calgary metropolitan area, experienced growth of 3.0% from 2006 to 2011. This district is comparatively large in land area, but has a   population density one-third that of Vancouver-Centre. All of the electoral districts surrounding Calgary-Centre have much lower densities.

Most of the growth occurred the northern and western portion of the municipality of Calgary and beyond. Overall, the population growth rate outside the core electoral district was 11.8%. Non-core areas of the Calgary metropolitan area accounted for 97% of the growth.

Edmonton: Like Calgary, Edmonton is a post-World War II metropolitan area. The Edmonton metropolitan area added 12.1%, to its population, growing to 1,160,000. The core Edmonton-Centre electoral district, the most dense in the metropolitan area, grew only 2.0%, from 121,000 to 123,000. This district has less than one-quarter the density of Vancouver-Centre. Areas outside the core grew 13.4% from 914,000 to 1,037,000. The non-core areas accounted for 98% of the area's growth. Some of the greatest growth was in the western half of the municipality of Edmonton.

Suburban Gains Dwarf Core Densification

Toronto and Vancouver are experiencing significant increases in downtown populations. But the base is so small that these gains are dwarfed by the scale of suburban population increases. At the same time, central municipality areas outside downtown have lagged. Thus, the 2011 census shows that across Canada, urban dispersion continues, results similar to recent results from the United States as well as a number of major metropolitan areas in the both the developed and the developing world. More than 93% of growth was outside the urban cores.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life


Note 1: The G-9 includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Note 2: Toronto Centre, Toronto-Danforth, Trinity-Spadina, Parkdale-High Park, Davenport and St. Paul’s.

Note 3: Westmount-Ville Marie, Mount Royal, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce - Lachine, Outremont, Papineau, Ahutsic, Jeanne-Le Ber, Laurier-Sainte-Marie and Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie

Note 4: If Surrey exceeds Vancouver in population, it is to be wondered if Canada's third largest metropolitan area will be called Surrey instead of Vancouver. A similar displacement of the historic core municipality occurred in the United States when the population of Norfolk was exceeded by suburban Virginia Beach, with the first name of the metropolitan area changing accordingly.

Note 5: Ottawa-Centre and Ottawa Vanier

Note 6: This 12.6% figure differs from the 10.8% in Tables 1 & 2, which is calculated using actual data reported by Statistics Canada. Statistics Canada indicates that the data "excludes census data for one or more incompletely enumerated Indian reserves or Indian settlements."

Photo: Condominium buildings and the CN Tower, Downtown Toronto (by author)

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