This week, Statistics Canada announced that Toronto’s population is 2,791,140, which also happens to be about 84,000 more than the City of Chicago’s population. This now makes the City of Toronto the fourth largest municipal government in North America.
However, as can be seen in the chart below, Toronto has not so much overtaken Chicago, rather Chicago has fallen behind Toronto. The City of Chicago’s population peaked in 1950 and since declined by about 25 percent. Toronto never experienced the same decline.
Why did Toronto never experience the same decline Chicago did? As Patrick Condon writes, there are many potential explanations including redlining, white flight, and mortgage deductions. However, Condon highlights one reason in particular that explains why American cities, such as Chicago, declined while Canadian cities, such as Toronto, did not. American cities invested far more in urban highways, which significantly reduced land values in city centres.
Looking at the two cities, it is clear that within their boundaries, Chicago has the more extensive highway network, especially in the centre of the city. Meanwhile Toronto’s highways were built on the peripheries. Where Toronto did build highways they were not built through residential areas, but instead along the industrial waterfront, ravines, and what was in the 1950s farmland.
This also helps explain why the City of Chicago has lost population but the Greater Chicago Area has kept pace and continues to be much larger than the Greater Toronto Area (see chart below). The building of an extensive highway system in the centre of Chicago hurt the city, reducing the value of its central neighbourhoods and made it easier for people and businesses to move out to the fringes. Toronto never inflicted the same type of damage to its central neighbourhoods. This is why the City of Toronto is now the fourth largest municipality in the North America and the City of Chicago is fifth.