Measuring the Suburbs

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David Gordon, the Director of Urban Planning at Queen’s University has worked over the last five years to find out how many Canadian’s live in the suburbs. His conclusion, about 80% of Canada’s urban population and 66% of the total Canadian population live in suburban areas.

So what is a suburb? How is a suburb defined and measured?

While there have been many definitions, traditionally, in the North American context it has meant white, middle class, nuclear family, that owns a single family home and drives to work. Gordon’s research shows that after fifty years this traditional definition is essentially meaningless. Canadian cities and society have moved past those stereotypes.

To develop a measurable  definition of suburbs Gordon had to reduce the suburbs to one variable, whether people drove to work or not. This means that everything else we traditionally associate with suburbs is no longer true.

For example, Canadian suburbs are no longer white. Suburban communities are now among the most diverse and multicultural communities in country. In certain suburban cities, such as Markham and Brampton, over 50 percent of the population identify as visible minorities. This has lead to what is now being called the “Ethnoburbs, ” a whole new type of social community.

Suburbs are also no longer bedroom communities. More people in our major cities work in postwar neighbourhoods than downtown. So many people have moved into the city and so many jobs have moved outside the city, that commuting patterns are reversing. The traffic leaving downtown in the morning is almost as heavy as traffic into downtown.

Suburbs are also no longer dominated to the same degree by single family homes. Gordon found that townhouses and apartments were much more prevalent in modern suburban communities, making it difficult to define suburbs based on housing type.

A middle class suburb is also a rare sight these days. As the middle class disappears so have many middle class suburban neighbourhoods. In 1970, 66 percent of Toronto’s neighbourhoods were middle income, in 2010 only 20 percent qualified as middle income. By 2020 it is projected that only 10 percent of Toronto’s neighbourhoods will be middle income.

Defining and measuring the suburbs is not an easy task. A word that has taken on so much social, political, and economic meaning over the last century is bound to frustrate and confuse anyone trying to pin it down. Therefore, I hope Gordon research can contribute to a measurable and workable definition of the modern suburb: a community where driving to work is the main form of commuting. 

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