Who Lives Where?

I’ve always been interested in how researchers sort and label neighbourhoods. That is why the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre report, Eight Canadian Metropolitan Areas: Who Lived Where in 2006?, caught my eye. The report uses statistical analysis to pin down what kind of common neighbourhood “types” exist in Canadian cities.

Looking at the maps below, it’s obvious that the authors found cities that are far more complex than the urban/suburban view of cities would suggest.


The authors identified six broad neighbourhood typologies in Canadian cities:

  • Older Working Class, generally found in the inner suburbs;
  • Urban/Suburban Homeowner, located in stable residential areas constructed after 1945;
  • Old City Establishment, situated in older high-income, inner city areas associated with gentrification;
  • Young, Single, & Mobile Renters, which are found downtown;
  • Disadvantaged Groups, exhibit the most complex and diverse clusters around city regions; and
  • Family Ethnoburbs, which are found in the suburbs of only four of the cities studied.

The researchers use these typologies to highlight the complexity of social geography in Canadian cities.  A scan of the maps reveals quickly that the social geography of Canada’s largest cities is more complex than that of its smaller cities.

For example, the city regions that are attracting the countries  most immigrants, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary,  also have a unique neighbourhood typology called the “Family Ethnoburbs.” The Ethnoburbs are located in newer neighbourhoods on the cities edges.  The existence of this typology is a powerful indicator urban growth over the last two decades has become critical for our big cities to attract global talent and the importance of new housing to accommodate growth and attract immigrants.

What I find most interesting is that these maps are not static. Twenty-five years ago we would not have had Family Ethnoburbs, or an identifiable group of Young, Single, Mobile renters located downtown.

It will interesting to see how this social map of Canadian cities will change over the next twenty-five years. These categories are very much a product of Canadian cities today (do American cities have similar ethnoburbs?). The social structure and population of our cities is constantly changing, so these maps provide an interesting perspective of our complex and always changing city regions.

Take a look at the full report here.




Is Vaughan a Suburb?


Is Vaughan a Suburb?

What is a suburb? This is a question that I often explore in this blog and was tackled by the Globe and Mail’s public editor, Sylvia Stead.

A resident of Vaughan wrote to the Globe arguing that Vaughan is not a suburb of Toronto but instead a city in its own right with a Mayor, and asked the paper to  print a correction. This led the Stead to ask:

So can you establish a rule for the use of the word suburb? Do we avoid the word when referring to cities, but not to towns or villages? Does this apply more to Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area than to other municipalities in the city?

Stead soon found out was that it was not a simple question, which reflects why over the last fifty years researchers, writers, and many others have grappled with defining suburbs, cities, and the places in between.

The Globe and Mail’s stylebook listed the suburbs of Vancouver in great detail as well as those of Montreal more generally, but was silent on Toronto’s (perhaps the book needs updating?). So what did Stead conclude after consulting the stylebook, dictionary, and her colleagues? She thought,

the description could have been “Vaughan, a suburb north of Toronto” or “Vaughan, a city north of Toronto. Both of those wordings are better because they do not suggest that Vaughan is part of Toronto, as in the original “the Toronto suburb of Vaughan.”

Yet, Ryerson University politics and public administration professor Myer Siemiatycki was able to convince Stead that perhaps Vaughan could be described as a suburb of Toronto. Siemiatycki’s argument was that,

“Its location, land use, auto reliance, socio-cultural texture and attachment to Toronto (they cheer for the Leafs, they rise and fall with Toronto’s economic condition) – all these qualify Vaughan and other neighbouring municipalities as Toronto suburbs.”

None of these descriptions is wrong, but they each evoke strong social and economic assumptions about a place, which is perhaps why the reader from Vaughan reacted so strongly to the Globe’s description.

Generally I feel it’s important that we move away from the  urban/suburban dichotomy because our urban areas have become far more complex then the simple urban/suburban narrative suggests.

Therefore, I would suggest describing Vaughan as a city within the Greater Toronto Area. This removes the offending word, suburb, but also firmly attaches Vaughan to the geographic, social and economic texture of the Toronto region.

Your thoughts?



Suburban Growth in Ontario’s Mid-Sized Cities


Photo by Samuel Bietenholz

Mid-sized cities are having trouble keeping people downtown and encouraging denser living. The Martin Prosperity Institute issued a report analyzing growth patterns for  six Ontario cities: Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Windsor, Hamilton, and Oshawa. They found the following:

From 2001–2006 (this is the most recent data available for community profiles) most of the population growth taking place in these municipalities occurred in outer suburbs.


Percentage of population change, 2001-2006 by area.  Source: Martin Prosperity Institute

Percentage of population change, 2001-2006 by area. Source: Martin Prosperity Institute

Even more discouraging for urbanists is that the report found that in the five year period, the population of these city centres and inner suburbs was declining. The author concludes:

This discovery runs counter to the provincial policy put in place to stem sprawl in the past decade, and indicates that something is awry with Ontario Smart Growth policy implementation.

While these findings are interesting, I wouldn’t rush to judge the Smart Growth policy implementation. The Growth plan was only implemented in 2005. Looking at data from 2001-2006 would therefore not have captured any significant changes in growth patterns caused by the Growth Plan. Growth patterns take decades, not years to change, and many municipalities only implemented new growth plans in the last four years.

Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ontario’s mid-sized cities will continue to grow outward instead of upward. There are several reasons for this. First, mid-sized cities tend to be far less dense compared to large urban centres. Therefore, the amenities and employment opportunities commonly associated with density in larger cities are less likely to exist.

Lower densities also mean that public transportation systems in mid-sized cities tend to be far smaller and less convenient. Congestion is relatively mild and commuting by car is quick and convenient. Commute times in these six cities averages 24 minutes (Toronto is 33)  and only an average of 8% of people get to work using transit. Because most commuting is by car, employment and shopping is centred around locations that are easy to get to by car, not downtown. This encourages growth at the fringe were land is cheap and accessible and makes attracting jobs and residents to mid-sized downtowns far more challenging.

While I wouldn’t rush to judge the outcome of Ontario’s Smart Growth policy in mid-sized cities, it is clear that the challenges facing Ontario’s mid-sized cities in promoting smarter communities and reducing auto dependence are significant.

Measuring the Suburbs


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. 

Suburban Corporate Wasteland


Good piece on WNPR radio in Connecticut about the future of suburban office parks. There is a growing concern in the United States about large office parks built during the 1970s and 1980s. Many businesses are moving downtown and leaving their old headquarters vacant, leaving fears of a “Suburban Corporate Wasteland” in their wake.

While the piece focuses on a handful of sites in Connecticut, Toronto has recently seen high-profile businesses move to core from the suburbs. For example, Coca-Cola is moving downtown, leaving its “mad men” era building in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood. Other companies that have made or are about to make the move include SNC-Lavalin, Google, Deloitte, and Telus. This has lead to articles such as “Why corporation are flocking back to downtown Toronto.”

The Urban Land Institute has picked up on the trend and is bearish on suburban office markets in Toronto. Their 2014 Emerging Trends in Real Estate states that:

“‘Related to the trend of urban intensification, suburban office is a declining commodity that has no staying power,’ says an interviewee. Suburban office is becoming less competitive as companies return to the urban core and companies take less space. As this space becomes vacant and needs to be refurbished to be competitive, the suburban market softens even further.”

So are Toronto’s office parks likely to become corporate wastelands?

I’m not ready to write them off yet. A recent Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) report provides a very detailed assessment of the evolution of the office market in the GTA. The CUI argues convincingly that the statistics do not prove that the 25 year trend of significant office growth in the suburbs is slowing. 

While demand is shifting to the core it hasn’t disappeared from Toronto’s suburb. Yes, vacancy rates are higher in the suburbs than downtown, 7.8% versus 4.6%. But as seen in the chart below most of the new office space built since the 1990s has been in the suburbs. With so much growth in supply it’s not surprising that vacancy rates are higher.

Cumulative Totals of GTA Office Space 1910-2010 by the Canadian Urban Institute (Click to Enlarge)

Cumulative Totals of GTA Office Space 1910-2010 by the Canadian Urban Institute (Click to Enlarge)
Note: 905 and 416 are Torono Telephone Area Codes. 905 is shorthand for those areas that have grown quickly since the 1970s. 416 for those areas that grew from the 19th century to the 1960s . 

Furthermore, while major moves to the core are attracting attention, building has continued in the suburbs. Major companies such as SNC-Lavalin, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Novartis Animal Health have been expanding or adding new offices in suburban centres such as Meadowvale and in Mississauga Town Centre.

While suburban office parks are becoming corporate waste lands in Connecticut, in Toronto it looks as if they are here to stay. The challenge in the GTA won’t become how to deal with large vacant office campuses, but how to bring transit and amenities into these areas so they can stay competitive and become more adaptable, diverse, and accessible.

The suburbs aren’t great for small business and free markets

DSCF2529Prewar neighbourhoods are better suited for migrant entrepreneurs than postwar neighbourhoods. That is the conclusion of a fascinating new study by Pascal Beckers and Robert C. Kloosterman, which looks at the link between the design of neighbourhood, zoning, and it’s effects on local migrant businesses.

What Beckers and Kloosterman find is that the urban design and zoning has an impact on the chances of setting up a business and the success of that business in the five Dutch neighbourhoods that they studied.

Prewar neighbourhoods have more commercial spaces (55 vs 31 firms per 10 hectares of built-up area) and less restrictive zoning regulations. This was found to offer more choice to local entrepreneurs and more flexibility to adjust to changes in the market and the business than to entrepreneurs who were operating in postwar neighbourhoods. 

Prewar neighbourhoods also have more businesses that are non-neighbourhood oriented, which means that they serve a broader market than just the immediate area (35 vs 16 firms per 10 hectares of built-up area). This is because local regulations in postwar neighbourhoods restrict commercial activities to those that serve the needs of local residents. Therefore, they have a commercial base that is more localized and less diversified

Existing businesses in postwar neighbourhoods also have less competition than those in prewar neighbourhoods. This protects local businesses and enhanced their chance of survival, but more restrictive zoning meant it is harder for businesses to expand if they became more successful. As a result, residents in postwar neighbourhoods have fewer choices when it comes to shopping and services and successful businesses have a harder time building on their success.

On the other hand, businesses in prewar neighbourhoods can be much more flexible. It is easier to convert buildings from residential to commercial and there are fewer restrictions on what can be done in those buildings. Businesses in prewar neighbourhoods also benefit from more policies that focused on creating new commercial space and supporting new businesses.  

More evidence that if you’re looking for competition, choice, and diversity you are much more likely to find it in the city than in the suburbs.

Stop Eulogizing the Suburbs

Condo Advertising: The suburbs are not for me

Christopher Sellers, an urban historian, takes suburban doomsayers who are eulogizing postwar neighbourhoods to task in an article in newgeography. Commenting on the reams of new books and articles predicting the end of the suburbs, Sellers asks:

“When you declare the “ending” of a place where you acknowledge over half of Americans now live, just what does that mean?”

It appears that most writers mean not the end of a place, but the end of an ideal and stereotype. New economic trends, social values and ideals are transforming every community in North America and hitting ageing postwar suburbs particularly hard.

Changing demographics, growing income inequality, and ageing infrastructure and housing are hurting older postwar neighbourhoods in the same way similar factors hurt central neighbourhoods in the 1950s and 1960s.

As a result, many urbanist see a narrative of prospering and growing cities, in contrast to one of declining suburbs and conclude that as a result the suburban dream and the postwar neighbourhoods are doomed.

While discussing many of these issues, Sellers ends the article on a positive note. He imagines that suburbs that are more diverse will also be more inclusive and open to progressive politics. I am not as optimistic.

Our neighbourhoods and cities reflect the growing inequality and poverty in our society.  Cities like Toronto are becoming more segregated by wealth and income. Poverty is concentrating in the postwar neighbourhoods, while the centre of the city is becoming wealthier, and the middle is melting away. In my opinion, the rhapsodizing about the end of the suburbs is really masking a far more real concern about the decline of the middle class. My fear is that will lead to less inclusive neighbourhoods, not more inclusive as Sellers argues.

The allure of the suburbs may be fading, but does this call for the end of the suburbs? No, but it does mean that postwar communities need greater investments to adapt to a new time. These communities need new social services, transit, better housing, and jobs as they age. Our suburbs and the people who live in them deserve much more than eulogies.

The Great Recession and the Suburbanization of Rental Housing

The great recession has led to the increasing suburbanization of America’s rental housing, especially in southern and western cities. Since 2007, a recent study by Harvard reports more than 3.0 million single family homes in the United States have been converted from owner-occupied to rental stock, many of them in the suburbs.

Since the great recession, some large scale investors have each bought up to 10,000 – 20,000 single family homes, mostly in the Sunbelt to manage and rent. The Harvard study notes:

While systematic information is hard to come by, CoreLogic found that institutional investors (defined as those acquiring at least five foreclosed properties or using a corporate identity) were most active in 2012 in Miami, where they bought 30 percent of foreclosed properties, followed by Phoenix (23 percent), Charlotte (21 percent), Las Vegas (19 percent), and Orlando (18 percent).

In the South and West, where cities are newer, have been growing the fastest, and where the great recession hit the hardest, rental housing is now predominately in the suburbs and exurbs, not in the central city.

Occupied Rental Units

What is also interesting is a lot of suburban rental housing is “hidden.” Nearly four in ten rental units in American suburbs are in single-family homes and small buildings with fewer than nine units. Forget about the image of towers in the park, more people rent a house than an apartment in a tower.

Occupied Rental Units (Thousands) in the Suburbs, 2011

The variations in the type of housing and location are yet again another reminder that the 21st century “suburb” are diverse places and becoming increasingly more diverse as investors and owners build new rental housing  and convert and renovate older housing.

Unfortunately, the growing number of rental units is not nearly enough to match the demand for rental housing, especially affordable rental housing.  According to the report there is an astounding shortage of 4.9 million affordable units in the United States. In 2011, 11.8 million renters with extremely low incomes competed for just 6.9 million rentals affordable at that income cutoff.

As the report concludes:

It is hardly hyperbole to call the growing lack of rental affordability a crisis. More than half of all renters pay more than 30 percent of income for housing, including more than one in four that pay more than 50 percent. For the nation’s lowest-income families and individuals, the situation is especially dire, with more than seven out of 10 paying more than half their income for rent.

Towers and Malls

Cavendish Mall

In my last post I explored the idea that “apartments are just as lucrative in the US as Canada, but the US did not experience the same kind of suburban apartment boom.”  In trying to understand why, I pointed to planning culture  and the nature of each countries development industry. One area I didn’t explore was the difference that the municipal tax structures might have played in encouraging Canadian suburbs to go denser.

Canadian municipalities are far more reliant on property taxes. That means that one of the few ways they can collect more revenue is to grow the property tax base. Looking at the chart from Cote Saint-Luc I used in my last post, apartments made good sense as a revenue generating tool.


American municipalities do not have the same dependency on property taxes. Sales taxes are an important  revenue tool for many American cities. This means that the incentives in Canadian and American cities are different. In a study on the effect of the sales tax on development, the Public Policy Institute of California writes:

The survey results provide strong evidence that city governments do favor retail development over other land uses when developing vacant land or pursuing redevelopment.

Essentially, the sales tax made really good sense because you collected the new property tax revenue and more sales tax.  The outcome is that American municipalities encouraged and approved the development of a lot more retail instead of apartments than Canadian cities. So perhaps our municipal tax structures can help explain why generally Canadian cities were more favourable to suburban apartments, and the American cities to more retail.


Source: The International Council of Shopping Centers via ForeXLive