The Recession has Changed the Geography of Growth


The great recession appears to have had a significant affect on how North America’s major cities are growing. Since 2009, more growth is happening in walkable transit oriented communities than on the edges of metropolitan areas.

Christopher B. Leinberger & Patrick Lynch, from the George Washington University School of Business, have tracked growth in major cities the United States and have found that growth patterns have shifted significantly since the recession. For example,

“Both Metro Miami and Atlanta sprawled faster than most metro areas for decades. In this real-estate cycle, which began in 2009, these two metros indicated a fundamental shift from drivable suburban office development to walkable urban, as their [walkable neighbourhoods] are rapidly increasing their share of the office market.”

The same trends observed by Leinberger and Lynch in the United States can be observed in Toronto. People increasingly want to live in walkable neighbourhoods. The Pembina Institute in a recent survey found that an astounding 81% of people in the Greater Toronto Area would prefer to live in a neighbourhood where they can walk to stores and had frequent and reliable transit service.

This stated preference is playing out in what is happening on the ground. Construction has shifted from the drivable suburban developments to walkable urban development. For example, over the last four years, over 40% of all new units were built in the city of Toronto, a significantly higher percentage than at any time in the last 30 years.

GTA-Toronto Completions

Downtown Toronto has become the fastest growing area in the Greater Toronto Area. Between 2006 and 2011 downtown grew at four times the rate of the rest of the city of Toronto.

In addition to the significant amount of residential development, there is 5.2 million square feet of office space being built in downtown Toronto, which is slightly less then one-third (31%) of all office space currently under construction in all of Canada. This is a significant change from the early 2000s when downtown Toronto was experiencing almost no office growth. CBD Office Space Construction

Five years is not a lot of time. Yet, it is becoming clear that in Toronto, and across North America, the geography of growth has fundamentally shifted. People want to live in neighbourhoods where driving is a choice and where you can take transit or walk to work. These people are now transforming the geography of growth in the Greater Toronto Area, and across North America.


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. 

Predicting Canadian Urban Growth Using Two Simple Rules

Recently, Alberto Hernando de Castro, a physicist with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Paris, and his colleagues wrote a paper reporting to have found two simple rules that explain how cities grow.

Hernando, after examining the growth of 8,100 Spanish cities, proposed that the future growth of a city depends on how the city grew in the past and that the growth of a city depends on the growth rates of neighbouring cities.

The Cities Centre at the University of Toronto released a report by Jim Simmons and Larry S. Bourne this summer, “The Canadian Urban System in 2011: Looking Back and Projecting Forward.” The report manages to provide similar insights, which suggests that there may be a degree of universality to Hernando’s two rules.

In regards to the first rule, that how a city will grow in the future depends on how it grew in the past, seems consistent with the Canadian context. Despite all the changes that have swept Canada in the last 100 years, the way Canadian cities have grown has been remarkably steady with only a few changes in the urban hierarchy in the last 100 years.

Of course there are differences between now and 100 years ago, the most obvious being that Toronto is now the dominate Canadian city. One hundred years ago it was Montreal. This is because the rule has about a 15 year lifespan. Hernando found that cities in Spain have, on average, a “memory” of 15 years, meaning that 15 years of past growth can reliable help predict the outline of the next 15 years of growth.

I’m curious about what is the “memory” of Canadian cities. With fewer and younger cities I suspect the cities “memory” is longer. The biggest cities have been growing relatively consistently over the last 30 years and tend to dominate their regions, which is related to the second rule.

The second rule that “cities within about 50 miles of each other are entangled… so that if one of them grows, the other also grows in the same proportion”  also plays out in Canada.

Simmons and Bourne call the observed entanglement “Megaurban Regions.”  They identify eight Canadian Megaurban regions where roughly 64 cities and 21 million people are entangled. Within those eight regions cities and population tend to grow at similar rates.

Megaurban Regions

Click Map to Enlarge

Canadian Megaurban Regions

Simmons and Bourne argue that primary driver of growth in each Megaurban region is dependent on the size and rate of expansion of the market in which the metropolitan region is embedded.

For example, Halifax is limited by the slow growth within the Atlantic region and Montreal is hampered by the slow growth within Quebec.

Toronto, on the other hand, is not limited to Ontario’s market but embedded in the national market, a role formerly held by Montreal. Because Toronto region is so large it also attracts much of the investment in Ontario.

As a result, smaller cities and regions in the Province, such as Kingston and Southwestern Ontario region, are growing far slower.  My previous post on the Southern Ontario’s Geography of Innovation, touches on this theme as well. Many smaller Southern Ontario cities are trying to deepen their “entanglement” with Toronto through improved rail service (Note: In my post I’m using a different definition of Southern Ontario than Bourne and Simmons) .

I would be interested to see Hernando’s computer model applied to Canada and see how well it meshes with Simmons and Bourne’s analysis. What are the unique Canadian twists to a global model of cities? Or are Canadian cities, and all cities, merely following some basic  global rules?

Why has Toronto overtaken Chicago?

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.

Toronto and Chicago

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.

Expressway systemsThis 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.

Chicago MSA