Canada is a car-dependent and suburban nation – and likely to remain so

Toronto, 2008. Image: Getty.

Canada is a suburban nation. More than two-thirds of my country’s total population now live in the suburbs, meaning policy-makers must deal with the multitude of issues regarding this suburban explosion.

In all our largest metropolitan areas, the portion of suburban residents is higher than 80 per cent, including the Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal regions. The downtown cores of these cities may be full of new condo towers, but there is often five times as much population growth on the suburban edges of the regions.

In a 2013 article in the Journal of Architecture and Planning Research (JAPR), our research team found that 66 per cent of all Canadians lived in some form of a suburb. That figure was based on 1996 and 2006 census data.

Ten years later, that figure has risen to 67.5 per cent based on the 2016 census data released in late 2017.

The suburban sprawl in the Toronto area. Image: author provided.

As you can see in the above Google Earth map of the Toronto area, we classified the neighbourhoods in Canada’s Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) into four types:

  1. Exurbs: Very low-density rural areas where more than half the workers commute to the central core. They live in rural-estate subdivisions or along country roads, and comprise about eight per cent of the metropolitan population in 2016.

  2. Automobile suburbs: These are the classic suburban neighbourhoods. Almost everybody commutes by car, there is little transit use and hardly anyone walks or cycles to work. They include about 67 per cent of metropolitan populations.

  3. Transit suburbs: Neighbourhoods where a higher proportion of people commute by transit, comprising about 12 per cent of metropolitan populations.

  4. Active cores: Downtowns and other neighbourhoods where a higher proportion of people walk or cycle to work. These neighbourhoods, which most international observers would consider “urban,” make up only 14 per cent of Canadian metropolitan populations.

Suburbs continue to sprawl

In the new census data, our research team found that within Canada’s metropolitan areas, 86 per cent of the population lived in transit suburbs, auto suburbs or exurban areas, while only 14 per cent, as mentioned above, lived in active core neighbourhoods.

The active cores and transit suburbs grew by nine per cent and eight per cent, respectively, below the national average population growth of 15 per cent. The auto suburbs and the exurban areas, on the other hand, grew by 17 per cent and 20 per cent respectively, exceeding the national average.

The net effect of this trend is that 85 per cent of the Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) population growth from 2006–16 was in auto suburbs and exurbs. Only 15 per cent of population growth was in more sustainable active cores and transit suburbs.

The 2006–16 findings show that the population of Canada’s auto-dependent communities is growing much faster than the national growth rate, which has significant policy implications when it comes to public health, transportation, education planning, electoral issues and community design.

Source: statistics Canada Census Data, 2006-16.

The national pattern is similar regarding construction of new residential units, though not as extreme. That’s because new housing units in the active cores have about 40 per cent fewer occupants than those in auto suburbs, according to 2016 data.

Even if dwelling units are a growth measure, 78 per cent of new dwelling unit growth from 2006-2016 occurred in the less sustainable auto suburbs and exurbs.

Many people over-estimate crowding and traffic in highly visible downtown cores and underestimate the vast growth happening in the suburban edges of our metropolitan regions.

The population in low-density auto suburbs and exurbs is still growing five times faster than inner cities and transit suburbs across Canada.

Despite their inner-city condo booms, even the Toronto and Vancouver metropolitan areas saw 3.4 and 2.4 times as much population growth in auto suburbs and exurbs compared to active cores and transit suburbs.

Canada is, in fact, a suburban nation, and its population became more suburban from 2006–16, despite the planning policies of most metropolitan areas.

A graph showing population growth patterns in major Canadian metropolitan areas. Image: Author provided.

Preliminary 2016 census analyses in some CMAs show that the past decade of municipal intensification policies is finally having an effect on the location of dwelling units, but the large majority of population growth still continues to occur in automobile suburbs and exurbs.

This means policy-makers must:

  • Monitor the edges of metropolitan areas more closely than the centre;
  • Set growth and intensification targets using both population and housing units;
  • Calibrate infrastructure programs to shape suburban population growth;
  • Increase bus rapid transit and light rail transit, rather than subways, subways, subways.
  • Even if urban development trends were to become significantly more intense, the current suburban neighbourhoods will comprise the bulk of the nation’s housing stock well into the 21st-century. That means Canada appears destined to remain a suburban nation in the decades ahead. It’s time for governments and policy-makers to grapple with the myriad implications.

    The Conversation

David L.A. Gordon, Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning; Department of Geography and Planning, Queen's University, Ontario.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.