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.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.