Canadian skylines. Illustration by nik harron.

Illustration by nik harron

The Neptis Foundation has studied Canadian city regions for more than 15 years and its research has helped shape planning policy. In this analysis, researchers used 20 years of data to ask the question: Are Canadian cities sprawling?

The maps and graphics form part of Neptis’ ongoing research into understanding growth and change in Canadian city regions. They were created using remote sensing data to measure the extent of urbanization in each region as well as census data on population and dwellings.

Suburban sprawl has been blamed for destroying farmland, causing obesity and increasing traffic congestion. But what do we mean by sprawl?

There are many definitions of sprawl and many ways to analyze it. One measure is density-based and describes sprawl as a process through which a city’s urbanized area increases more rapidly than its population. For example, if a city’s population increased by five per cent over a decade, while the land area accommodating that population increased by 10 per cent, the city is said to be sprawling.

By this definition, most major cities in Canada sprawled during the 1990s – with one notable exception. Neptis Foundation researchers studied how Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto grew between 1991 and 2001 and found that all of them except Vancouver had sprawled. When they studied the same cities in the following decade (2001–2011), however, they found that in all four, the population increased faster than the amount of urbanized land (see Data Breakdown below). In other words, none of the four cities had sprawled.

Urban Growth, 1991 - 2011

Click to view in detail

What accounts for this difference? With a long history of growth management, Vancouver may have achieved its non-sprawl status through land-use policies that have been in place for some time. But growth-management efforts in Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton are more recent and would not have affected the 2001–2011 patterns.

Our researchers concluded that, regardless of policy, development in both suburbs and city centres is changing. Many suburban developers are building on smaller lots and including smaller dwellings, such as townhouses. A few are even trying to create subdivisions that resemble traditional urban neighbourhoods with smaller houses, links to transit and the option of walking to shops and services. In city centres, a growing number of people are choosing to live in condos and townhouses, close to workplaces, shopping and transit. These choices are supporting a boom in urban condo development.

While this is good news – we are starting to rein in land consumption – we continue to pave farmland to build neighbourhoods where cars are the only way to get to work, school and shopping. Growth-management policies that focus simply on slowing down the expansion of urban areas, i.e., increasing density, are not enough to effect real change. We must also consider how urban and suburban areas are designed and how they function – in other words, the ways people use and move through urban and suburban communities. The following considerations are key:

Transportation and employment. If suburban residents remain dependent on cars, many problems associated with suburbs will not change. Scattered housing and employment areas cannot be effectively served by transit. To address this issue, the Vancouver region has introduced Frequent Transit Development Areas and now directs future employment and housing to areas in which transit service runs every 15 minutes or more. Vancouver’s regional growth plan directly connects with its regional transit plan. This integration is just beginning in the Toronto and Calgary regions.

Housing stock. Vancouver offers a wider diversity of housing types than Edmonton, Calgary or Toronto (see pie charts on previous page). A diverse housing stock not only gives residents more choice, but also supports more sustainable energy systems, such as community (or district) energy. The Vancouver region is leading in the implementation of community energy systems to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions.

Population, transportation, employment, housing stock and energy – planning for all five elements is the only way to effectively curb urban sprawl and build more sustainable city regions. 

Neptis is a Canadian charitable foundation located in Toronto. It conducts and funds research on the growth and change of urban regions.

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate today to support our work.

A\J moderates comments to maintain a respectful and thoughtful discussion.
Comments may be considered for publication in the magazine.