Insight: Boomtown in the Backyard – Suburban Growth in Ontario

Anyone who has driven along highway 401, in or out of any city centre in southern Ontario is all too familiar with the sight of suburbia. Fields of houses sprout up every year and it can appear as though the only growth outside of the metropolises of Toronto and Ottawa is happening on the fringe. In fact, the first releases of the 2011 National Census indicate that Milton (northeast of Oakville, along the 401) has twice been named the fastest growing community in the country,1 yet a simple drive-by confirms that Milton is growing out, not up. In this Insight, the MPI is exploring how much truth lies behind the idea that Ontario is all about sprawl.

In order to do so, we examined six Ontario Census Metropolitan Areas2 (Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Oshawa, Windsor) at the Census Tract level3 using 2006 community profile data. Each Census Tract was then assigned to one of four categories according to a number of criteria: downtown; inner suburb; outer suburb; and undefined. The Census Tracts roughly work out to a neighbourhood-sized parcel of land, each with unique census community profile data. This data was then compiled for each category to determine where growth is taking place, and to analyze other attributes which will be explored in future Insights.

The downtown, inner suburb, and outer suburb categories were chosen because they describe different stages of growth consistent in most Canadian cities. Neighbourhoods were assigned to categories by crosschecking Statistics Canada Census Tract areas with a Google Maps Streetview analysis — a process which involved judging street layouts, housing design, and zoning uses.

Downtowns were defined by: mixed use zoning and mixed use buildings; multiple storefronts; ability for residents to walk to daily needs; grid pattern streets; and on-street or carriage-house parking. Inner suburbs are those that: sit adjacent to downtown areas; have relatively uniform housing; have driveways and sometimes garages; require driving to access retail and groceries; are dominated by single-detached dwellings; and often still have grid pattern streets. The inner suburbs were the first postwar envelope of sprawl around the city and are more centrally located. There is a trend of serious decline in inner suburbs across North America, manifest in poverty, reduced public services, deteriorating housing, and failing infrastructure.4 The outer suburbs represent a later phase of growth, and are the outer envelope around cities, defined by: curvilinear streets and cul-de-sacs; automobile dependence; a distinct separation of residential areas from retail, office, etc.; predominantly single-detached dwellings or townhomes; driveways and garages; and newer housing stock. Undefined Census Tracts were those that exhibited a 2006 population density of less than 250 people per square kilometer. These Tracts were excluded from analysis because it was unclear whether data should be attributed to the newest (and often most expensive) outer suburban developments or existing rural properties. For this reason, you will find that the percentage population distributions below do not amount to 100% — the undefined regions are not included.

Exhibit 1a: Density maps – Hamilton and Kingston

Density maps: Hamilton and Kingston

Exhibit 1b: Density maps – Kitchener and London

Density map: Kitchener and London

Exhibit 1c: Density maps – Oshawa and Windsor

Density maps: Oshawa and Windsor

Before summarizing the results, it is important to know why this group of municipalities were selected to study, as opposed to the Greater Toronto Area so closely associated with suburban sprawl. The logic behind this is that while the GTA is largely considered suburban, each community can exist independently. For example, Markham, Vaughan, and Richmond Hill are all separate cities that have now become inseparable from Toronto. Neighbourhoods of these places may be defined as sprawl, but they are sprawling from both downtown Markham (for example), the GO Station, and Toronto. Therefore, it’s hard to examine these GTA communities as a unit or understand the relationships between core and periphery areas. Contrary, the cities examined here may still house a large number of Toronto commuters, yet their suburbs are exclusively extensions of their core areas. Furthermore, to crosscheck each of the 1000+ Census Tracts associated with the Greater Toronto Area would not be nearly as straightforward as crosschecking those of smaller municipalities.

Statistical analysis shows very clearly that Milton is not the only city growing out, as opposed to up. Exhibit 2 illustrates that 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. Kingston, while apparently shrinking in all areas, actually has a Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) rate of growth of 3.8% — a figure that encompasses the tremendous rates of growth experienced in undefined areas excluded from the statistical analysis due to very low population density. Not a single CMA studied featured downtowns or inner suburbs that met the provincial or national growth rates — population decline was more prevalent. On the other hand, four out of six outer suburbs examined grew over 10% (nearly 20% in Oshawa) over the period in question.

Exhibit 2: Percentage of population change, 2001-2006

Percentage of population change, 2001-2006

Exhibit 3: Distribution of population

Distribution of population

Exhibit 2 reveals that outer suburbs account for most metropolitan growth in these regions, and Exhibit 3 shows they also account for most of the population. In all but two regions (which we must remember do not include the outermost low density Census Tracts which are the likely site of new housing development), the outer suburbs hold more than 50% of the population. This is most pronounced in Kitchener-Waterloo (83% outer suburbs) and Oshawa (72% outer suburbs).

Canada is often characterized as a country of urban-dwellers,5 however perhaps that idea deserves an asterisk. If this sample of cities — all among the 30 largest population centres in the country — is any indication of the nation as a whole, Canada is more accurately a nation of suburban-dwellers, growing at the fringe.

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. In 2003, a Conservative provincial government in Ontario responded to environmental and congestion concerns over sprawl by implementing a Smart Growth development plan. Interestingly, this was politically driven from an outer-suburban electoral base which was counterintuitively opposed to the sprawl in which they resided. When a Liberal government took over in later years, the Green Belt was formed and infill and transit-oriented development requirements were put in place. Since, there has been noticeably more high density development of condos.

However, when analyzing the effectiveness of Smart Growth policy, University of Waterloo professor, Pierre Filion (2010) found that much of the middle class still has a preference for dispersed development, which is mirrored by developers who adamantly advocate sprawling subdivisions. Yet, Filion notes historical periods in Toronto prove that commitment from administration can have a considerable impact on development patterns.

The cards are not stacked in favour of Smart Growth though. Everything from the priority of highway construction and patched dispersion of high density developments makes a wholesale transition to Smart Growth difficult. Partial commitment to Smart Growth is unlikely to affect the lifestyle and environmental advantages which motivated the policy. Crisis, economic or otherwise, could potentially be the shock required to shift the agenda for urban form, so long as public and private finance is available.6

Stay tuned for future Insights to get a deeper dig on the differences between downtowns, inner suburbs, and outer suburbs.


This Insight is based on a report written by former MPI intern Gracen Johnson. For more information please contact Gracen at



2 Area consisting of one or more adjacent municipalities situated around a major urban core. To form a census metropolitan area, the urban core must have a population of at least 100,000.
3 Census tracts are small, relatively stable geographic areas that usually have a population of 2,500 to 8,000. A breakdown of statcan geographic units can be found here:
4 Hanlon, B. (2008a) Fixing inner-ring suburbs: a policy retrospective. International Journal of Neighbourhood Renewal 1.3, 1–30.Lucy, W. and D. Phillips (2000). Suburban decline: The next urban crisis. Issues in Science and Technology 17.1 [WWW document]. URL 17.1/lucy.htm (accessed 21 October 2008).


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The Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto‘s Rotman School of Management is the world’s leading think-tank on the role of sub-national factors — location, place and city-regions — in global economic prosperity. We take an integrated view of prosperity, looking beyond economic measures to include the importance of quality of place and the development of people’s creative potential.