Brian Lee CrowleyIt’s only a matter of time before this country’s suburb dwellers ditch their cars and move into a condo in the city, right?

Wrong. Canadians are voting with their feet, writes Macdonald-Laurier Institute Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley in the Ottawa Citizen, and their feet are still taking them to suburbia.

By Brian Lee Crowley, Oct. 9, 2015

In the Financial Post this week you might have stumbled across an article under a headline that read in part “Don’t pull the plug on the suburbs yet.” The column, which reports on a new study from PwC Canada on trends in Canada’s real estate market, opened with this nugget: “The predicted death of the suburbs may be a little premature.”

Premature is one word for it. In fact whoever predicted it was probably also loading up on bank stocks just before Lehman Brothers collapsed. Reports of the death of the suburbs have been greatly exaggerated.

Canadians have been voting with their feet. And their feet are not carrying them to high density urban cores

This is not statistical nitpicking. Indeed it is the fantasy of most urban planners in Canada that our cities will be “densified” in the core, transit will replace the car as the chief means of getting around and the suburbs will rightly come to be seen as costly, unsightly and unnecessary.

But while planners dream, Canadians have been voting with their feet. And their feet are not carrying them to high density urban cores, but out to the greener pastures, bigger lots and larger (and cheaper) houses of suburbia.

According to the 2011 census, 94 percent of the growth in Canada’s cities has been outside the urban core, and nothing has happened to change that trend in the intervening few years.

Perhaps like many people your sense of our cities has been distorted by what is happening in the tiny areas right at the centre of the urban cores of Vancouver and Toronto. There a blossoming of condominium developments and the stories about urban hipsters eschewing cars and living and working in the heart of the downtown have created the impression that this lifestyle is rapidly swamping the old suburban model. Nothing could be further from the truth.

According to my friend Wendell Cox who studies urban development around the world, the condo development district in Toronto is concentrated in the area roughly covered by the old Trinity-Spadina and Toronto Centre electoral districts. Growth there has indeed been impressive, at 16 percent in the years between the 2006 and 2011 censuses. But the rest of the Toronto urban core grew at a mere 2 percent, while those suburban areas beyond the core grew by nearly 10 percent. And because the population in the suburbs was already so huge, the absolute numbers are overwhelming: the central core grew by a mere 38,000, but the outlying suburbs grew by 425,000. Yet it is the central core’s growth which is somehow seen as the template for the future.

Being sold a bill of goods about where Canadians are actually choosing to live has real world implications.

The Vancouver Sun says the single suburban municipality of Surrey will, in a few decades, come to have more population than the City of Vancouver. Suburbs, not cores, are where the action is.

The story is similar in our other major cities. The central core is growing, but the “near suburbs” are hardly budging. The density of the old central cities, taken as a whole, is thus declining, not rising.

Being sold a bill of goods about where Canadians are actually choosing to live has real world implications. Those who live in the fantasyland of compact urban cores put all their transport eggs in the urban transit basket. In the kind of centrifugal urban/suburban/exurban explosion we (and every other western society) are living, urban transit consistently ranks as a poor second best to building adequate road infrastructure in terms of efficiency, speed and convenience.

Ditto for policies designed to make suburban development more expensive to force people to live closer to town. The practical effect is to make people move, not inward, but outward, where land is still relatively cheap and they can afford the home they crave for their family albeit at the cost of a long commute.

By their actions Canadians have spoken loud and clear about where they want to live. Perhaps it’s time urban planners got the memo and worked with Canadians rather than against them.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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