By Rebecca Wissink

The word suburb, suburban, and suburbia are all short for a “sub urban” area, meaning they are contrasted to the inner-city. Suburbia is the result of an economic explosion that occurred in North American post-WWII, along with the resulting social changes that followed. In America, returning veterans were able to get housing loans with low interest rates and small down payments for standardized homes being built en-masse outside of the city. Suburbia was partly enabled by Henry Ford’s cheap automobile, automation and cheaper goods, and by public transit, railways, and highways that allowed people to commute into the city from these new housing developments. These new areas of housing were necessary due to the baby boom that occurred post-WWII. And finally, suburban sprawl was made possible by the vast amounts of land available in North American on which to build. There are often racial and class differences between the inner city and the suburbs. In short, the suburbs are a product of a very different time in our society. Are they still relevant? Does the requirement for a large home and a commuting lifestyle still exist in this era of climate change, different labour practices, and changing family dynamics?

Just a few short years ago there was speculation that the suburbs were dying due to several trends in our society. According to the latest census data, downtown populations of large urban centres in Canada grew faster (almost 11 %) than urban centres in general. Millennials in particular want to live in the inner-city, within walking distance to amenities and their jobs. This cohort rejects their parent’s large homes that are automobile dependent. Immigrants settle into urban neighbourhoods which was evident in the 2021 census data which found that 9 in 10 immigrants settled in census metropolitan areas (CMA). And population growth in Canada has long been tied to immigration as millennials are not having children at the rate of previous generations. Lastly, city planners and developers are working hard to attract people back into the inner city. Most big cities in Canada have sustained efforts to densify their urban core through zoning and the development of transit orientated communities given infrastructure is expensive, and all cities are trying to get greener. Calgary’s University District is a good example of this recent trend in urbanity – walkable master planned communities. The University District bills itself as “offering 200-acres of all the amenities, services and experiences you want for your urban lifestyle. It’s connected.” 

According to the Statistics Canada spring 2021 census data just released, just over 27 million people, or nearly 75% of Canadians, live in one of Canada's large urban centres. However, the majority of people actually live in the suburbs. For example, in 2001, 67% of Calgarians resided in low-density neighbourhoods, meaning the suburbs. Now there is some evidence this might be changing.Headlines in 2021 suggested the COVID-19 pandemic was driving people out of the city core and into suburbia and rural communities in droves. There is housing data to back up a claim that a migration occurred in terms of home purchases in 2021. And, according to Statistics Canada, “the COVID-19 pandemic ended the rapid population growth that occurred in Canada's downtowns from 2016 to 2019.” As the pandemic took force with all of its resulting changes to how we live, work, and play, most of Canada’s downtown areas saw either slower or declining population growth. Nonetheless, in the years prior to the pandemic, the census data is clear: “Canada continues to urbanize.” 

Some interesting facts from the census about Alberta, and Calgary and its suburban areas specifically (May 2021):

  •  Calgary’s downtown core had the second highest growth in Canada of cities over 1 million people, at 21% (faster growth than Toronto’s 16%, and only lagging Montreal)
  •  Calgary’s suburbs (considered to be within 20-30 minutes of the downtown) grew at 23.3%, the second fastest growth rate in Canada (only surpassed marginally by Edmonton)
  •  Calgary remains the third largest urban area in Canada, now with a population of 1.3 million people
  • Cochrane, Alberta is the 11th fastest growing municipality in Canada (growth rate of 24.5%)
  •  Airdrie is the 25th fastest growing municipality in Canada (growth rate of 20.3%)
  • “Resort destinations including Canmore, Alberta … are among the fastest growing communities in Canada”
  • Red Deer is one of Canada’s six new CMAs - an area with a population over 100,000 people - and Alberta’s only new CMA
  • Edmonton’s downtown core is more populous than Calgary’s and is the fifth densest in Canada
  • From 2016 to 2021, the population declined in 121 of the 737 Canadian municipalities, but Alberta is home to 9 of the 25 “biggest losers” and actually holds the first spot (Athabasca County) along with 7 of the 10 top spots
  • “For the first time in the census since the 1940s, the population of the Maritimes grew at a faster pace than the Prairie provinces.”

So, what is the take-away from this census, remembering we have more recent home sale data that suggests a migratory shift is underway? Alberta is densifying into its two big cities and they are growing. Calgary was the second fastest growing city in Canada between 2016-2021 on several markers. While Calgary’s downtown core swelled with significant growth, it’s suburbs grew even more rapidly, and the nearby communities of Airdrie, Cochrane, and Canmore are the fastest growing communities in the Calgary area. It seems suburbia isn’t quite dead yet. If you’re ready to make a housing move within the Calgary area, speak to an experienced Ross Pavl ELITE Real Estate Group Realtor® today about whether urban or suburban housing suits your needs.

Image via creative commons courtesy of kevin dooley

Posted by Ross PAVL ELITE Real Estate Group on


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