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Census 2016: Urban spread continues — but at what cost?

Census 2016: Here are the biggest takeaways
Census 2016: The biggest takeaways from the latest census data released Wednesday.

Urban areas might be where the best bars, restaurants and shops are, but it’s not where Canadians are choosing to settle, according to the latest census data.

Instead, people are opting for less expensive homes on bigger pieces of land in less congested areas – a decision that comes with financial and environmental consequences.

READ MORE: Census 2016: 4 Edmonton ‘burbs are booming

Between 2011 and 2016, the population growth in smaller municipalities outpaced the growth of the larger, central municipalities they surround with a rate of 6.9 per cent compared to 5.8 per cent, according to the census data released Wednesday.

WATCH: Alberta population grows 11.6% between 2011 and 2016, according to Census

Go west, young man: Alberta population grows 11.6% between 2011 and 2016, according to Census
Go west, young man: Alberta population grows 11.6% between 2011 and 2016, according to Census

Across the country, 31 municipalities with at least 5,000 residents had a growth rate at least three times the national average of five per cent; each one of the 31 was what Statistics Canada calls a “peripheral municipality,” but commonly referred to as a suburb, exurb or bedroom community.

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“This is the continuation of a trend,” said Stacey Hallman, an analyst in demography division statistics at StatsCan. “And it’s a trend we’re seeing in other countries as well as Canada, toward urban spread.”

In Canada, the five municipalities with the fastest-growing populations between 2011 and 2016 were just outside the major centres of Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton. In those five spots, population growth was between 55 per cent and 31 per cent.

bedroom-communities-graphic

Worth noting, is that those three main cities experienced the highest percentage growth in population between census years (Calgary, Edmonton then Saskatoon from highest to lowest).

“What you’re seeing in this data is people tend to want to be in smaller communities,” said Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor in the department of geography and planning at the University of Toronto.

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“And that’s a reflection of several factors including the dramatic rise in housing costs, land availability and quality of life.”

READ MORE: New Brunswick 1st province since 2006 to see population decline

For example, Siemiatycki said, many families would be hard pressed to find an affordable traditional, single-family home in urban cores, where cities are focusing on increasing density. But those homes are available in the smaller, more suburban communities where land is more readily available.

Though residents might be saving money on land and homes, the trend of populations spreading around urban centres comes with costs to people living inside the cities – and some costs those choosing to live farther away may not always consider, said Bernard Momer, associate professor at the University of British Columbia, with expertise in urban planning and urban geography.

READ MORE: How has your city grown? Find your neighbourhood

As a city spreads to include smaller surrounding municipalities, there are costs associated with building infrastructure for power, sewage, transportation and other services, not to mention the maintenance of each.

What’s more, Momer said, is usually those costs are borne by the main city and those living within it, which means the city centres are effectively subsidizing the costs of a person’s choice to live farther away.

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“There’s also the costs we can’t put a dollar figure on, like the environmental costs of urban sprawl,” Momer said. “A lot of these communities are dependent on their vehicles to commute, which increases pollution and, as more buildings go up, they’re encroaching on natural areas.”

READ MORE: Saskatoon third-fastest growing city in Canada, census finds

Further, the dependence on a vehicle for suburban living comes with personal risks (the longer you’re in a vehicle, the higher the chance of getting into an accident) and costs (vehicle maintenance, gas, and time spent in transit), Momer said.

Despite the ongoing trend toward urban spread, cities continue trying to increase their density and stop the sprawl, said Momer.

READ MORE: Population of Toronto outpaced national growth rate

“Most cities, and the new generation of planners, are kind of aware of the incentives behind being sustainable and green,” he said. “They’re aware that in the long term, urban sprawl is not sustainable. We know we have finite resources.”

With that in mind, Siemiatycki said the prevailing planning-thinking today is to create “complete communities” in which people can live, work and play.

“Doing that can reduce pollution, and decrease costs to cities for servicing and building,” he said.

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