Census data shows Ontario is becoming more urban — sort of

The province’s population is increasingly clustered around metropolitan areas. But it’s smaller communities — not big cities — that are growing fastest
By Daniel Kitts - Published on February 8, 2017
a crowded intersection in Toronto showing people crossing and cars waiting
Intensification around Toronto’s downtown core and development in the GTA commuter belt are two key Ontario trends. (Ricky Thakrar/Creative Commons)



The 2016 census data released today by Statistics Canada tell a familiar story: rural communities, particularly in northern Ontario, are shrinking as big cities continue to grow.

But a closer look at the data reveals a more complicated picture. While Toronto (population 2,731,571) has grown 4.5 per cent since the 2011 census, the fastest-growing community in the province, Shelburne (pop. 8,126), grew 39 per cent in that time. 

Rounding out the top three were Milton (pop. 110,128) at 30.5 per cent and Bradford West Gwillimbury (pop. 35,325) at 25.8 per cent.

According to Matti Siemiatycki of the University of Toronto’s geography and planning department, real intensification around Toronto’s downtown core — particularly along the waterfront and the Yonge Street subway line — and development in the GTA commuter belt are two key Ontario trends.

“These are locations where housing is affordable and you can still buy a single family home at a somewhat affordable rate,” Siemiatycki says of the commuter belt. “They’re also places that are within proximity of a long commute to employment throughout the region — not just in the downtown core, but in some of the suburban town centres or office parks where jobs are located increasingly.”

The fastest-shrinking communities were in the north: Kirkland Lake (pop. 7,981) led the way, having experienced a 6 per cent decline since 2011. Elliot Lake (pop. 10,741) was next at 5.3 per cent, followed by Temiskaming Shores (pop. 9,920) at 4.6 per cent.a map showing Ontario's pupulation growth

Yet Norman Ragetlie of the Rural Ontario Institute says there’s more to the story than what the top-line numbers show. Studies by the institute have found that rural countines such as Northumberland, Haliburton, and Muskoka are seeing growth. Ragetlie says the people most likely to migrate to rural areas are between the ages of 45 and 64, and they do so for a variety of reasons: some want to move closer to elderly parents in need of care, while others look to start a new chapter in their lives after their children have moved out.

“I would say what’s driving the migration are individual lifestyle decisions,” Ragetlie says. “People are making these choices based on how they want to live.”

How should policy makers respond to such varied growth? In addition to examining how new home-building affects land use in outlying areas, Ragetlie says, the province should find ways to ensure adequate transportation infrastructure — not just to and from Toronto, but all around the megacity.

“Generally, in the GTA, a lot of the congestion that we see is not necessarily people all heading to downtown Toronto, but people trying to get from Burlington to Markham or from Niagara to Oakville,” he says.

Siemiatycki agrees that these commuting patterns need to be considered in future transportation planning. He’s also concerned about what the growth trends mean for the “inner suburbs” — places such as Etobicoke and Scarborough.

“These are the types of locations that have experienced less growth,” he says. “In those communities, that’s where you’re starting to see real gaps in transit service and transit alternatives.”

View alternative text for Population Change Across Ontario


Photo courtesy of Ricky Thakrar and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)