Sprawl In Canada and the U.S.: A Comparison

Michael Lewyn's picture

I am spending this spring at the University of Toronto working on an advanced law degree (called an L.L.M.), and am writing a thesis comparing sprawl in Canada and the United States.  Here are a few preliminary findings:

*Canada's cities are generally growing, unlike older American cities.  Among the ten cities that were America's most populous in 1950, eight have lost population- often by huge margins.  The most extreme example is St. Louis, which lost 59 percent of its population between 1950 and 2000.  By contrast, every single one of Canada's 1950 "Top Ten" cities have gained population. 

To some extent, Canadian cities' population growth is a result of annexation, since every major city but Vancouver has annexed significant amounts of territory in recent decades.  

I tried to control for annexation by figuring out which census tracts were part of the city in 1971.  (I chose 1971 because 1971 census tracts are comparable to those of today, while tracts from earlier Canadian censuses are not).  Thus, I was able to ascertain whether the areas within city limits in 1971 have gained population or not. 

In six of the ten largest cities, these older areas have gained population. And in the other four cities, population losses have not been comparable to those of America's weakest central cities.  For example, Canada's most rapidly declining big city, Montreal, has lost 18 percent of its 1971 population (disregarding areas added to the city since 1971).  By contrast, St. Louis has lost 44 percent of its 1971 population.  

In sum, Canadian cities have either grown or modestly declined.  So if sprawl is defined as "migration from cities to suburbs", Canada has experienced some sprawl but less than the United States.

*Another way to measure sprawl is automobile dependence.  Here too, Canada differs from the United States.  In the United States, 6 percent of work commutes involve public transit; in Canada, 14 percent of commutes involve transit.   Although no Canadian city is as transit-oriented as New York, even Canada's more sprawling, car-dependent big cities are far less auto-oriented than their American counterparts.  For example, in Edmonton, 79 percent of commutes are by car, as opposed to almost 90 percent in Phoenix.   On the other hand, Canada is still more auto-oriented than much of Europe: in some European cities, less than half of commutes are by car - and in a few (such as Zurich and Copenhagen) less than one-fourth.  Thus, Canadian cities occupy a middle ground between the more car-oriented United States and the less car-oriented cities of Western Europe.

There are many possible explanations for this state of affairs- some having little to do with land use policy .  For example Canada's lower crime rates and higher gas prices make cities more desirable, while the nation's enormous size ensures that there is more room for suburban expansion than in Europe. 

I note, however, that in Canada, as in the United States, some government policies favor sprawl.  Canadian government at all levels spends more than four times as much on highways as on transit, thus opening up suburbs for development. 

And Canadian cities and suburbs, like their American counterparts, artificially limit density through anti-density, single-use zoning and minimum parking requirements.  Low density limits the number of people who can walk to jobs, shops or transit stops, thus making development more car-oriented.

*On the other hand, Canadian pro-sprawl policies are often less extreme than those of American cities.  For example, "big house zones" in the Toronto suburbs of Burlington and Mississauga are zoned for half-acre or one-acre lots, while in Atlanta even the center city government zones certain neighborhoods for two-acre lots.

Moreover, some American suburbs are much more aggressive than Toronto suburbs in discouraging medium- and high-density development even in their relatively compact areas. For example, Alpharetta, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta) limits density in single-family zones to just over four houses an acre, and limits density in multifamily zones to ten houses per acre - lower than single-family housing zones in some Toronto suburbs!  Moreover, Toronto suburbs often have high-rise zones near commuter trains, while American suburbs often forbid any apartments above three or four stories.

In sum, Canadian government promotes sprawl less aggressively than the United States- and gets less of it as a result.


Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Canada vs US subdivision policies?


Being, as I am, a Canadian-born planner living in the US, I think you've gotten ahold of a really interesting topic. Canada's position as a middle point, in terms of land use and transportation policies, between the US and Western Europe promises to be illuminating.

In addition to the factors that you listed explaining Canada's slightly lesser degree of sprawl vis-a-vis the US, have you looked into subdivision policy instruments? The reason that I ask is that I was shocked to learn recently that in Alberta, the provincial government subdivided land for new suburban developments until World War II. Obviously such a state of affairs is highly divergent from the U.S. experience. I haven't lived in Canada since I finished high school (longer ago than I care to think about), and so I'm actually a lot more knowledgeable at this point about planning in the US than in Canada. But my guess is that there are stronger mechanisms in Canada that prevent the leapfrog pattern of development that you get at least in some parts of the US (I'm thinking of Atlanta as the quintessential exemplar).

In any event, I'm looking forward to learning more about what you uncover in your research. I always enjoy your posts.

Jake Wegmann
Ph. D student

Michael Lewyn's picture

So far not much on subdivisions

In my thesis I'm using Mississauga and Burlington as case studies- am surprised how little I'm finding in their codes on subdivisions. Some right of way regulations requiring 50- and 60-meter arterials, but nothing one way or the other about cul-de-sacs vs. grids and block length. Based on the actual form of these places, my guess is that they aren't regulated as explicitly as in many American suburbs, but if I'm missing something please let me know.

Please include land prices

Michael, please do include in your research, the role that land prices play in densification. There are numerous different possible mixes of factors. I am picking, on gut feeling, that where the region's fringe land prices are high (and I think this is the result of urban limits), even if large lots are not mandated, densification will occur at a lower rate than in a jurisdiction where fringe land prices are low (ideally, in synch with farmland values) and large lots are not mandated.

If you have not become acquainted with Alain Bertaud's studies on urban land markets and densities, I strongly advise that you do.

More On Land Prices

I can't understand why higher fringe land prices would get in the way of densification.

Intuitively, it seems to me that, if there are higher land prices throughout a region, including both the center and the fringe, then people are more likely to build at higher densities, because higher land prices are an incentive to consume less land. Eg, if fringe land prices are high and I am buying a suburban home on the fringe, I am likely to buy a home on a one-tenth-acre lot because I can't afford a larger lot.

Maybe you can summarize Alain Bertaud's reasoning about this, or give a link to a brief summary of his ideas. I am curious about this.

Charles Siegel

That's true in practice

as long as a new fringe is not created which may be Wodehouse's point. If a new suburban fringe is available which it typically has been in many places, higher land prices on the existing fringe will lead to exploration and development of this new fringe creating what will be a larger, overall less dense region. If there is no physcial, reasonable way to expand the urbanized area, it's like you said - density will increase.

Land Prices and Densification

That makes sense. To give American examples:

In the SF Bay Area, some cities and counties have adopted urban limit lines, pushing up land prices for fringe land in those cities and counties. As a result, people have moved to even lower density suburbs in the Central Valley. There is less densification, because these new fringes developed.

Oregon has a comprehensive state land-use law requiring urban limit lines throughout the state. Higher land prices encourage densification, because there is nowhere for new fringes to develop.

I believe Wodehouse is in England, and I believe (correct me if I am wrong) that England has comprehensive land use laws that prevent new fringes from developing. In this case, as in Oregon, higher land prices would encourage densification.

Charles Siegel

Higher land prices encourage densification

Exactly. Higher land prices encourage densification. This is why "natural" urban growth brings densification where the land is more expensive, rising in price due to locational convenience, by a factor of about 10 from the urban fringe to the inner suburbs.

The trouble is that when prices are forced up by another factor of 10, redevelopment gets stopped altogether because almost no-one can afford to buy the homes that would result from redevelopment, and there is only so much demand for the highest density of all. Normally, these highest density blocks of apartments would be clustered in the most expensive inner parts of the city. But when all land is 10 times the price it should be, you get swathes of inner suburb land that is too expensive for anything but apartment blocks, but only enough demand to fill a fraction of the higher-cost land space; then you get apartment blocks scattered among old-established suburbs with still-low densities and incumbent home owners who 1) resist redevelopment and 2) will not sell for less than 7 figures - because they know their land is "worth it".

The response of some jurisdictions to the effect you describe, of people escaping the high prices of the urban limited area and commuting very much further; has been to "encourage" limits and restrictions on development in those outlying jurisdictions too, perhaps in the context of reorganization of regional jurisdiction.

England is a basket case, way beyond even the effects I am describing here. They have had urban limits, unaffordable land, and housing bubbles (on a 14 year cycle) for decades already. The premium between urban zoned land and agricultural land is as high as 200. Newbuild rate is a fraction of that required for population increase and depreciation of (very) old housing stock. The average age of a first home buyer is 38 years, and the average home living space per person is lower than Japan.

There are multitudes of social consequences for these factors.

"Free" housing or subsidized housing for beneficiaries, is costing taxpayers considerably because the rent value of the land is so high. There are massive perverse incentives in addition to those usually realized, of taxation of income and welfare benefits; resulting from the massive fiscal difference between providing a home for yourself and being a beneficiary.

Parts of the USA are heading towards these outcomes; other parts are not.

Land values and urban growth

I have just posted a lengthier comment based on further reading of Colin Clark, HERE:


Land Prices and Density

Sorry for slow revisit to this thread. You are thinking along exactly the right lines, Charles. The fact that the land is more expensive does indeed lead to higher density development at and closer to the urban fringes, where the land is "cheapest".

But land goes up in price from there towards the center, and the rule of thumb is 10 times, between the fringe and the innermost suburbs; prices escalate exponentially from that point, so that at the very center they may be 100 times the fringe price - or more.

If the urban fringe land is already ten times the price of land outside the urban limit, that means that what a lower income household could have afforded, with the convenience of location in an inner suburb, is now their only ("cheapest") option, out on the urban fringe. The inner suburb land is now already 100 times more expensive than land outside the urban limit (instead of merely ten times in the absence of an urban limit) so all redevelopment is rendered unaffordable except for the creation of exclusive wealthy enclaves and condos.

This is the opposite to natural growth of a city, where the lowest densities occur at the fringes and the highest densities, as a result of redevelopment, closer to the center. It is a question of the land cost, the cost of the dwelling, and demand. Land driven up ten times or more in value above what it should be, ends up a far more significant cost component than the dwelling, even at the urban fringe.

I am hypothesizing that this will flow on to a wide range of consequences, all of which will need identifying. Studies of other factors that fail to control for this effect will give misleading conclusions.

Alain Bertaud's website is HERE:


It is a gold mine of information for the urban planner, I simply cannot understand why it is not better known.

I am still obtaining and reading Colin Clark's books, which are giving me insight after insight. He says in "Regional and Urban Location", (1982) that demand for dwellings with more living space is the most highly elastic at the lowest incomes. This might be self-evident, but it includes the recognition that lower income earners are the most deprived of their choice, and that correlations between low incomes and high density living is a misfortune as far as these people are concerned. He specifically says that urban renewal has merely denied low income earners the "cheapest option"; he was writing too early to identify urban limits having the same effect.


I forgot to mention that unless balanced development, mixed uses, or multinodal, occurs at the fringe, then average commutes will be longer under the model where natural densification is constrained and unnatural densification occurs closer to the urban limits.

Lead balloon mines.

It is a gold mine of information for the urban planner, I simply cannot understand why it is not better known.

There are plenty of economists wanting to move their work up the priority list, despite their r^2s and Ts being low. Why should one guy bubble up into the consciousness over someone else? There is only so much time in the day to contemplate a particular way of knowing that is sometimes marginally robust on a good day.



Michael Lewyn's picture

thinking about prices

Re Wodehouse's point about prices: interesting concept, though lots of difficulties with data. Leaving aside the obvious difficulties of which suburbs to measure and of finding average home prices, one other conceptual difficulty is the evolution of suburbs over time. If we were starting from nothing, it would be simple to look at today's density and today's prices. But how do you evaluate the matter when discussing a suburb that was mostly built in the 1970s? Presumably, the density of the suburb would reflect the housing values of 1970 rather than those of today. And how do you evaluate a suburb that was gradually built out over decades?

At any rate, prices are a fascinating issue in themselves: even though I'm not sure how they fit into the particular paper I'm working on today, I'd like at least do some blogging.

Natural redevelopment patterns

I have said a few things that apply here, in my responses to Charles Siegel below (please refer).

A 1970's suburb will be subject to demand for redevelopment, as the urban fringe pushes out and land prices rise on the basis of convenience of location. When all the urban land remains relatively cheap because of low cost fringe land (under an unrestricted model) this redevelopment will occur; if all the urban land is 10 times too expensive, or more, a lot of redevelopment will not occur.

A critical point to realize, is that the natural density profile of a city (low at the fringe, high at the center) has not depended on planning, other than as far as planning has allowed it rather than opposed it. There are things like neighbourhood mandates for low density, but nothing is as powerful for overcoming these in the long term, as the free market. Unnatural density profiles are the result of things other than demand and the free market.

Predictive power and Wealth

Michael, this is a fascinating subject: comparisons, when done right, bring new insights (and questions) on the subject. We did a similar one on Canadian cities and there is a (free)report and a sequel:

Comparative tabulations are great, but what is often lacking is predictive interpretation. In other words, if a PhD in planning was written in the 70s or earlier, could it have predicted the amount of sprawl (or lack of) in these cities? Hindsight is good but less useful than predictive power.

For example, few analyses seem to take into account wealth and relative buying power. US citizens, on average, have always been wealthier than Canadians. Cars and their fuel have been relatively cheaper south of the border. The result: US citizens on average own more land, more house space, more cars and travel more. Regulations that enable such ownership are not invented by a benevolent (or malevolent) bureaucrat; they simply reflect what people want to and can do with their wealth – live out their vision of the “good life”. Regulations are a cultural artefact, an epiphenomenon, not a prime cause.

Going across to the continent, European average incomes have been, and still are, considerably below US and Canadian. A car, in some EU countries, costs one to two annual salaries! Can that predict the amount of sprawl?
What is true about differences between nations may also be true of differences between cities, poor cities and wealthy cities.
These are just thoughts about where our analyses may take us when looking for causes.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Wealth and Sprawl don't necessarily go together

I looked at the table below:


And did find, admittedly, that US GNP per capita is higher than that of most European countries listed (except Norway, which I assume is because of oil wealth).

However, it does not appear that Canada is significantly wealthier than European countries. The chart lists Canada's GNP as just over $36K- slightly below the Netherlands, and pretty close to other European nations.

Furthermore, within the US the correlation between sprawl and regional income is positive only if you define sprawl fairly creatively. Here's a table listing household incomes by region:


Note that the regions at the bottom are small cities in Texas, New Mexico, Kentucky and Louisiana, places that we can reasonably assume are pretty car-oriented. The biggest cities not in the top 100 are Memphis, New Orleans, Birmingham, San Antonio, Buffalo, Tampa and Tulsa- generally places that I think are more car-oriented than not, with the possible exception of Buffalo.

On the other hand, let's look at the five richest: San Francisco, Washington, Anchorage, Minneapolis, Boston. Three of these five are among the half a dozen most transit-oriented regions, although they certainly have their share of sprawl.

The necessity of strong correlations

Very useful table.
I did some arithmetic using it to see how the numbers stack up. The column with the 2007 GDP is most revealing and shows (taking the US income as 100):
US 100; Canada 84; Austria 83; Denmark 81; Sweden 80; Belgium 77; United Kingdom 76; Germany 74; France 71; Italy 65, and Spain 65.

Using these numbers, if we test the hypothesis of wealth influencing density (aka non-sprawl) the richest nation should be the least dense and it is – US - , and the least wealthy nation should considerably denser and it also is - Spain. (Barcelona, for one, is the densest city in Europe, a supreme example of urbanization (see Chris Kennedy’s of U of T recent study). However, a recent article in Planetizen reported sprawling trends in Madrid that raises the intrigue about the causes of it (other than wealth.)

Canada, at 84% of the US GDP holds to the test also, as the conclusion suggests: “In sum, Canadian cities have either grown or modestly declined. So if sprawl is defined as “migration from cities to suburbs”, Canada has experienced some sprawl but less than the United States”.

For at least the EU countries that have the same 85% or less relationship to the Canadian income (assumed 100), as Canada to the US, the hypothesis still holds. France, Italy and Spain are all denser than Canada.

Undoubtedly, many other factors (transportation means for example) also affect the outcome and the wealth correlation is most certainly not the single influence at work. In very complex systems , such as cities and living organisms, causal relations are hard to pin down. Not all smokers die of cancer or live short lives but “smoking can cause cancer” is an indisputable correlation even though the exact mechanism is still unknown. “Wealth can cause sprawl” is another potential strong correlation as yet to be proven. Given how few strong correlations we have at hand to explain urban density, it may be worth the try.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Cherry-picking the statistics

Mr. Grammenos notes:

"The column with the 2007 GDP is most revealing and shows (taking the US income as 100):
US 100; Canada 84; Austria 83; Denmark 81; Sweden 80; Belgium 77; United Kingdom 76; Germany 74; France 71; Italy 65, and Spain 65.

Using these numbers, if we test the hypothesis of wealth influencing density (aka non-sprawl) the richest nation should be the least dense and it is – US - , and the least wealthy nation should considerably denser and it also is - Spain. ....
For at least the EU countries that have the same 85% or less relationship to the Canadian income (assumed 100), as Canada to the US, the hypothesis still holds. France, Italy and Spain are all denser than Canada."

But the above analysis ignores the European nations wealthier than Canada (Netherlands, Norway) and the ones almost as wealth (Austria, Denmark and Sweden)- which make the alleged correlation not nearly as neat!

The fact of the matter is: some European countries are much less wealthy than Canada. But others are as wealthy or more so than Canada. So its not quite so simple.

It is never simple

"The fact of the matter is: some European countries are much less wealthy than Canada. But others are as wealthy or more so than Canada. So its not quite so simple".
No one would disagree with that statement. It is never simple.

Other and many factors are at play as with the example of "smoking can cause cancer" ; not true in every case but statistically valid. The exceptions to a potential rule generally trigger curiosity and more research for the other factors.

Returning to the Canadian context and using the same arithemtic for provincial incomes (Alberta = 100) from this table http://www40.statcan.ca/l01/cst01/famil108a-eng.htm
we get:
Alberta 100, Ontario 85, Saskatchewan 77, Manitoba 75, Quebec 75.
Of all the major cities in Canada, Calgary,AB holds the Sprawl title and Montreal is very dense by comparison. Montreal has the highest renter houselholds and Calgary the highest single detached proportion of houses.
It could very well be a coincidence, but assuming it is, simply narrows research.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Re Canada- look at metro areas not provincial statistics

If we are trying to calculate whether sprawling regions are more affluent than less sprawling regions, we don't want to look at provincewide statistics, since provinces include lots of rural areas, other metro areas, etc.

So here's the metro area (or CMA, in Canadian census lingo) average household income* (in Canadian dollars) combined with metro area "public transit market share":

Calgary 68/15
Ottawa 66/19
Toronto 64/22
Edmonton 63/9
Vancouver 55/16
Winnipeg 51/13
Montreal 47/21

The "sprawl outlier", Edmonton, is in the middle as far as income goes; so is the strongest outlier in the other direction (Toronto).

Conversely, the two poorest regions (Winnipeg and Montreal) tend to the edges of the sprawl spectrum - Winnipeg having the second lowest transit ridership, Montreal the second highest.

Of course, I realize I'm using pretty blunt instruments here- there's lots of ways to measure both regional income and sprawl.

*See http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/2006/dp-pd/prof/92-591/index.... to find this kind of data for both CMAs and cities. For commuting pattern data go to http://www12.statcan.ca/english/census06/analysis/pow/pdf/97-561-XIE2006...

Michael Lewyn's picture

American statistics for largest metros

Transit market share first (from 2004 Statistical Abstract), then average family income in thousands (from latest National Association of Home Builders spreadsheet)

NYC 25/64
Chicago 11/74
Boston 9/83
DC 9/100
Philly 9/75
SF 9/96
LA 5/62
Houston 3/63
Atl 4/71
Dallas 2/69
Det 2/57

The poorest metro area (Detroit) is the most car-dependent. Except for New York, the general tendency seems to be for wealth and transit use to positively correlate: The richest metros (DC, Boston and SF) are more transit-oriented than average.

The less affluent regions other than NY are the most car-dependent (though huge caveat here: they also tend to have more affordable housing ... but that's another argument entirely!)

Convincing Stats

The last set of stats from Canada and US cities, which I had not seen before, show convincingly that:
a) Sprawl may have little or nothing to do with wealth, as the Detroit case demonstrates
b) If there is a correlation, it is a negative one, more wealth less sprawl, as the DC, SF, Boston cases suggest.

In practical, actionable terms this means that increasing wealth could increase transit use and reduce car ownership and personal VMTs (altogether less car dependence). And if the chain of causality is acting in the opposite direction, which could not precluded a priori, increasing transit use may in fact raise the wealth of a city. This would be encouraging news for planners.
I look keenly forward to seeing how these explanatory propositions play out in the final thesis report, hopefully summarized in a Planetizen article.

Àn interesting subject

There are so many variables that must be taken into consideration when comparing sprawl in Canada vs. the US. In 2 of Canada's largest cities, Montreal & Vancouver sprawl is constrained by geography and to à lesser extent political boundaries. Montreal, and most of its older suburbs are located an Island in the St. Lawrence. Vancouver is constrained by water to the west, and steep mountains to the north. In both cities the US/Canada border is less than an hours drive to the south.

In the US the legacy of Slavery & Raciscm was à major contributing factor to the phenomenon of " White Flight", which occured at exactly the same time the US was building its' national interstate highway network.

Still there's much the US can learn about curbing sprawl from Canadian examples. Edmonton & Calgary for example seem as though they could be just as sprawling as Phoenix or Denver. But yet both Edmonton & Calgary have very popular light rail systems with impressive ridership figures.

Best of luck in your research.

Historical factors diverse as well as geographical

Colin Clark discusses the effect of racial prejudice and "white flight" on urban land values in "Regional and Urban Location", pointing out that urban "ghettoes" did indeed create local kinks and dips in natural land value progressions from the center to the edge of the urban area.

The cheap land always came first, and was then kept cheap over extremely long periods by the presence of the Ghetto. No ghetto ever started on higher cost land which was then dragged down in value. Colin Clark strongly condemned "urban renewal" policies that deprive low income earners of the "affordable" option. If he was alive today, he would condemn urban limits for doing the same thing.

Another brief curiosity; (we are talking about painful history here) he also pointed out that in the early stages of influx of African-Americans and Latinos into an area due to its affordability, prices could be driven up quite sharply initially before succumbing to the racial prejudice, white flight problem and dropping again. Colin Clark puts this down to African-Americans and Latinos frequently living at much higher numbers of people per room.

Another historical curiosity underlying demand for certain kinds of living and the way urban areas developed: the nuclear war scare of the 1950's.

Very interesting

I am from Montreal but now lives in Orlando. Never seen a place so car oriented before, its really annoying. Your article is very interesting for me, thanks for these great informations. May be I should go live in Europe.

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