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

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:

Michael Lewyn | @mlewyn | March 8, 2010, 11am PST
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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.



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