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The real housing boom: The suburbs are where we want to be

The transformation of once-decrepit downtown neighbourhoods such as Vancouver's Yaletown, Toronto's Liberty Village and Montreal's Griffintown into bustling modern burgs of condo-dwelling millennials only looks like the defining urbanization trend of the past decade.

While condo cranes dotting city skylines get all the attention, the real story in most Canadian cities remains the unabated growth of the suburbs. The 'burbs continue to draw tens of thousands of new residents every year compared to the few thousand or so who move downtown.

Smart-growth gurus, most of whom seem to live downtown, don't like to talk much about suburbia's enduring lure because it sounds like we're stuck in the 1950s. The irony is that the suburbs are thriving, in part, because of the smart-growth policies that have made a house in the city out of reach for most. Most people, though, still move to the 'burbs by choice.

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Unless you pass a law or something, you cannot stop Canadians from aspiring to own a house, preferably a detached one, with a yard, a deck and a two-car driveway. No group of Canadians consider this a rite of citizenship more than those who come here from countries where such a lifestyle is reserved only for the rich. For most immigrants, the Canadian Dream inevitably involves all of the above, with publicly funded education and health care as an added bonus.

With immigration accounting for two-thirds (and rising) of Canada's population growth, it's no coincidence the suburbs are booming. New immigrants may initially settle downtown or in the inner suburbs, such as North York in Toronto or Montreal's Cartierville. But they will scrimp and save, and soon move to the outer suburbs to places such as Milton, Ont., or Laval, Que.

There, they can still own a little piece of paradise to raise kids, send them to good schools, let them wander on their bikes and have the relatives over for a backyard barbecue. It may or may not mean a longer commute – many already work in the 'burbs. But if so, it's worth it.

Between 2011 and 2016, according to an Environics Analytics analysis of census data, the population of Toronto's suburbs grew by 7.7 per cent while the city proper grew by 4.5 per cent. In Vancouver, suburban growth outpaced the increase in the city 7.1 per cent to 4.6 per cent. In Montreal, the suburbs grew 5.3 per cent; the city, 2.9 per cent.

The gap between suburban and city growth was even wider in all three metropolitan areas during the previous 2006-2011 census period. Toronto's suburbs grew by 12.7 per cent during that period, or at 2.8 times the rate of the city itself.

The raw numbers are even more revealing. More than two-thirds of Canadians already live in some form of suburb, according to research by Queen's University's David Gordon, who divides Canada's urban population between those who live in the "active core" of cities, in "transit suburbs" with ready access to public transport, and in the "auto suburbs" where the car rules.

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Between 2006 and 2011, the active cores added 89,000 souls; the transit suburbs grew by 70,000. The auto suburbs added 1.3 million people, with 380,000 more in suburban Toronto alone. "We're a suburban nation," says Prof. Gordon. "That trend is not soon going to change."

Luckily, Canada has not seen the kind of "sorting" of its population that has made the political divide between U.S. suburbs (largely white, middle-class and Republican) and inner cities (ethnically and socio-economically diverse and overwhelmingly Democratic) so unbridgeable. In Canada, it's in the suburbs where elections are the most competitive.

The reason, Prof. Gordon notes, is that our suburbs are far more diverse.

Though we have "ethnic enclaves" such as Brampton, Ont., and Surrey, B.C., they are neither exclusive nor cut off from the surrounding community or society. This helps explains why suburban politics is so fluid here.

"There's hope in Canada; we're not as dug in as the Americans on the blue-red thing," Prof. Gordon says. "It's possible for any centrist politician to craft a platform to win in the suburbs."

We still need to make suburbs more environmentally sustainable – Prof. Gordon favours toll roads and an end to free parking. But smart-growth policy-makers who think they can nudge people back to the city will be disappointed. Never try to get between a family and its barbecue.

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Video: Foreign buyer tax, expanded rent control in Ontario housing plan (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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