As Canada’s most successful metropolitan areas continue to grow and attract new workers, they are pressured to grow either outward, creating new communities on the urban fringes, or upward, by accommodating more residents in existing urban areas and increasing population densities in cities. Fraser Institute released a report comparing population densities across 30 cities located in high-income countries, with a focus on Canadian cities. Titled “Room to Grow: Comparing Urban Density in Canada and Abroad,” author Josef Filipowicz shows that Canadian cities can afford to densify, and that higher population densities don’t need to come at the expense of living standards.

In comparison to the 30 cities studied, Canada’s largest cities have low population densities. With more than 80 percent of Canadians living in cities and towns, these urban areas have grown outward and upward, without affecting quality of living standards. These cities and towns grow outward by constructing new communities at their urban fringe, and upward by accommodating more residents in their already existing urban areas. When the outward growth of cities is faced with hindrances such as mountains, water bodies, or protected rural lands, growing cities must pursue upward growth. It is the latter growth strategy that usually results in higher population densities in cities.

Graph of density and quality of life.

Courtesy of Fraser Institute

To relate between density and quality of living, Filipowicz used the Mercer Quality of Living Ranking for 2017. However, he found it challenging to establish a meaningful relationship between density and Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking. Cities of similar density differ greatly in Mercer’s ranking, he explains. For example, Barcelona and Athens – both between 15,000 and 17,000 inhabitants per square kilometer – are 45 ranks apart on quality of living on Mercer’s ranking.

According to 2016 census, Vancouver is Canada’s most dense city, housing 5,493 residents per square kilometer. But since New York City houses 10,935 people per square kilometer, Paris 21,067 and London 11,054, Vancouver ranks as the 13th most dense city among the 30 others included in the study. With 4,916 people per square kilometer, Montreal ranked 16th followed by Toronto, which ranked 19th with 4,457.

In conclusion, Filipowicz calls on Canadian cities to examine how density might affect living standards as they grow, urging policy-makers to rethink their perceptions of urban living.

Most of the denser cities included in the city are significantly older than Canadian cities, many of them built before the car was the primary mode of transport, and have densified slowly over the years. While the study indicates that Canadian cities can afford to be more dense, urbanist Brent Toderian has argued that, while there is merit in urging Canadian cities to densify, qualitative factors, such as how old a city is and whether or not it has suburbs should be taken into consideration. Toderian stresses that the focus should remain how to improve the liveability, affordability, and equitability of cities.