Densification in Toronto: The Changing Urban Form

Like many of the world’s largest cities (Note 1), public policy seeks to densify Toronto, which is already the densest urban area (the international term) or population center (the Canadian term) in North America. North (as used here, north of Mexico). An urban area is a continuously built-up urbanization and regularly lies within the core of a metropolitan area (in Canada, a census metropolitan area or CMA). In Toronto, the population center occupies 31% of the CMA’s land area, while the rest of the CMA — 69% of the land, mostly rural, is outside the population center.

Densification from 2016 to 2021

Toronto is getting denser, but perhaps not as much as the public might have thought. In the previous census (2016), the population center of Toronto had a density of 3,028 per square kilometer (7,843 per square mile). That’s 12% above Los Angeles, the second most dense urban area in North America (2010). Perhaps more surprisingly, Toronto’s population center is 48% denser than New York. New York may be everyone’s favorite density champ, but it’s the the least dense megalopolis of the world.

By 2021, the population center of Toronto had reached a density of 3,088 per square kilometer (7,997 per square mile), an increase of 2.0%.

Overall, the Toronto CMA added 274,000 residents, a gain of 4.6% over the 2016 population. The Toronto population center added 218,000 residents, an increase of 4.0%.

Where Densification Occurred

The table below summarizes the evolution of the population of the Toronto CMA by sector.

Densification of the urban core: The largest percentage increase occurred in central Toronto, in three federal electoral districts, which are defined for this article as the urban core (Note 2). The urban core added 46,000 residents, an increase of 14.0%. This is more than three times the population growth rate of the CMA.

The largest increase occurred in the Spadina-Fort York electoral district, with an increase of 17.9%. almost four times the increase in the CMA. Spadina-Fort York includes the Municipality of Toronto City Hall and has a population density of 6,485/16,800.

Toronto Center saw a 15.5% increase and has by far the highest population density among federal ridings in the CMA. At 20,531/53,175, Toronto Center is about as dense as the city of Paris, but about a quarter less dense than Manhattan in New York. But, Toronto Center covers a much smaller area, at 5.88 square kilometres. Manhattan is about 10 times larger (59 square kilometers) and Paris is about 18 times larger (105 square kilometers).

The third federal electoral district in the urban core, Toronto-St. Paul’s, gained 8.4% from 2016 to 2021.

However, the federal electoral districts that border the urban core (defined here as the “little crown”) have only modestly increased or even lost population over the past five years. These six boroughs recorded a net loss of 1,800 inhabitants and a decrease of 0.3%.

City of Toronto: Outside the Urban Core

Outside the urban core and the inner suburbs, the municipality of Toronto gained 19,000 residents, or 1.1%. This represents less than a quarter of the rate of increase of the CMA.

Population center outside the municipality of Toronto (the suburbs)

The third largest percentage gain was in the suburbs – the area between the city limits of Toronto and the outskirts of the population center. The suburbs added 155,000 residents, a 5.8% increase from 2016. The suburbs had an urban density of 2,380 per square kilometer or 6,164 per square mile.

This area includes Mississauga, Canada’s largest suburb, with a population of 718,000. Mississauga has seen substantial high-density development over the past decade (pictured above), but its population has grown only 0.6% since 20111, of which 0.5% loss between 2016 and 2021.

Metropolitan area outside the population center (suburbs)

Yet the big growth, like in American metropolitan areas, has been in suburbs and suburbs. The second largest percentage increase in population occurred Between the population center and the boundary of the CMA. Here, there was an increase of 56,000 inhabitants, an increase of 12.0% over the five years. The population density of this mainly rural sector was 136 per square kilometer (353 per square mile). Some lands are urban, such as the population centers of Milton and Orangeville.

Distribution of population growth

Suburbs and suburbs accounted for 77.1% of the CMA’s population growth between 2016 and 2021. The City of Toronto accounted for 22.9% of the CMA’s growth (Figure 1).

While the suburbs had the lowest share of growth, they attracted a fifth more than in the densifying urban core (56,000 versus 49,000).

In the 2021 census, the municipality of Toronto has fallen to less than half (49.5%) of the population center population and now has 45.1% of the CMA population.

Also, despite Toronto’s strong percentage growth in the urban core, it was small relative to the growth of the Toronto population center and the Toronto CMA. Overall, only 17% of the CMA’s population growth occurred in the urban core.

A difficult environment for densification

One of the main objectives of densification is to reduce automobile use by encouraging drivers to use public transit instead. Yet there has been little progress on this front, as automobile use and traffic congestion have increase.

Indeed, for most trips, whether in Toronto, New York or Paris, the automobile offers greater mobility. International research indicates that the average Toronto CMA resident can achieve 4.5 times more jobs by car than by public transit in 30 minutes (calculated from source). Thirty minutes is used as the standard for one-way journeys in a number of metropolitan areas.

In Toronto (and all major metropolitan areas in North America) are widely dispersed. Public transit can effectively serve concentrated jobs, primarily downtown (the central business district or CBD). Downtown Toronto’s employment density is estimated at 30,300 per square kilometer, more than 25 times that of the rest of the population centers (Figure 2). Only 19% of jobs in Toronto’s population center were downtown in 2016 (estimate based on Statistics Canada data). The other 81% of jobs were located outside of downtown and were much more accessible by car (Figure 3).

The concentration of public transit in the downtown core is exemplified by Toronto’s extensive commuter rail network. Metrolinx is the second largest in North America, behind the much larger New York. Almost all trips begin or end (96%) at downtown Union Station.

A new world?

The pandemic has brought about fundamental changes in urban areas.

Remote and hybrid working have reduced automobile use far more than could have been realistically expected by attracting drivers to public transport. In May 2022, the Labor Force Survey indicated that remote and hybrid work remained above 25%, more than double the pre-pandemic share of public transit trips, as reported in the 2016 census.

Meanwhile, public transit ridership has been decimated. In 2021, Metrolinx has at least 80% fewer riders than in 2019, ridership, while the Toronto Transit Commission, the operator of the subway, had seen its ridership drop by more than 60%. Additionally, substantial net out-migration from Toronto to more affordable markets around Ontario has been associated with rapidly deteriorating housing affordability.

This new world makes densification even more difficult.

Note 1: This article refers to the generic forms of city, metropolitan area and “population center”, which is Statistics Canada’s term for “urban area”).

Note 2: Canada’s Federal Electoral Districts provide an efficient way to obtain masked data in larger municipalities (such as the City of Toronto). Each federal electoral district elects one of the 338 members of the House of Commons of Canada. With a national population of 37.0 million in 2021, the average federal electoral district had approximately 109,000 residents.

Also see:

Suburbanizing Canada: The 2021 Census

Comparison of urban densities: Winnipeg and New York

Toronto consolidates highest density ranking in North America

Canada, US cities with largest population lost in CBDs


Wendell Cox is director of Demography, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute in Houston, a senior fellow at the Frontier Center for Public Policy in Winnipeg, and a member of the advisory board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He was a visiting professor at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris. His main interests are economics, the fight against poverty, demography, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Board, completing the term unexpired of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (1999-2002). He is the author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life and Toward More Prosperous Cities: A Framing Essay on Urban Areas, Transport, Planning and the Dimensions of Sustainability.

Photo: Absolute World Condominiums (56 and 50 floors), in Mississauga, Canada’s largest suburb by Sarbjit Bahga via Wikimedia, CC 4.0 license.

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