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Not the suburbs that are growing the fastest but cities and older suburbs with dense cores

February 21st, 2012 · 36 Comments

Another census blitz and another complete misinterpretation of the results by some.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen all kinds of headlines about how the suburbs are growing the fastest. In Metro Vancouver, Surrey is always listed as growing the fastest.

Conservatives, in particular, seem to delight in propagating this kind of interpretation, as though somehow it “proves” that those city slicker types are increasingly in the minority, that fancypants city planners are clueless with their boring rants about density and transit, and that the nation is pleasantly filling up with giant single-family suburbs where the car remains king while the decadent, immoral cities are emptying out.

Others, I suspect, are simply lazy or they didn’t take my brilliant Math for Journalists course.

But the unfortunate result is that people walk around with the mind movie in their heads that American-style suburbs are winning the day. I can’t speak for elsewhere in the country, but if you look at the numbers carefully, it’s simply not true here in Metro Vancouver.

First, what people don’t seem to get is that the central city is never going to grow quite as fast because, guess what people — it’s already filled up with buildings. Saying that the suburbs are growing is like saying people in their 20s and 30s have more kids than people in their 40s and 50s.

But there’s also another error people make locally, which is not factoring in the existing area of a municipality when looking at its growth. If you calculate how much growth there was in each of the region’s municipalities according to their area available, Surrey does not come out on top.

Surrey appears to be growing the fastest because it is the largest municipality by area in the region. At 122 square miles, it’s three times as big as Vancouver or Burnaby or Richmond.

So I took the numbers of people added in each municipality between the 2006 and 2011 census and divided by the number of square miles (sorry, folks, can’t get away from my 1970s schooling). This is how the rankings look when you compare on a per-square-mile basis.

New Westminster: 1,232 people added per square mile between 2006 and 2011 (7,427 people in 6.03 square miles).

North Vancouver City: 658

Surrey: 600

Burnaby: 584

Vancouver: 574

Port Moody: 546

Langley City: 368

Port Coquitlam: 324

Richmond: 320

White Rock: 292

Coquitlam: 252

Langley Township: 88

Maple Ridge: 69

Pitt Meadows: 64

Delta: 44

North Vancouver District: 30

West Vancouver: 17

The growth in places like New Westminster, Burnaby, North Vancouver City, and Vancouver is all the more astonishing when you consider that these are cities that are already exceptionally densely populated. They are adding as much or more people per square mile to their city cores, even though they have nothing like the easy-to-develop greenfield land that places like Surrey, Langley, Maple Ridge and elsewhere.

And it’s evident to anyone who drives through these areas that the population is going far and away into multi-family housing, either towers or lower-rise apartment buildings. So much for the reign of single-family suburbia.

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