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When the pandemic first took hold and everyone began wondering what it would mean for the future, one of the most common worries was that it would herald the decline of modern cities. Downtowns emptied out as the first lockdowns came into force. Once-teeming office towers fell silent as people learned to work from home. Transit systems saw ridership plummet.

Some people sold their city homes and moved to the country. Why not, when real estate was cheaper and they could telecommute for work?

Those worries may have been overdone. In fact, the problem we’ll find when we come out of this may be quite the opposite: not managing the decline of Canadian cities but coping with their explosive growth.

What the 2021 census tells us about Canada’s changing population

The new census numbers spell it out nicely. What Statistics Canada calls census metropolitan areas (CMAs) – municipalities with more than 100,000 residents – grew robustly between 2016 and 2021. Toronto’s CMA saw its population pass six million for the first time.

Almost three-quarters of Canadians now live in CMAs (73.7 per cent, up from 73.2 per cent five years before). The century-long exodus from the countryside to cities continues, a product of the shift from an agrarian to an industrial to a knowledge economy.

A second flood, this one from abroad, has hastened the surge. As Statscan notes, “Canada continues to urbanize as large urban centres benefit most from new arrivals to the country. From 2016 to 2019, Canada welcomed a record high number of immigrants and more than nine in 10 settled in CMAs.”

Many of the newcomers have settled in the suburbs, exurbs and edge cities surrounding big cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary. The fastest-growing city among Canada’s top 25 was Brampton, the dynamic immigrant magnet northwest of Toronto that only a few decades ago was nothing but little towns and farmers’ fields.

More remarkable than that has been the comeback of urban cores. The postwar era saw a flight from the central cities to the wide open spaces of suburbia. Now downtowns are positively teeming again. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken up residence in downtown condominiums and apartment towers.

As Statscan puts it, “Downtowns are growing fast, and more rapidly than before.” In this latest census period, their populations grew almost 11 per cent, compared with 6 per cent for urban centres as a whole. Toronto’s grew by 16 per cent. That is wonderful news. Every creature needs a healthy heart.

The onset of the pandemic slowed and, in some cities, even reversed downtown growth. Statscan says “the allure of downtown living may have lost some of its sheen with more people working from home and fewer opportunities to indulge in cultural or entertainment activities.”

But cities are stirring back to life as pandemic measures ease. The urban momentum of recent years revealed in the latest census is so strong that it seems likely to carry on once things open up and immigration levels build again.

Growth brings challenges, of course. Moving all those people. Housing them. Making sure there are enough parks, schools and community centres. “Rapid population growth in cities is increasing the need for infrastructure, transportation and services of all kinds – including front-line emergency services,” Statscan says. “Further urban spread also raises environmental concerns such as car-dependent cultures and encroachment on farmlands, wetlands and wildlife.”

Fortunately, after years of underinvestment, governments have been spending heavily on urban housing and transit. In Toronto, a big new transit project, the Eglinton Crosstown, is due to open soon. The regional GO system of trains and buses is expanding every year.

Just as important, attitudes about urban density are changing. A welcome new report on housing commissioned by Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government calls for cutting red tape, speeding approvals and reforming out-of-date zoning rules to allow for denser housing on underused land. That would help with Greater Toronto’s out-of-control house prices by increasing supply.

The report’s authors want to see Ontario build 1.5 million homes over 10 years. The underlying assumption is that cities will continue to boom. It seems like a good bet. Canadian cities have been on a roll. Even amid the current fog, their future looks bright.

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