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About the Atlas of Suburbanisms

Markus Moos & Anna Kramer
School of Planning, University of Waterloo


Welcome to the Atlas of Suburbanisms

Welcome to the Atlas of Suburbanisms (click for video)

It is well known that Canada is an urban nation. Most people now live in cities. But most growth is occurring in the suburbs of large metropolitan areas and in nearby towns and cities. Yet academic research has often focused on our central cities. Better understanding of suburbs as places, and suburbanization as a process, have less frequently been explicit aims of research.

The research of the suburbs that is conducted is all too commonly broad-brush, looking from the seemingly dense and diverse inner city outward to supposedly low-density, uniform suburbs

But what if we mapped characteristics commonly believed to be telling of suburbs just to see where they actually occur? What if we went to the suburbs, figuratively and literately, and conducted research as if looking from one suburb to the other, or as if looking from a suburb toward the central city? The likely result is an understanding of suburbanism, and our cities more generally, that is richer and more diverse; an understanding that does not take for granted the political or historic development of cities as drawing concrete lines between what we believe is the suburban and the urban.

The Atlas of Suburbanisms aims to provide information that can help us move toward such an understanding. The information contained here is inherently ‘incomplete’ in that it relies heavily on one data source, particularly the Statistics Canada census, and quantitative methods. But it provides a starting point for helping us think about suburbs in new ways. It provides analysis and graphics that reveal socio-economic and built form characteristics for metropolitan areas as a whole as well as in relation to traditional measures of suburbanism, such as distance from the central city. It allows us to see characteristics of places in the context of metropolitan wide trends.

Looking toward the central city, Vancouver B.C.

Looking toward the central city, Vancouver B.C.

We invite you to consult the maps, tables, analysis and links contained in our Atlas.

The resources will keep growing as we continue our research. Hopefully the Atlas will provide useful information that you can use in your own research or teaching, or simply to expand your own understanding of our cities. You are free to use the information on these pages for non-commercial purposes only—we are asking you to adhere to standard practices of citation when using any content from the Atlas  (Moos, M & Kramer, A (2012) Atlas of Suburbanisms. http://env-blogs.uwaterloo.ca/atlas/). When citing individual postings, data, maps/figures or linked content, please ensure to provide attribution to the appropriate authors/creators/owners of the work. Most of the data analyzed to create Atlas content come from the Statistics Canada census. Links to other blogs, videos and websites are included in the Atlas as a means of creating a resource on Canadian suburbanism. We are not responsible for linked content as sites do change.

The Atlas project is led by Markus Moos at the University of Waterloo. It is an output from the Global Suburbanisms research project: A SSHRC funded Major Collaborative Research Initiative, led by Roger Keil at the City Institute, York University. Foundational research for this project consists of a collaborative socio-spatial analysis by Pierre Filion (University of Waterloo), Richard Harris (McMaster University), Ute Lehrer (York University), Pablo Mendez (University of British Columbia), Markus Moos (University of Waterloo), Alan Walks (University of Toronto) and Elvin Wyly (University of British Columbia). A large share of the maps, analysis, graphics and web design currently included in the Atlas were created by our research assistant Anna Kramer (University of Waterloo). Michael Seasons (University of Waterloo) also played a key role in finalizing the web design of the Atlas. The works of students Liam McGuire (University of British Columbia) and Robert Walter-Joseph (University of Waterloo) have also informed the analysis and content of the Atlas in important ways.

Atlas Objective

The objective of the Atlas of Suburbanisms is to make publicly available research and data analysis of Canada’s changing cities with an explicit focus on suburbanization. The Atlas will serve as a portal to create dialogue and share data analysis of suburbanization in Canada. The Atlas will also be a repository of socio-spatial analysis that provides an empirical account of the diversity of Canadian suburbanisms using Statistics Canada census data. The project includes quantitative and conceptual research on processes shaping the changing built form, land uses and demography of Canadian cities at multiple scales. The Atlas will be of interest to researchers, policy-makers, educators and the general public.

What is suburban? And what are its ‘isms’?

An Atlas of Suburbanisms ought to begin with an unambiguous definition of what is meant by suburban. After all, we have often been told that one cannot analyze something that is not concretely defined. Or, can we? While we often view the suburbs as a large geographic area surrounding our central cities, any attempt to create an exact definition of the suburban is actually on somewhat shaky grounds. There are no natural features delineating the urban from the sub-urban; and anyone who has ever spent time in suburbs knows that they come in diverse forms—think of the many high-rise apartments dotting the suburban municipalities of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver that are often believed to be dominated only by single-family housing.

Urban or suburban? High-rise condominium towers in New Westminster about 20 km from downtown Vancouver

Urban or suburban? High-rise condominium towers in New Westminster about 20 km from downtown Vancouver Source: Markus Moos

What is the issue then in trying to define the suburbs concretely? Well, defining the suburban as a concrete, geographic entity—a place we can draw on a map with exact boundaries—means that we only understand suburbs as places—and suburbanization as the process that creates them—in opposition to the central city, the urban. It means that all the differences that exist within suburbs are ‘averaged’ out. We cannot tell whether some places in the suburbs actually have characteristics that are much more urban in some ways, say for instance high-density housing, centralized near transit. Nor can we tell whether there are places in the central city that remind us of the characteristics we often ascribe to suburbs—the expensive neighbourhoods consisting primarily of single-family housing found near the downtowns of our major cities come to mind here. The suburbs become only defined as ‘not urban’, as less dense, as less diverse and often as more automobile intensive than the urban.

How are we to talk about the suburbs without actually knowing ‘where they are’?

The MCRI on Global Suburbanisms, under the leadership of Roger Keil, has encouraged us to move away from thinking of suburbs as particular places, and instead thinking of suburbanisms as particular ways of living. This opens up the possibility of unraveling new kinds of knowledge about how our cities and society are changing. Alan Walks has recently articulated how we can turn to French theorist Henri Lefebvre, who theorized what constitutes urbanism, to help us define suburbanism along six continuums. The use of continuums essentially involves thinking about how people’s ways of living are shaped by (1) the distance from the central city, (2) the symbolic distance from positions of power, (3) the diversity of people and households nearby, (4) the colocation of different land uses and social, economic, cultural and political activities, (5) the reliance on automobiles, and (6) the degree to which spaces and activities are public versus domestic.

As an analytical tool, these continuums permit us to concurrently characterize people, or places, as ‘more’ or ‘less’ suburban for different reasons. For example, a new condominium development downtown where most people still end up driving to work can be, for different reasons, both urban and suburban at the same time. Suburbanization then as a process is one where places become less central, less diverse, less public and more automobile oriented. While we are currently working on measuring how places in Canadian cities fit into these different continuums, the intent of the Atlas is not to provide some sort of comprehensive account of all suburbanisms.

The idea is to unpack the traditional definition of suburbs as a singular entity by making available maps and data of the changing built form and socio-economic characteristics of Canadian cities

So, where are the suburbs?

Suburban ways of living? Fort McMurray, AB

Suburban ways of living? Fort McMurray, AB Source: Elvin Wyly

Anna Kramer (University of Waterloo) has creatively mapped out Statistics Canada census variables for our three largest metropolitan areas below. The maps allow us to see how the spatial definition of what we might think of as being suburban changes depending on the variable used. Our group of researchers are currently working on analyzing the different geographies of suburbanisms and their changing internal characteristics in various ways. But the maps themselves are an interesting, and powerful, first look at the spatial dimensions of suburbanisms as ways of living. In these maps, suburbanisms are defined by the characteristics of the housing stock, commute patterns and tenure.

The variables were selected to reflect the common assumption that suburban ways of living often take place in the context of single-family housing, homeownership and automobile oriented commute patterns. The maps can tell us ‘where’ people are living in ways that we popularly think of as being suburban.




How many drive to work, live in a single-detached house, and own their home?

Metropolitan Averages




DENSITY (persons / square km)
















Source: Anna Kramer. Calculated using Statistics Canada census data (2006).

Our spatial analysis categorizes the metropolitan areas into several categories based on whether an area—analyzed at Statistics Canada’s dissemination area level—exhibits below or above metropolitan average values in terms of the percentage of workers driving to work, percentage residing in single-family dwellings or percentage owning their home.

Montréal: Percentage of residents who drive to work, live in single-detached housing, and own their homes

Montréal: Percentage of residents who drive to work, live in single-detached housing, and own their homes

Toronto: Percentage of residents who drive to work, live in single-detached housing, and own their homes

Toronto: Percentage of residents who drive to work, live in single-detached housing, and own their homes

Vancouver: Percentage of residents who drive to work, live in single-detached housing, and own their homes

Vancouver: Percentage of residents who drive to work, live in single-detached housing, and own their homes

The maps point to the inherent fuzziness of the spatial boundaries of different aspects of these three specific definitions of suburbanisms, and their combinations. The analysis also evidently points to the fact that suburban ways of living as defined by single-family dwellings, home ownership and automobile commuting are to some extent more prevalent in areas at some distance from the downtown in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. But in all three metropolitan areas there are pockets of suburbanisms in central areas and pockets of urbanism in outlying areas. The latter is especially visible in Vancouver where planning policy has emphasized concentrated development in town centers and near the SkyTrain, a light-rail transit system.

The task now is to add more layers to these mappings of what constitutes suburban ways of living, and explore the internal characteristics of the resulting definitions. We invite you to return to the Atlas in the coming months and year as we continue to update our progress on this research.

To follow updates on the project, follow Markus Moos on Twitter:

School of Planning | University of Waterloo

Faculty of Environment | University of Waterloo

This research was supported by SSHRC through funding from the MCRI Global suburbansims: governance, land, and infrastructure in the 21st century (2010-2017)