A Tale of Three Cities

Canada is a BIG country, with a lot of land. But it’s also an urban country, with most of its residents sticking to cities and towns (and suburbs) hovering just over the border from the United States. Over one third of Canadians live in Canada’s three big cities: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

This is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but especially so for a housing scholar, because of the differing routes to urbanization taken by these cities. Their housing stocks, and correspondingly the way people live, are all quite distinct from the rest of Canada, and also distinct from one another. Here I’m just going to look at housing stocks in terms of dwelling types – i.e., what kind of building do you live in? Of note, I’ll also be treating the term “city” as inclusive of “metropolitan areas” as a whole, which is what we’re generally talking about when we say “Canada’s three big cities” (this is important, of course, because the City of Vancouver as a municipality, for instance, contains less than a third of its metropolitan population).

So how do people live differently in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver from the rest of Canada and from one another? Let’s look at some data from Statistics Canada.


The big difference compared to the rest of Canada is that the big three cities have far fewer residents living in single-detached houses. Less than half of residents live in houses in each of our major metropolitan areas, compared to well over two-thirds in the rest of Canada.

But how has each metropolis managed its move away from the house?

Montreal has developed a LOT of low-rise apartment buildings (up to four storeys tall) all throughout its old urban core. The rest of its housing stock looks a lot like the rest of Canada. On the whole, its a charmingly low-rise metropolis.

Toronto has developed a LOT of high-rise apartment buildings (five stories and above), all throughout its old urban core. The rest of the its housing stock looks a lot like the rest of Canada. On the whole, its different mainly in its promotion of big, bustling high-rises.

Vancouver lies somewhere inbetween Montreal and Toronto, insofar as it’s filled its urban core(s) with a combination of low-rise (often older) and high-rise apartment buildings. But it’s also distinct from either city in renovating and re-developing such a large proportion of its stock of single-detached houses, so that a LOT of them contain two or more dwellings (e.g. basement suites).

To some extent, this last strategy speaks to Vancouver’s late-comer status. Montreal and Toronto are both relatively old cities, each having developed a sizable urban core before getting choked off by heavily protected single-family (RS) zoning in the twentieth century. Vancouver didn’t have that much of an older urban core to work with before most of its residential landscape became locked up by zoning. So many municipalities across Metro Vancouver have sneakily re-worked the definition of a “single-family residential” in their zoning by-laws to include a secondary suite – and often a laneway house too – enabling a very “gentle” form of baby-step densification. This is only part of the story of how the big three cities of Canada provide very different models for density and accommodating the move away from single-family detached modes of living.

A related question we can ask is how housing gets distributed across the life course and history. I’ve been playing around with this from a descriptive standpoint, using age-graded distribution of housing.


This is basically the same chart above, but played out across five-year age categories (except for under 15 and over 85, because these are the categories Stats Can gives me). It’s very clearly visible that outside of the Big Three Cities, single-detached houses are the statistical norm in Canada. They become a little less the norm during young adulthood (20-34) and for post-retirement ages (65+), but even so, more than half of the young and old alike live in houses.

For Montreal, the house is not normative – less than half of people in any age category live in a single-detached house. Nevertheless, Montreal demonstrates the same general age-related pattern of house acquisition as we see in the rest of Canada. Young adults and older adults are especially unlikely to live in a house, turning instead to the plentiful low-rise housing (in the case of the young) or newer high-rise housing (for the old).

What about Toronto and Vancouver? In Toronto, just over half of people live in houses across most age groups, but this figure drops sharply for young adults. Strikingly, there’s hardly any decline at all in this figure for older adults. In Vancouver, the figure overall is lower (<40% of people live in houses across most age groups). Nevertheless, the same age-related pattern pertains: though the young move out into alternatives, older age groups tend to hold onto living in single-family detached dwellings. What’s going on? In large part I suspect this is the result of generational shifts. Post-retirees in Toronto and Vancouver are probably transitioning out of single-detached houses like post-retirees elsewhere (Montreal and the rest of Canada) BUT they began their lives with much higher proportions living in single-detached houses than we see for later generations. (Perhaps you’ve heard that houses in Toronto and Vancouver used to be cheaper than they are now?) As a result, older residents in these cities continue to live in a much higher proportion of the detached housing stock than we’d otherwise expect. This also helps account for why many single-family residential neighbourhoods are shrinking!