Downtown Vancouver is Canada's most densely populated city centre: census

Feb 10 2022, 1:22 am

With a population density of 18,837 residents per sq km, downtown Vancouver is the densest city centre of all primary downtown areas in Canada’s census metropolitan areas (CMAs), according to newly released Statistics Canada data.

This is closely followed by downtown Toronto with 16,608 residents per sq km, which has been catching up to downtown Vancouver’s density with its surreal surge in residential developments since the 2000s.

Montreal’s downtown ranks third at 8,367 residents per sq km, while downtown Calgary’s downtown comes in at fourth with 7,778 per sq km.

By comparison, there are 28,668 residents per sq km in New York City’s densest borough of Manhattan, and about 130,000 residents per sq km live in Hong Kong’s Mongkok district.

Although the downtown Vancouver peninsula is Canada’s densest primary city centre, it is geographically the smallest of Canada’s five largest urban regions. Downtown Vancouver is about 5.7 sq km, smaller than the downtowns of Toronto at 16.6 sq km, Montreal at 13.2 sq km, Edmonton at 11.5 sq km, and Calgary at 6.0 sq km.

But downtown Vancouver’s rate of population growth is now falling behind the three other major downtowns.

Based on the latest census, downtown Vancouver’s population increased by 7.4% from 113,516 in 2016 to 121,932 in 2021, while downtown Montreal increased by 24.2% from 88,169 in 2016 to 109,509 in 2021, downtown Calgary increased by 21% from 38,663 in 2016 to 46,763 in 2021, and downtown Toronto increased by 16.1% from 237,698 in 2016 to 275,931 in 2021. With 55,387 residents in 2021, Edmonton’s downtown population is larger than that of Calgary, but this represents a five-year decline of 1.1%.

Downtown Vancouver’s slower growth is due in part to its landlocked location, which is increasingly built out. With that said, the Central Broadway corridor is increasingly considered an extension of downtown Vancouver, and when both areas are combined they are known as the Metro Core of the region. If Central Broadway were to be technically included as part of downtown Vancouver, the city centre’s land area would double to at least 11.5 sq km and its total residential population would grow by about 80,000 to over 200,000 residents. Over the next 30 years, Vancouver is looking to potentially add 50,000 residents to Central Broadway through the Broadway Plan.

Based on the latest census, on average, the annual population growth in the country’s three largest downtowns between 2016 and 2021 was 1.5% in Vancouver, 3.2% in Toronto, and 4.8% in Montreal. This average growth rate was largely driven by the pre-pandemic years.

As well, the two largest downtowns for residential population — Toronto and Vancouver — also outpaced their growth rates of their CMAs.

downtown vancouver skyline bc place stadium

Downtown Vancouver skyline with BC Place Stadium. (Shutterstock)

According to Statistics Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic ended the rapid population growth that occurred in Canada’s downtowns from 2016 to 2019. Between July 2020 and July 2021, the downtown populations dropped by 3.1% in Montreal and 2.9% in Vancouver.

Downtown Toronto was an outlier as it saw a 0.4% population growth over the same year-long period despite the pandemic’s effects, but statisticians have noted this could be due to some homebuyers who bought their home prior to the pandemic may only have taken possession in 2020 or 2021.

Over the year-long period ending in July 2021, the pace of population growth slowed in 38 of the 42 primary city centres in the CMAs across the country. In fact, the population declined in 30 of the 42 downtowns.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, 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,” reads the report by Statistics Canada, adding that other reasons for some of the exodus include more affordable housing and larger living spaces in suburban communities.

Compared to Vancouver’s city centre, the downtowns of Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal have a substantially higher proportion of commercial office space, as well as more retail uses including major indoor shopping centres and cultural attractions.

In recent years, Calgary has been attempting to shift more of its downtown from office to residential uses, given that there is no end in sight to its office space glut as the result of the collapse of Alberta’s oil industry. This includes not only new residential buildings, but initiatives to convert vacant office buildings into housing.

Vancouver Skyline

Downtown Vancouver. (Shutterstock)

According to CBRE’s office market report for the fourth quarter of 2021, there is 25 million sq ft of office space within downtown Vancouver and a relatively health office vacancy rate of 7.2%.

In contrast, downtown Calgary has 43.2 million sq ft of office space, with a vacancy rate of 33.2%, while downtown Toronto has 92.5 million sq ft of office space and a vacancy rate of 9.7%, and downtown Montreal has 45.5 million sq ft of office space and a vacancy rate of 13.7%.

Downtown Vancouver’s office capacity is more comparable to the 16 million sq ft of office space in downtown Edmonton, and the 18.9 million sq ft of office space in downtown Ottawa.

But with high office demand propelled by the growth of the local tech industry, downtown Vancouver punches above its weight with new office construction. Currently, there is 2.9 million sq ft of office space under construction in Vancouver’s city centre, in contrast with 7.5 million sq ft in downtown Toronto and 625,000 sq ft in downtown Montreal. There is zero new office construction in Calgary and Edmonton.

Statistics Canada’s latest census also shows the distant suburbs — defined as areas 30 minutes or more from the urban region’s primary downtown — grew at a faster pace than the urban fringe and suburbs closer to downtown. The population increases amongst the distant suburbs of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver were 9.4%, 7.0%, and 9.5%, respectively, which surpasses those of their CMA overall.

Within Metro Vancouver, the distant suburbs saw their fastest growth from 2016 to 2021, while in Toronto and Montreal, the pace of growth in distant suburbs was exceeded only by that of their downtowns.

fraser river richmond olympic oval

Richmond City Centre skyline and the Richmond Olympic Oval from the Fraser River. (Shutterstock)

The census also highlighted the varying availability of land for development in the large urban regions. The distant suburbs in Toronto and Vancouver’s CMAs had a population density of just under 500 people per sq km in May 2021, but in Montreal the figure was just over 300 people per sq km. The density was even lower in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa, where there were fewer than 50 residents per sq km in the distant suburbs.

As for the secondary downtowns within the urban regions, the largest is the Vancouver suburban city of Richmond, which saw its city centre grow by 15.5% from 66,463 in 2016 to 76,795 in 2021. The Toronto suburban city of Mississauga ranked second, with its downtown population increasing by 7.6% from 59,395 in 2016 to 63,880 in 2021.

Metro Vancouver’s suburban city centres account for three of Canada’s five largest secondary downtowns. This also includes the Metrotown Downtown of Burnaby, which grew by 8.1% from 39,279 in 2016 to 42,454 in 2021, as well as Surrey City Centre, which grew by 24% from 20,906 in 2016 to 38,75 in 2021.

Canada’s top 10 densest primary downtowns

  1. Vancouver: 18,837 residents per sq km
  2. Toronto: 16,608 residents per sq km
  3. Montreal: 8,367 residents per sq km
  4. Calgary: 7,778 residents per sq km
  5. Hamilton: 6,939 residents per sq km
  6. Ottawa: 6,847 residents per sq km
  7. Halifax: 6,237 residents per sq km
  8. Winnipeg: 6,102 residents per sq km
  9. Victoria: 5,709 residents per sq km
  10. Quebec City: 5,673 residents per sq km

Canada’s top 10 densest secondary downtowns

  1. Mississauga (Toronto): 8,948 residents per sq km
  2. Burnaby Metrotown (Vancouver): 7,907 residents per sq km
  3. Richmond (Vancouver): 6,905 residents per sq km
  4. Surrey (Vancouver): 5,377 residents per sq km
  5. Brampton (Toronto): 4,109 residents per sq km
  6. Longueuil (Montreal): 4,042 residents per sq km
  7. Burlington (Hamilton): 3,992 residents per sq km
  8. Laval (Montreal): 3,110 residents per sq km
  9. Richmond Hill (Toronto): 3,010 residents per sq km
  10. Cambridge (Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo): 2,809 residents per sq km

Canada’s top 10 largest primary downtowns for population

  1. Toronto: 275,931 (+16.1% over 2016-2021)
  2. Vancouver: 121,932 (+7.4% over 2016-2021)
  3. Montreal: 109,509 (+24.2% over 2016-2021)
  4. Ottawa: 67,169 (+7.1% over 2016-2021)
  5. Edmonton: 55,387 (-1.1% over 2016-2021)
  6. Hamilton: 53,236 (+9.7% over 2016-2021)
  7. Calgary: 46,763 (+21% over 2016-2021)
  8. Victoria: 46,309 (+12.3% over 2016-2021)
  9. Winnipeg: 44,061 (+3.9% over 2016-2021)
  10. Kitchener: 30,018 (+10.8% over 2016-2021)

Canada’s top 10 largest secondary downtowns for population

  1. Richmond (Vancouver): 76,795 (+15.5% over 2016-2021)
  2. Mississauga (Toronto): 63,880 (+7.6% over 2016-2021)
  3. Burnaby Metrotown (Vancouver): 42,454 (+8.1% over 2016-2021)
  4. Surrey (Vancouver): 38,375 (+24.2% over 2016-2021)
  5. Brampton (Toronto): 26,433 (+4.1% over 2016-2021)
  6. Oakville (Toronto): 15,433 (+5.6% over 2016-2021)
  7. Burlington (Hamilton): 15,310 (+2.0% over 2016-2021)
  8. Waterloo (Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo): 14,299 (+31.2% over 2016-2021)
  9. Longueuil (Montreal): 14,672 (+2.5% over 2016-2021)
  10. Markham (Toronto): 12,906 (+32.1% over 2016-2021)

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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