Contrary to Popular Perception, Business is Booming in the Burbs

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Ryan Berlin

There’s a growing perception that the role of Canadian suburbs as places in which to live, work and do all the other stuff in between is diminishing.

Using data from the most recent census and National Household Survey (NHS), we thought it would be a good idea to see if this was the case here in this region. Specifically, we want to address this question: what role has each of the suburbs and the historical urban core played in accommodating employment and population growth here in the Lower Mainland?

Between 2001 and 2011, employment in the Lower Mainland grew by 15% through the addition of 135,501 jobs. Over the same period, the region’s population grew slightly faster—at 17%—with the Lower Mainland adding 365,555 new residents. Employment in the region’s core (the City of Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, the North Vancouvers, West Vancouver, Richmond and Greater Vancouver Electoral Area A, which is primarily UBC and the University Endowment Lands) grew slower than the region-wide average, at 10%. In comparison, employment in the suburbs (all other municipalities outside the core from Hope up to Lillooet) grew at two and a half times this pace (25%). Also of note is the fact that the burbs added more jobs in absolute terms than the core: 77,110 net new jobs versus 58,371 in the core. As a result of the faster growth outside the core, the burbs’ share of total employment rose to 39% from 35% over the past decade.

Other non-census, non-NHS data sources confirm this spatial pattern of growth. In particular, if we consider patterns of business formation throughout the region, we see that the 75% increase in the annual number of incorporations in the burbs since 2001 has outpaced the 56% increase in the core.

This trend toward faster growth in the region’s suburban communities was also evident in the pace of population change. The 21% growth in the region’s suburban population was almost twice the 12% growth in the core municipalities’ populations.

Considered in absolute terms, the 136,810 people added to the core over the past 10 years was well below the 228,745 new residents accommodated in the burbs.

Again, this pattern is confirmed through other data sources. Specifically, housing starts data between 2001 and 2011 show that 52% of the region’s starts were in the burbs.

This differential pattern of growth in the places of work and places of residence (and all of the places we travel to in between) has resulted in a dramatic diversification of commuting patterns over the years. Consider this: in 1971, the census reported that 22% of workers living and working in the Greater Vancouver Regional District commuted to a job in Vancouver, and a further 37% of those living in the city also worked within the city. While 6% of workers living in Vancouver commuted to jobs in one of the surrounding municipalities, 35% of the region’s workers commuted between non-Vancouver municipalities.

By 2011, Vancouver’s prominence as the region’s employment core had declined, for both Vancouverites and those in the rest of the region. The recent NHS data shows that the share of the region’s commuters travelling to Vancouver has dropped to 16%, with the proportion of commuters travelling between non-Vancouver municipalities increasing substantially, to 56%.

For the Lower Mainland at least, it seems that reports of the death of the suburbs have at best been greatly exaggerated and at worst been dead wrong. Indeed, much of the region’s growth in employment and population over the past decade has occurred outside of its historical urban core.

As we grapple with the questions of whether or not-and where-we should invest in transportation infrastructure, whether we should pursue economic development strategies locally or regionally, and where and how future additions to our regional population should be accommodated, it’s important to recognize the realities of our growing and changing region. Only then will we be in a position to make sound decisions that will benefit our communities and our economy in the coming years.

© 2013 Real Estate Weekly

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