The most recent census data tells us that, more than ever, Canadians are an urban people. By 2011, nearly seven in 10 Canadians were living in a metropolitan area.

But on closer examination, the census shows that it's the suburbs that are on fire — not the downtown cores that many equate with city living.

The numbers speak for themselves. Overall, Canada's population grew by 5.9 per cent between 2006 and 2011. In metropolitan areas — which contain both city centres and their suburbs — the population grew 7.4 per cent.

Within those metropolitan areas, however, a consistent pattern emerges across the country.

"What you're seeing is regional cities. The scope is much larger than the metropolitans we had into the 70s." —Rob Fiedler, York University researcher, PhD student

City centres grew by just 5.3 per cent — less than the national average. But peripheral areas grew 8.7 per cent over the five years, according to census data calculations provided to The Canadian Press by Statistics Canada.

Now, there are 13.2 million people living in suburbs, almost as many as the 13.7 million living in downtown cores. And it's not just around Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The pattern of rapid growth on the periphery holds for metropolitan areas in every part of the country.

"What you're seeing is regional cities. The scope is much larger than the metropolitans we had into the 70s," said Rob Fiedler, a researcher and PhD student at York University in Toronto.   The first tranche of 2011 census data, released in February, showed that the fastest growing areas of the country are all suburbs.

Milton, Ont. sees biggest boost

Milton, outside Toronto, wins first prize with 56.5 per cent growth between 2006 and 2011. The same bedroom community topped the charts in the previous census too — a decade of booming expansion that has turned a quiet town into a bulldozer mecca.   In second place is Martensville, just outside of Saskatoon, registering a 55 per cent expansion.  

Quick facts

Findings in the 2011 census show suburbs are where it's at in Canada. Here are some key facts:

  • Population growth in Canada, 2006-2011: 5.9 per cent.
  • Population growth in census metropolitan areas, 2006-2011: 6.9 per cent.
  • Population growth in city centres: 5.3 per cent.
  • Population growth in peripheral municipalities within metropolitan areas (suburbs): 8.7 per cent.
  • Population in city centres in 2011: 13, 682,144.
  • Population in peripheral municipalities: 13,213,599.

Source: Statistics Canada

In third is Whitchurch-Stouffville, near Toronto. Fourth place is Sainte-Brigitte-de-Laval, a pretty riverside community near Quebec City.

Calgary's Chestermere, Airdrie and Okotoks also make the top 10, as do Edmonton's Beaumont and Leduc.   The 2011 census information released so far has focused on population and dwellings. Information on age, income, gender, language and so on have not yet been released.  

But city planners know a few things about their suburbanites. For starters, they are not the aging population that characterizes the country as a whole. They are young families — often with many children, often with a yearning to live in urban areas that are just a bit too expensive for them right now.  

And they are full of demographic surprises.

In Martensville, where families have been moving to take advantage of the potash boom and jobs in nearby Saskatoon, the growing pains lurked in the tax base.  

As the town size exploded, local officials added the necessary infrastructure, services and schools. But the property tax base didn't keep up with costs, mainly because all the development was residential and not commercial.  

"There's a misconception that residential growth makes you rich," says city manager Scott Blevins.  

Officials are now encouraging commercial development so that property taxes can stay competitive. And they're consulting actively with officials in Airdrie, Alta., where the population in the Calgary suburb has been soaring for years.

Suburbs struggling to keep up with growth 

In Milton, officials eyed the number of houses springing up in new developments.

They built schools accordingly. But almost as soon as the schools opened, they filled to overflowing and portables had to be set up.  

That's because city planners had not realized that many of the new houses would be occupied by more than one nuclear family each, said Ted Hildebrandt, director of social planning for Community Development Halton.  

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The residents were from countries around the world, looking for an affordable place to live and let their children play. They often brought their relatives, or shared space with a second family.  

Planners "hadn't anticipated those kind of arrangements," Hildebrandt said.  

Indeed, the multitude of children is a defining feature for many suburbs, says University of Alberta professor Rob Shields.   Job prospects lure families to the area; and the prospect of backyards, affordable homes and safe streets lure them into the suburbs.

But the services in the suburbs rarely keep up with the growth.   

"Suburbs are where children are; and that is creating a kind of exponential growth. That's where services for children are the weakest," Shields says.

Suburbs are especially attractive to families who are moving from far away, from either another region of the country, or another country altogether, Shields added.

That's because "suburbia is where you can buy a house pretty much off the shelf."  

The houses are usually quite new, don't require repairs and may even carry a warranty.  

"Suburbs are where children are; and that is creating a kind of exponential growth. That's where services for children are the weakest."— Rob Shieldsn University of Alberta professor

But because infrastructure and services often lag behind residential growth, suburbanites find themselves spending much of their free time in their cars, ferrying their children to school or activities, or getting to and from work, he said.  

"Our car in Alberta is so important, we don't loan it to visitors," Shields quipped. "It's not economically sustainable and it's not environmentally sustainable."  

Public transit can only be built for communities with high density, and often suburbs don't qualify, he added. Or, in the case of mature suburbs such as in the areas around Toronto and Vancouver, public transit only takes people to the downtown core. Meanwhile, some of the suburbs have become economic and employment centres in their own right.  

But just because suburbs now rival city cores in population doesn't mean their reputation has also undergone a revolution.   Both Shields and Fiedler say their research shows many suburbanites still revere city life, and often aim to move downtown eventually.  

"They're just postponing it," Shields says. "People will get back to it, or drive to it."