Urban Minds
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Urban Minds

Why are people moving out of the city further and further away?

Have you ever wondered why people seem to always be moving out of the city to the suburbs? People seem to be getting further away from city centres and away from each other. Starting in the summer of 2019, a record number of people in Toronto and other major cities moved to lower density areas like suburbs, small towns, and rural communities.

Many people want to live somewhere they can have bigger houses or more yard space. The ‘American Dream’ is about upward social mobility and for many, this translates to owning a home. Culturally owning a house was a representation of your achievement and financial success. This concept of owning a big home with a yard in a major city like Toronto is increasingly becoming unrealistic for many people due to a lack of housing and the extremely high prices for the homes available.

People have been moving to the suburbs for years because of the cost of housing in city centres making it impossible to own real estate and due to a desire for more space. However, the pandemic brought about many changes that have accelerated this mass exodus. An opportunity people have now is being able to live further away is the rise of working from home. Removing the need to be close to work has freed many people to consider where they want to live. People are looking outside of the cities to suburbs and rural areas that are developing into suburbs.

Google Map bird’s eye view photo of a suburban neighbourhood.

This development trend of building suburban communities and the development of rural spaces close to urban centres is called urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is the expansion of a city at the edges of communities, and it usually looks like residential neighbourhoods that require cars to get anywhere. This trend has been happening for years, ever since personal cars became popular. One of the results of this trend that you can observe in cities is how streets and public spaces are designed for vehicle use and around the size of a car. People moving to the suburbs is connected to urban sprawl because both are related to lower land costs, rising populations, policies that encourage large housing developments (Britannica, 2022). In Toronto, the building of lower-density neighbourhoods that require cars to get anywhere has been happening at an alarming rate for years. But why is this a bad thing you might wonder? Shouldn’t we just keep building houses until we have enough? There are many consequences to just letting the city keep spreading out endlessly. Urban sprawl is tricky and having housing for everyone is important. Luckily there are many ways we can mitigate the risk while still supporting our growing communities.

The risks of urban sprawl include the impact on the environment, lower quality of life, and feeling separated from communities. Environmental impact is directly tied to people living in car-dependent communities, with poor walkability, terrible access to public transit. People needing a car even for the most basic of trips like grocery shopping means pollution is higher from car fumes, higher gasoline consumption, more vehicle manufacturing, and more undeveloped ecosystems, like forests and farms, are turned into homes. People are also less healthy when they spend more time driving than walking.

Busy streetscape in urban centre

Studies have shown that people who live in walkable communities or the ‘15-minute city’, as they are often referred to, have higher qualities of life and lower impacts on the environment (Deloitte, 2022). The 15-minute city is a concept developed in 2016 by urbanist and Professor Carlos Moreno. The concept identifies six social functions that take place in your neighbourhood: living, working, commerce, healthcare, education, and entertainment that are designed so residents can access anything they need by walking for only 15 minutes (Moreno et. al, 2021). These amenity dense communities reduce unnecessary travel across cities, provide more community spaces, promote healthy lifestyles, increase resilience to health and climate shocks, and improve cities’ sustainability and liveability.

The housing crisis has emphasized the housing inequality with lower-income communities which, can be seen in less access to public transportation, fewer walkable communities, minimal green spaces, and no public spaces to gather.

Photo of urban sprawl in Ontario, fields beside a suburban community

While not ideal, people will inevitably move outside the city for many reasons. Instead of trying to block the expansion of the city, we should make sure these new spaces are better designed to support people and is sustainable for the environment. Some of the ways to mitigate the consequence of rapid expansion and unsustainable developments are by using policies to encourage sustainable development (Duncan & Khan, 2021). Putting planning policies in place on the municipal level can guide development in more sustainable ways to support a higher quality of life. One of the policies limiting Toronto’s urban sprawl is for the protection of the Green Belt around Toronto and the surrounding region that extends along Lake Ontario. This is a provincial policy to preserve forests and farmlands and geographically contain Toronto’s sprawl.

Another method to limit sprawl is by increasing the density in urban areas or by supporting the development from low-density areas to higher density. In Mississauga, they are promoting downtown-style walkability in the Downtown21 project in the Square One Mall area (Arif, 2017). They want to establish a true downtown for Mississauga, which is great because to evolve from a car-dependent suburb the area will work on increasing density, improving walkability, and increasing the amount of commercial, business, and service spaces within walking distance.

Reducing our city’s sprawl is important and will require many projects, changes, and policies to work towards the goal of a healthy city. I wonder what Toronto will look like in 10 years?


Britannica, The Information Architects of Encyclopaedia. “urban sprawl”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 Feb. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/facts/urban-sprawl. Accessed 4 February 2022.

Green planning of Public Spaces. Deloitte. (n.d.). Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/public-sector/articles/urban-future-with-a-purpose/green-planning-of-public-spaces.html

Moreno C, Allam Z, Chabaud D, Gall C, Pratlong F. Introducing the “15-Minute City”: Sustainability, Resilience and Place Identity in Future Post-Pandemic Cities. Smart Cities. 2021; 4(1):93–111. https://doi.org/10.3390/smartcities4010006

Duncan, C., & Khan, T. (2021, August 13). Pushing the boundaries: City planners need to consider how to make the suburbs sustainable, experts say. Capital Current. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://capitalcurrent.ca/pushing-the-boundaries-city-planners-need-to-consider-how-to-make-the-suburbs-sustainable-experts-say/

Arif, H. (2017). Sprawling Toronto — can it be fixed? Smart Cities Dive. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/ex/sustainablecitiescollective/sprawling-toronto/109066/

Catherine Caetano-Macdonell is an Outreach Coordinator of Urban Minds.




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