Settlements in Canada

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Giuseppe Filoso, Environment Accounts and Statistics Division

In 1867, when Canada became a nation, its population was 3,463,000 persons, 4  occupying a country that at the time had a total land area of approximately 1,037,000 5  km2. During these early years the population settled in areas with access to water or rail transportation systems that supported economic and agricultural activity.

In 2006, with a total population of 31,612,897 persons, 6  Canadians had a total land area of 9,093,507 km2 in which many physical land cover types existed, one of these being settled areas.

Most of the settled areas or settlements in Canada are concentrated in areas around the border with the United States, such as the Québec–Windsor axis, or in pockets within provinces, such as the Calgary–Edmonton corridor. 7 

These settlements can be defined as tracts of land where humans have altered the physical environment by constructing residential, industrial, institutional and other installations or buildings. 8 

What you should know about settlements

The methodology used for delineating settlements was made possible through the analysis of data extracted from satellite imagery and the use of census data.

Through geo-statistical analysis of this information, a series of rules and thresholds were developed to delineate settlements by 'dissemination block.' The dissemination block is the smallest census geographic unit available and, in general terms, is an area equivalent to a city block bounded by intersecting streets. Census data on population, dwelling and employment were used. Settlement boundaries were produced for 2001 and 2006, the most recent census years, and provide a portrayal of the physical form of Canada's settlements.

A fundamental component of this research project was the creation of a database referred to as the Settlements Earth Observation Inventory (SEOI). The SEOI provides information based on the visual interpretation of an overlay of dissemination blocks with high-resolution satellite imagery. For example, in addition to census data for each block, the percentage of settled area is now available for many individual dissemination blocks. The SEOI was created for the following reasons: to understand the characteristics of settled blocks and the spatial structure of settlements, to assist in the development of thresholds and subsequent rules, and to conduct data quality and accuracy activities.

For more detailed information including the methodological research and SEOI, data processing and data accuracy activities, please refer to: Introducing a New Concept and Methodology for Delineating Settlement Boundaries: A Research Project on Canadian Settlements.

Settlements—Definition and importance

Research was undertaken to more accurately delineate where Canadians reside and work. As a result, Statistics Canada introduced the concept of settlements as a research project. Being a new concept, settlements are not comparable to any other Statistics Canada geography such as Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) or population centres.

By studying the size and form of settlements over time it is possible to better examine their impact on the physical environment, such as consumption of land and pollution emissions.

This article focuses on the characteristics of settlements in terms of land area and population, and the changes that have taken place between 2001 and 2006.

For the purpose of this article settlements were separated into five major size classes based on their population (Map 1):

  1. Micro (500 to less than 3,000)
  2. Small (3,000 to less than 10,000)
  3. Medium, (10,000 to less than 25,000)
  4. Large (25,000 to less than 100,000)
  5. Macro (greater than or equal to 100,000)

Settlements increasing in area

In 2006, 25,537,318 (80.8 %) of Canadians lived in cities, towns, villages and other settled areas that occupied approximately 16,019 km2 of land, less than 0.2% of the total Canadian land area (Chart 4, Tables 5 and 6). Between 2001 and 2006 the total settled area increased by 1,981 km2 (14.1%).

Most of this growth occurred in the macro settlement class. These large settlements were historically the first areas to be settled in Canada and as a result have a more mature settlement landscape.

Four provinces—Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia—accounted for 84% (1,658 km2) of the increase in settled area between 2001 and 2006. Growth in these provinces was primarily in the large and macro settlement classes.

In some cases, such as southern Ontario, settled area growth occurred on Class 1 and 2 agricultural land, some of Canada's most fertile and most productive (Map 2).

In other provinces, the growth in settled area varied within the classes. For example, provinces with high growth rates in smaller settlement classes between 2001 and 2006 include a 28.7% increase in the areas associated with the medium class of settlement in New Brunswick, a 31.6% increase associated with the micro class in Nova Scotia and a 20.3% increase in the medium class in Saskatchewan.

Macro settlements contribute most to population

Map 3 shows the population in settled areas by settlement class for each province. Between 2001 and 2006, the population living in settlements in Canada increased by 6.3% (1,504,218 persons) (Table 6).

Overall, 72% (18,386,258 persons) of the settlement population in 2006 resided in macro settlements (Chart 4).

The greater populations and amount of economic activity occurring in macro settlements lead to more demands on the physical environment around settlements. For some macro settlements this leads to higher population densities (intensification), while for others it leads to lower population densities (dispersion).

The four most populated provinces, Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta, accounted for 96.3% of the total increase (1,504,218) in settlement population between 2001 (24,033,100) and 2006 (25,537,318) (Table 6).

Nearly every province experienced a decline in population between 2001 and 2006 for certain classes. Most notably, the micro and small settlement classes in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario and Alberta experienced a decrease in population. Alberta had the greatest decline in the small settlement class (-14.3 %). Saskatchewan, on the other hand, saw an increase of 10,304 persons in its micro and small settlement classes. This was offset by a decline in the medium and large settlement classes. These shifts in the population of individual size classes are the result of two different situations: settlements where the population changed between 2001 and 2006 but that remained in the same size class and settlements where the change in population actually moved them to a different class. Table 4 shows the number of settlements associated with each group by size class for Canada.

Over time, as population within settlement areas changes, so will their area and form. This will lead to impacts on the physical environment of which they are part.

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