Archived – From urban areas to population centres

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February 07, 2011


The term urban is widely used and one that people intuitively understand – a concentration of population at a high density. It is the opposite of rural where population is not concentrated but dispersed at a low density. This intuitive perspective readily identifies the extremes of what is really a continuum. What is not so intuitive is how to segment the continuum.

Statistics Canada has defined urban areas using the same methodology based on population size and density since the 1971 Census. An urban area was defined as having a population of at least 1,000 and a density of 400 or more people per square kilometre. All territory outside an urban area was defined as rural area. Together, urban and rural areas covered the entire nation.

This methodology established a simple urban-rural dichotomy for Canada. However, the approach was not without some challenges.

The challenges

The term urban is widely used and the interpretation of what is urban often depends on points of view, interests and applications.

Currently, all communities that meet the minimum population concentration and density requirements of the definition are labelled as urban areas. They include small centres with a population of 1,000, up to those of more than 1 million. This approach ignores the differences among these population centres by treating them as a single group. Given the widely accepted view that a more dynamic urban-rural continuum exists, the use of the term urban area as currently defined could lead to misinterpretations.

In addition, because of the broad interpretation of urban, Statistics Canada has not been using the term consistently when disseminating its data. In particular, the term urban is sometimes used when referring to a census metropolitan area or a census agglomeration. Such areas are groupings of municipalities and typically include a combination of both urban and rural areas.

Addressing the challenges

Statistics Canada is making two changes to address these challenges.

First, the term population centre will replace the term urban area. A population centre will be defined as an area with a population of at least 1,000 and a density of 400 or more people per square kilometre. All areas outside population centres will continue to be defined as rural area. This new terminology will be implemented consistently across the Agency.

Secondly, population centres will be divided into three groups based on the size of their population to reflect the existence of an urban-rural continuum:

  • small population centres, with a population of between 1,000 and 29,999;
  • medium population centres, with a population of between 30,000 and 99,999;
  • large urban population centres, consisting of a population of 100,000 and over.

While other classifications are possible, the intent of this set is to provide users with a basic starting point to better understand the dynamic landscape of Canada. The table below shows the distribution of the population in 2001 and 2006 using this classification.

Users of the former urban area concept will be able to continue with their longitudinal analysis using population centres.

These changes are meant to improve interpretation of Statistics Canada data and help users in the study of the Canadian urban-rural landscape and its issues.

Table 1
Distribution of population by size of population centre, 2001 and 2006 censuses
  Number of population centres Population
2001 2006 2001 2006 change in population 2001 to 2006
count % count %
Rural area ... ... 6,098,883 20.3 6,262,154 19.8 163,271
Small population centre (1,000 to 29,999) 836 812 3,949,780 13.2 3,843,931 12.2 -105,849
Medium population centre (30,000 to 99,999) 48 54 2,448,150 8.2 2,850,159 9.0 402,009
Large urban population centre (100,000 or greater) 29 29 17,510,281 58.4 18,656,653 59.0 1,146,372
Total 913 895 30,007,094 100.0 31,612,897 100.0 1,605,803
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