Can Denser be Better?

The idea that dense urban communities are bad for well-being is a myth. As it turns out, having more neighbours may actually help you live better

Illustration of a city on a white background.


Watching COVID-19 devastate New York City, the most densely populated metropolitan centre in North America, made it easy to imagine that urban density is a problem. The soaring infection and mortality rates of early 2020 gave Canada’s urban residents reason to consider a switch to country life — or at least more space in the suburbs.

But with COVID-19 cases popping up everywhere, from metropolises to small towns, experts are reassuring city dwellers that they can safely stay put rather than create more sprawl. In fact, public health researchers from Johns Hopkins University have found that people living in denser communities are not experiencing higher infection rates than their spread out counterparts. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) is also increasingly recognizing that intensification, or creating denser communities, can play a positive role in addressing not only housing affordability but other challenges — such as access to services, health status, and climate change — that factor into where people choose to live. Here’s how.



What does it really cost us?
Commuting may have changed during the pandemic, but certain habits remain the same. According to Statistics Canada, 84 percent of commuters who used personal motor vehicles before the pandemic were still using that mode of transportation to go to work in June. Here’s what commuting looks like across the country.

Average car commute times for people living in urban centres*:






From leading-edge hospitals that tend to attract the best medical talent to specialized clinics for every kind of illness, health services can be superior in dense urban centres. “You simply can’t offer the same level of service in smaller centres; it is just not economically justifiable,” says Michel Tremblay, senior vice president of policy and innovation for CMHC. “You can’t have cancer treatment centres everywhere, for example. People in larger urban centres tend to have access to services, whether they are preventive in nature or at the treatment stage.” Beyond health facilities, everyday needs such as groceries, libraries, and community support services are not only more numerous and varied in a city, but also easier to get to by walking, cycling, or public transit. Steve Mennill, chief climate officer for CMHC, explains that when services are walkable, people prefer to go on foot, which is the basis for an inherently healthy, active approach to living. “When you have car-oriented neighbourhoods and suburbs, people develop more sedentary lifestyles,” he says.

The strong social connections forged in walkable communities can also act as a safety net in times of crisis. They create the conditions that allow community members to come together and ensure their most vulnerable have resources, as many have done during the COVID-19 lockdown. Mennill further underscores that accessible community services and social supports — which can be limited in smaller, more sprawling cities — are vital to the health and well-being of vulnerable communities and low- and moderate-income families. And ensuring that these communities can get to and use them is less challenging when they’re not far-flung. “Community services are much more available and easier to pro-vide in a denser setting,” he says.


Number of commuters driving an hour or more each way*:


Vancouver Metro:




There is a long-held North American belief that urban dwellers are less well than people in spread out communities, but this is simply not true. A Statistics Canada report notes that people living in rural areas have worse health out-comes — including higher incidences of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — than their urban counterparts due, in part, to limited access to services and lifestyle factors. According to Tremblay, the three provinces with the largest cities (Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia) actually have slightly higher life expectancy figures than other provinces.

Studies in the United States suggest urban density between 360 and 1,540 people per square kilometre leads to more walking. (In 2016, thirty-two Canadian urban areas had at least 360 people per square kilometre, and one had at least 1,160 people per square kilometre.)


Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions per year that come from personal-use cars and commercial-use cars and trucks

A less sedentary lifestyle decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, while increasing mental health and a sense of community belonging. Tremblay also points to the social benefit of inclusiveness, which is not so easily found in suburbs and exurbs. “If we favour a socially inclusive society, sprawl leads to more homogenous clusters than in denser areas, which is counter to this goal,” he says.


Canadians who report having “very stressful days”***


of people commuting 15 minutes or less


of people commuting 45 minutes or more

*Source: Statistics Canada “Results from the 2016 Census: Long commutes to work by car”
**Source: Prairie Climate Centre, “Where Do Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Come From?”
***Source: Statistic Canada. 2010 General Social Survey
The sticker shock of housing prices in downtown Vancouver, Toronto, and, increasingly, Montreal neighbourhoods is hard to ignore. But a 2018 CMHC study revealed that commuting costs often offset any savings gained by moving to more affordable homes within the Greater Toronto Area. So as suburban sprawl becomes a less and less affordable option for Canadians, where should we go? Easy — to dense urban neighbourhoods. Mennill says they don’t have to be “the stereotype of impoverished slums” but rather well-designed, not crowded, places where people of all economic abilities can make their homes. “All over Europe, there are lots of examples of dense cities that are not high-rise: Paris, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Vienna, and Amsterdam are all very dense, but the way they’ve been designed makes for a highly liveable environment,” he says.


When it comes to daily life’s carbon emissions, living in low-density suburbs can mean driving everywhere. “When you force everyone into cars for everything, you force them into high-carbon lifestyles whether they like it or not,” says Mennill. He adds that there are also carbon costs associated with the municipal services necessary to keep up with suburban sprawl: road maintenance, snow removal, garbage pickup, fire protection, policing, and schools. Low-density housing also requires more road infrastructure and generally has less efficient energy use than in multi-unit homes.

Mennill stresses, however, that no housing benefit should be thought of in isolation. “Good housing is not just affordable, or just healthy, or just climate-friendly, or just socially inclusive. It has to be all those things,” he says. “We should see good housing as a package, and density is one of the key ingredients to achieving all of these things simultaneously.”

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Association