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Why live in Milton, Ontario?

Milton, Ontario is Canada's fastest growing city, followed closely by Martensville, Saskatchewan, followed by Whitchurch Stouffville, Ontario. If you do not live in any of those places, you may never have had occasion to set foot in them and perhaps you never will. Apparently, though, more and more people will live in places just like them - chances are.

The ranking of the fastest growing areas in Canada comes from the first release of information from the 2011 Census of Population. The data, for the period from 2006 through to 2011, shows some clear trends. Growing quickly are areas outside of the cities (more on those how far out in a minute) and growing a lot less quickly are the cities themselves. Milton, which is about 56 kilometres away from downtown Toronto add a staggering 55 percent to its population over the five year period. Toronto itself grew by just 4.5 percent.

Places like Milton and Martensville and Whitchurch-Stouffville are at best suburbs, or more likely what are sometimes called 'exurbs.' There is probably a more precise definition, but basically an exurb is a suburb that is even further away from the nearest centre.

If it is the far suburbs/exurbs that are growing, it raises some interesting questions. Do these areas need more political representation? Do they need more services in general, whether public or private? Are there big business opportunities for those who want to pursue them?

Well, it really depends on the trend to growth in the suburbs/exurbs is the story of the past or the story of things to come - and it isn't exactly clear which it is. For one thing, it depends on just why these areas are growing as quickly as they are.

Here are three alternate explanations as to why people are choosing places like Milton:

  1. They are commuting to Toronto which takes a long time but lets them earn decent money and live in a decent space
  1. They can live there and work close to home and avoid the whole city thing altogether
  1. They are retired or independently wealthy and just enjoying hanging out in the new suburbs, no working required.

Let's take each of these explanations in turn.

The first, of course, is the most likely. It is expensive to live in Toronto or Saskatoon or wherever, so it makes more sense to look at Milton or Martensville. On a good day, commuting from Milton to downtown Toronto probably takes close to an hour by car. Let's set aside the fact that there are not that many good days for commuting in the Greater Toronto Area and assume that the commuters have made their peace with the time element of things and will continue to put in the hours on the road. Question is, will they still be okay with paying for the gas or the transit costs if oil prices go higher? That's a question we started to ask in the summer of 2007, when oil prices were past $100 a barrel and people were suggesting they could be twice as high. There was talk of people moving closer to work, selling their SUVs and all kinds of crazy things like that. A global recession-bordering-on-depression smartly slashed fuel prices and commuting was safe once more. But gas prices are headed up, long term at least. So the whole exurb-commuter thing may make less sense over the next five years than it did over the last.

What about the second scenario, the one that has people living and working in the same communities? Well, we don't have census data that back this up but we do know that there has been a bunch of industrial growth outside of the GTA and other major centres. After all, land is expensive downtown, whether it is for residential or business uses. So possibly some of the exurb growth is being driven by this trend. And, if it is not now, it will be in future.

The third scenario-exurbs as a retirement choice-- is probably not a major factor in exurb growth now, but likely will be in future. After all, the boomers are the ones who do have a stake in cities and suburbs, and in Canada at least, a decent amount of equity built up in their houses. What they do not have, however, is a ton of retirement savings which means that they might be open to pulling up stakes when they retire.

The conventional wisdom has been that the empty nester boomers will be switching their suburban homes for itty-bitty condos in the city. Maybe.

Then again, maybe in the absence of having to live close to work they'll decide it is finally time to set foot in Milton or Martensville.

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