Comparing the City in the United States and Canada

The Differences in U.S. vs. Canadian Urban Landscapes are Significant

Toronto, Canada skyline and waterfront
Canada, Ontario, Toronto, skyline and waterfront. The Skydome and CN Tower are on the left. Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Canadian and American cities may appear remarkably similar. They both display great ethnic diversity, impressive transportation infrastructure, high socioeconomic status, and sprawl. However, when the generalizations of these traits are broken down, it reveals a multitude of urban contrasts.

Sprawl in the United States and Canada

American central cities tend to experience far greater sprawl than their Canadian counterparts.
From 1970 to 2000, eight of the ten largest U.S. cities lost population. Older industrial cities such as Cleveland and Detroit saw a massive decline of over 35% during that period. Only two cities gained: New York and Los Angeles. New York's growth was very minuscule, experiencing only a 1% gain in thirty years. Los Angeles saw a large increase of 32%, but this was primarily due to the expansive amount of undeveloped land within its city limits, allowing residents to sprawl without losing population. Although some of America's smaller cities did also gain population, particularly those in Texas, their gains were the result of territory annexation.

In contrast, even when controlling for population data from annexed territory, six of the ten largest Canadian cities saw a population explosion from 1971-2001 (the Canadian census was conducted one year after U.S. census), with Calgary experiencing the largest growth at 118%.

Four cities did experience population declines, but none to the extent of their U.S. counterparts. Toronto, Canada's largest city lost only 5% of its population. Montreal experienced the steepest decline, but at 18%, it still pales in comparison to the 44% loss incurred by cities like St. Louis, Missouri.

The difference between the intensity of sprawl in America and Canada has to do with the countries' divergent approaches to urban development. American metropolitan areas are heavily centered around the automobile, while Canadian areas are more focused on public transit and pedestrian traffic.

Transportation Infrastructure in the United States and Canada

The United States has one of the world's most intricate transportation networks. With over 4 million miles of roads, America can get more people and goods to more places than really anyone else in the world. The core of the nation's transportation system is in its 47,000 mile Interstate Highway System, which comprise of just over one percent of the country's transport network, but carries a quarter of its total highway traffic. The remainder of the country's high-speed traffic is supported by its 117,000 miles of national highways. Due to the ease of mobility, there are now more cars in America than there are people.

Unlike their neighbors to the south, Canada only has 648,000 miles of total roads. Their highways stretch just over 10,500 miles, less than nine percent of total United States road mileage. Noted, Canada only has one-tenth the population and much of its land is uninhabited or under permafrost.

But nevertheless, Canadian metropolitan areas are not nearly as centered on the automobile as their American neighbors. Instead, the average Canadian is more than twice as likely to utilize public transportation, which contributes to its urban centralization and overall higher density. All seven of Canada's largest cities display public transit ridership in the double digits, in comparison to just two in the entire United States (Chicago 11%, NYC 25%). According to the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA), there are over 12,000 active buses and 2,600 rail vehicles across Canada. Canadian cities also resemble more closely to the European style of smart growth urban design, which advocates compact, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly land use. Thanks to its less-motorized infrastructure, Canadians on average walk twice as often as their American counterparts and bike three times the miles.

Ethnic Diversity in the United States and Canada

Due to their long histories with immigration, both the United States and Canada have become large multinational states. Through the process of chain migration, many of the incoming migrants establish themselves in various ethnic enclaves across North America. Thanks in part to contemporary cultural acceptance and appreciation, many of these immigrants have been able to turn their ethnic segregation and neighborhoods into a common and accepted part of many modern Western cities.

Although minority urban development has its similarities in the United States and Canada, their demographic and level of integration differs. One divergence is the discourse of the American "melting pot" versus the Canadian "cultural mosaic." In the United States, most immigrants usually assimilate themselves rather quickly into their parent society, while in Canada, ethnic minorities tend to remain more culturally and geographically distinctive, at least for a generation or two.

There is also a demographic dissimilarity between the two countries. In the United States, Hispanics (15.1%) and Blacks (12.8%) are the two dominate minority groups. The Latino cultural landscape can be seen throughout many southern cities, where Spanish urban designs are most prevalent. Spanish is also now the second most widely spoken and written language in the United States. This, of course, is the result of America's geographic proximity to Latin America.

In contrast, Canada's largest minority groups, excluding the French, are South Asians (4%) and Chinese (3.9%).

The extensive presence of these two minority groups is attributed to their colonial connection to Great Britain. A vast majority of the Chinese are emigrants from Hong Kong, who fled the island in sizable numbers just prior its 1997 handover to communist China. Many of these immigrants are affluent and they have purchased a great deal of property throughout Canada's metropolitan areas. As a result, unlike in the United States where ethnic enclaves are usually found exclusively in the central city, Canadian ethnic enclaves have now spread into the suburbs. This ethnic invasion-succession has dramatically altered the cultural landscape and galvanized social tensions in Canada.


CIA World Factbook (2012). Country profile: USA. Retrieved from:

CIA World Factbook (2012). Country profile: Canada. Retrieved from:

Lewyn, Michael. Sprawl in Canada and the United States. Graduate Department of Law: University of Toronto, 2010

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Zhou, Ping. "Comparing the City in the United States and Canada." ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2017, Zhou, Ping. (2017, February 28). Comparing the City in the United States and Canada. Retrieved from Zhou, Ping. "Comparing the City in the United States and Canada." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 21, 2018).