We’ve all heard the classic real estate adage of “location, location, location” because it’s undoubtedly one of the most important factors when it comes to buying a home. In Canada, you may be taking that advice a bit further and thinking about the difference between urban and rural living. That’s because the cost of housing, the lifestyle and even your ability to access health care can vary considerably depending on which type of location you choose. So whether you’re thinking about a move or you’re just entering the real estate market, we’ve weighed the pros and cons of an urban vs. rural location.
What is an urban area?
According to Statistics Canada, which is the government agency mandated with collecting, analysing and publishing statistical information about Canada and its people, a location is considered urban based on the number of people living in it.
In Statistics Canada’s 2021 Census of Population, an urban area or population centre is defined as a location with a population of at least 1,000 people and a population density of 400 persons or more per square kilometre.
These areas are classified into three groups ranging in size, the largest of which is called a large urban population centre with more than 100,000 people. These large urban areas therefore account for the majority of the population.
What is a rural area?
All other areas, which are not population centres as defined by Statistics Canada, are rural. This means that any area with a population of less than 1,000 people is considered rural. However, in a more general sense the term “rural” often refers to smaller areas or communities located in the countryside.
What is the difference between urban and rural locations?
The main difference between urban and rural locations relates to the number of people who live there, but this has broad implications.
Every five years, Statistics Canada carries out the Census of Population, which provides a detailed portrait of the demographic, social and economic characteristics of the people living in Canada.
Based on 2021 Census data, more than 80% of Canadians live within a few urban centres located close to the United States border and along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Canada is one of the largest countries by square footage, but the majority of its landmass is rural and these rural areas contain only a relatively small percentage of the population.
To put this in perspective, three of Canada’s largest rural territories represent almost 40% of the country’s landmass, but only 0.3% of its population.
Urban vs. rural locations by population
Canada’s population has grown steadily in recent decades, reaching 40 million people in June 2023. Urbanization, driven by technological advances in agriculture, along with a growth in service industries, has brought more people to what Statistics Canada calls census metropolitan areas (CMAs).
Topping the list of CMAs is Toronto with 6.2 million people, followed by Montreal with almost 4.3 million, Vancouver with 2.6 million and Ottawa – Gatineau, Calgary and Edmonton all with around 1.4 million.
Part of this migration to more metro areas may be accounted for by changes in Canada’s farm population. In 1931, 1-in-3 Canadians was a member of the farm population, but by 2021 this number had fallen to 1-in-61. And more than 75% of those in farming in 2021 lived in rural areas.
What are the advantages of urban living?
There are multiple reasons why the majority of the Canadian population lives in an urban area, such as employment opportunities, cultural diversity and access to public services, including health care and transport.
More job opportunities and earning potential in urban vs. rural locations
There are job opportunities for almost every type of expertise, which is good for people living there and contributes toward a growing economy.
Part of the reason may be a result of the potential to earn a larger salary. In Toronto, for example, workers can earn 14% more per year than the Canadian average. The minimum wage is also usually higher in metro areas.
However, this does mean that you might have to compete for the best roles. According to an HR Reporter article, Toronto has one of the most competitive job markets in the country, with LinkedIn job postings seeing an average of 65.5 applications in just one week.
Better access to health care in urban vs. rural locations
Big urban areas offer better and easier access to health care, especially if you require more specialized treatment. The government recognizes this disparity in health care access between urban vs. rural areas and is working to change it. However, as it stands, the availability, quality and outcomes of health care are better in urban metros.
Better public transportation in urban vs. rural locations
Densely populated areas have more robust infrastructures and are set up to make it easier to get around using public transit. In many of the big cities residents don’t require the cost or upkeep of their own vehicles because they can travel relatively cheaply and efficiently by bus, metro or on bike lanes.
Better education in urban vs. rural locations
Schooling in urban areas often benefits from higher funding and therefore fewer issues with staffing and better access to educational support. Overall, literacy and numeracy proficiency, as well as levels of education are higher in urban areas.
More people and cultural diversity in urban vs. rural locations
With more people comes more opportunities to meet others from different backgrounds. Big cities are often referred to as “melting pots” because they bring together people from diverse backgrounds to exchange perspectives and ideas.
For this reason urban centres often serve as cultural hubs, with a vast array of events, exhibits, shows and entertainment—no matter where you’re from or what you’re into.
What are the cons of urban living?
Living in an urban area also has its costs and challenges, including affordability, congestion and noise pollution.
Higher cost of living in urban vs. rural locations
It can cost significantly more to live in a big city than it does in a rural area and oftentimes your hard-earned money will not go as far. This can be seen most clearly when it comes to unaffordable housing, leaving many urban residents unable to buy a home because of the high cost of properties.
But the high cost of living doesn’t just impact big purchases. Typically, everything in a city costs more, from groceries to dining out to utilities.
Less space in urban vs. rural locations
Densely populated areas mean less space per person. Not only can urban residents expect to live in smaller homes, there is typically less open space to roam or escape the fast pace of city life.
Greater environmental impacts in urban vs. rural locations
Like in the rest of the world, cities consume significantly more energy and have a much greater impact on the environment than rural areas. According to the UN, “cities consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, they account for less than 2% of the Earth’s surface.”
But city life does not only have an impact on a global scale. People living in urban metros often have to deal with more air and noise pollution, which has negative implications to their health, in addition to more congestion on the roads.
What are the advantages of rural living?
Although rural areas represent a small percentage of the population, they play an important role in the Canadian economy and offer a number of advantages for people who choose to live there.
Lower cost of living in rural vs. urban locations
One of the biggest draws to rural living is that it is more affordable. It can be significantly cheaper to buy a home in a rural area when compared to its urban counterpart. For some, this can make buying a home a possibility that they may not have been able to afford if they were looking in a metro city.
Buying a home in a rural area can also get you more bang for your buck and almost always more open space. While you might expect apartment living or smaller, tightly packed lots in an urban metro, in rural areas you are more likely to find single family homes on larger pieces of land.
In addition to more affordable housing, rural locations are typically cheaper for most other living costs, including groceries, transportation and entertainment.
Proximity to nature in rural vs. urban locations
If you enjoy being outdoors and the health benefits that come with having easy access to some of Canada’s most beautiful nature, then rural livingmay appeal to you.
With less air pollution and more open space, rural areas allow people (and wildlife) to roam free.
Good (and well paid) employment opportunities in certain industries
While there may be less range of jobs, there are some industries seeing booming growth in rural areas, including agriculture, forestry and mining. And the smaller employment pool in rural areas is driving demand and is helping to maintain a high employment rate.
This presents a lucrative opportunity for people in various types of jobs and positions, from skilled trade work to management roles. Competitive salaries are being offered in a bid to attract and retain workers in rural areas, which, in addition to lower cost of living, can stretch a lot further.
But rural living isn’t just limited to those who want to work in rural industries. With more companies across the board implementing a remote work model, there is the potential for people to work from home, wherever home may be.
Stronger sense of community in rural vs. urban locations
Living in a more remote setting does not mean you need to be socially isolated. While you can enjoy the tranquility that often comes with a rural lifestyle, many rural residents benefit from a strong sense of community and belonging.
In a rural setting there may be fewer people, but more of an opportunity to build meaningful friendships.
Lower crime rates in rural vs. urban locations
A report of crime in urban vs. rural provinces in 2021, found that 34% of rural residents were more likely to live someplace with a low crime rate (3,000 incidents per 100,000 people), compared to 25% of urban residents.
Higher standard of living in rural vs. urban locations
All the advantages of rural living seem to add up to a higher standard of living than you might find in an urban environment. A study by Rural and Remote Health, found that people living in rural locations had higher levels of life satisfaction when compared to their urban counterparts.
Kids growing up in a rural setting can also enjoy the same benefits.
What are the cons of rural living?
According to Statistics Canada, the demographics of rural areas is quite varied, which can present challenges for planning and delivering public services, including infrastructure and labour opportunities.
Poorer infrastructure in rural vs. urban locations
Since most rural locations are geographically isolated, the infrastructure is not set up to support people living there as well as it would be in an urban location. The Rural Health Information Hub sites a number of disparities that may be more likely to be experienced by rural residents, including poor infrastructure, lack of public transportation and cultural differences.
More limited access to health care in rural vs. urban locations
According to a report published by the College of Family Physicians, it can be more challenging for people living in rural areas to access the health care they need, especially for more specialized treatments. Furthermore, those who do get the care that they need are more likely to have a poorer outcome than someone who lives in an urban metro.
Thankfully, the government is taking significant steps and increasing funding to provide more and better rural healthcare, by incentivizing physicians to move there, but there is still a big gap in the availability of health care.
Crime severity is higher in rural vs. urban locations
While rural residents are more likely to live someplace with a lower crime rate, the severity of crimes in rural settings can be more serious. In an article on police-reported crime in rural and urban areas in the Canadian provinces, the Crime Severity Index (CSI) was 33% higher in rural areas than in urban ones.
Is urban or rural living better?
There is no one answer on whether urban or rural living is better, because there are a number of factors to consider, which will be dependent on individual circumstances. Oftentimes, your decision may come down to the stage of life you are in. Big cities can offer wonderful opportunities as you build your career and save for your future. Whereas, rural living can provide a welcome—and often more affordable—option as your priorities change.
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