Our main research question is: What do the density targets in the Growth Plan look like in existing communities?

At the same time, we wanted to create a replicable methodology for measuring density at the neighbourhood or community scale in the context of the Growth Plan. 

We conducted research on density and reviewed relevant examples of visualizing density, such as the Lincoln Land Institute Visualizing Density and the Waterloo Report Visualizing Densities Part One and Part Two, and Urban Strategies’ Citizen's Guide to Density. 

Two observations emerged: 

  1. Density is inevitable and we need to make it part of how we build great communities.  The Greater Golden Horseshoe is projected to grow by more than 3 million people by 2031. To accommodate this growth while making efficient use of existing infrastructure, preserving natural areas, protecting drinking water and farmland, we need to plan for more compact, higher density communities.
  2. There are several ‘drivers’ or neighbourhood characteristics that can work with density to create complete communities where people want to live, work and recreate. The 6 Drivers of Complete Communities are: walkability, diversity, green and open spaces, amenities, transit and design.


5 Case Study Communities

With advice from an expert panel, we selected and analysed 5 communities from across the Greater Golden Horseshoe. We chose places that were known for being desirable places to live and for having elements of a complete community.  We tried to select areas that represented a range of built form, and neighbourhood types from across the Greater Golden Horseshoe. 



Measuring Density

For each of the 5 areas, we measured residential density (# of people per hectare), as well as a combined density (people + jobs per hectare). This approach aligns with the the Growth Plan's combined targets for greenfield areas and Urban Growth Centres.  It also reflects the need to have a mix of uses in a community.  The Ministry’s Technical Backgrounder on Intensification and Density Targets provides details on measuring density in relation to the Growth Plan. 

Population (e.g. number of residents) and employment data (e.g. number of jobs) are available through the Census at the Dissemination Area (DA) level (usually about the size of a neighbourhood).  We used Census DAs to define the boundaries of each study area. Most of the time, the DAs did not line up exactly with the community as it is defined by the municipality or the public, in which case we used the DA that most closely matched the boundaries of the community.

Publicly available employment data from the Census is based on a person's place of residence, not the location of where they work.  However, we were able purchase 2011 employment data from Statistics Canada for a nominal cost.  Called “Place of Work for Small Areas”, this data provided an estimate of the 2011 employed labour force 15 years and over with a usual place of work by Dissemination Area. 

2016 Census population data is currently available however, jobs data for 2016 has not yet been released and therefore we used 2011 data throughout to be consistent.  In some communities, new developments have been built since 2011. Based on our methodology, any development completed and occupied between 2011 and 2016, would not be included in the calculation. These instances have been noted in the individual case studies where possible.

To calculate the combined densities, we added the number of people and the number of jobs, and divided that by the number of hectares in each area.  The number of hectares were calculated using GIS software.

For each area, we also measured the population density of smaller areas (block level), using Census Data for Dissemination Blocks (smaller than Dissemination Areas), and dividing that by the number of hectares. Employment data is not available at the Dissemination Bloc level, which is why the combined density was not calculated for these areas. 



Drivers and Measure of Complete Communities

The 6 Drivers of Complete Communities were developed based on research from a variety of sources and general experience of CUI.  The Measures were identified by looking at what data was easily available and what could be analyzed through mapping and photos. We used drone photography images, Google Earth and Google Street View to identify each of these drivers in the 5 communities.  

  • Amenities, parks and commercial space - Open Data portals for each of the 5 communities were explored for data providing the location of schools, daycare and community centres and municipal parks. In the absence of relevant data, Google Earth location search was used to identify amenities within 400m radius of the community boundary, and municipal parks and commercial space within the community boundary. 
  • Transit Stops - General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data were available on municipalities’ Open Data Portals for all 5 communities. The GTFS data contains the location of transit stops that can be mapped in a GIS. All transit stops within a 400m radius were mapped.



The Growth Plan describes certain non-developable areas that should be excluded from density calculations - sometimes called net-outs or take outs. These include: “features that are both identified in any applicable official plan or provincial plan, and where the applicable provincial plan or policy statement prohibits development within the features, including: wetlands, coastal wetlands, woodlands, valley lands, areas of natural and scientific interest, habitat of endangered species and threatened species, wildlife habitat, and fish habitat”.  The updated Growth Plan (2016) provides more specific clear guidelines that can be consistently applied but expanded in their scope to be true to the principle and purpose of “net outs”. We used the 2006 definition for net-outs and used open data from the Land Information Ontario Open Data catalogue to identify those areas, and then removed them from the density calculations