Suburban Futures:
A look at employment & population change throughout the Lower Mainland 

Andrew Ramlo, Yazmin Hernandez, & Ryan Berlin

The Urban Futures Institute

Last month, as part of Translink’s Moving Our Future Forward conference, Urban Futures presented a long-run projection of population and employment for the Lower Mainland region. As part of the discussion a question was posed regarding the importance of the suburbs in terms of population and employment growth in the region over the past decade.

While assessing population growth between 2001 and 2011 is a relatively simple exercise with current Census data, quantifying employment growth in each of the Lower Mainland’s municipalities is not as straightforward as one might expect. Unlike previous Census years, Statistics Canada has not released employment by “place of work” from the 2011 National Household Survey (i.e. counts of where the jobs are actually located). Rather, employment data currently available from the 2011 NHS represent counts by “place of residence” (i.e. job counts by where people live).

That being said, Statistics Canada’s commuting flow data provide another means through which employment growth patterns in the Lower Mainland can be considered. While the commuting data provide an alternate means through which municipal job growth can be considered, a few notes on what these data include (and do not include) are warranted. First, the commuting flow data only include people with a usual place of work outside the home in the region; hence, those who work at home or who have no fixed workplace address are not included as part of the commuting flow matrix. Second, the commuting flow data presented here only account for residents of the Lower Mainland region (the Greater Vancouver, Fraser Valley, and Squamish-Lillooet Regional Districts) who are also working in the region. Those who might be resident outside the region but who work within it are also excluded from the table.

Finally, only Census subdivisions (i.e. municipalities) with a Global Non-Response Rate (GNR) below 50 percent were included as part of the 2011 NHS-based matrix. Given this, and to ensure consistency to previous Census counts, if a municipality was excluded in 2011 due to its GNR being above the threshold, it was also removed from the matrix for previous Census periods. Hence, the employment and population data presented herein only represent the Lower Mainland’s major Census subdivisions.

Urban versus Suburban

The commuting matrix shows that over the past decade (2001 to 2011) employment[i] in the Lower Mainland grew by 15 percent, as 135,501 new jobs (at a usual place outside the home) were added throughout the region. Over this ten-year period the region’s population grew slightly faster (by 17 percent), as the Lower Mainland added 365,555 people and grew to 2.6 million residents by 2011.


Over this period employment in the region’s historical urban core (here represented by Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, the District and City of North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Richmond, and Greater Vancouver Electoral Area A, which primarily comprises the University of British Columbia and University Endowment Lands areas) grew more slowly than the regional average. Between 2001 and 2011 employment in the core grew by only ten percent (through the addition of 58,371 net new jobs), compared to 15 percent growth region-wide. Suburban employment, on the other hand, grew at two and a half times this pace, as employment in the region’s suburbs (the other 16 major municipalities outside of the historical urban core) grew by 25 percent. Over this ten-year period the Lower Mainland’s suburbs also added more jobs in absolute terms: the 77,110 net new jobs created throughout the suburbs was 32 percent more than the 58,371 added in the urban core. As a result of slower employment growth in the region’s core, the core’s share of total employment fell from 65 percent in 2001 to 61 percent in 2011.

This trend toward slower growth in the region’s urban core versus the suburbs was also reflected in the pace of population change, with the 12 percent increase in the number of people living in the core being well below the 21 percent growth seen throughout the suburbs. Hence, both employment and population growth in the Lower Mainland’s historical urban core has been significantly lower than the employment and population growth experienced in the region’s suburbs over the past decade. Even in absolute terms, the 136,810 added to the core over the past ten years fell well below the 228,745 new residents accommodated in the suburbs. While some are heralding an era of the death of the suburbs, the most recent Census data show that they are growing strongly within this region.

The urban-suburban patterns of change are even more interesting if considered for individual municipalities. In 2001, 33 percent of the 881,650 jobs in the Lower Mainland were located in the City of Vancouver (a total of 286,700 jobs), with an additional eleven percent of the region’s jobs located in each of the cities of Burnaby (100,885 jobs) and Richmond (97,000 jobs).

The 12 percent growth in employment in the city of Vancouver between 2001 and 2011 saw Vancouver’s share of regional employment decline from 33 percent to 31 percent. Similarly, Richmond’s share of regional employment declined from eleven percent to ten percent, while Burnaby just managed to maintain its eleven percent share. With the exception of Greater Vancouver Electoral Area A, above average employment growth (15 percent) was only seen outside the region’s urban core.

Recognizing a relatively small base of 2,460 jobs in 2001, employment in Pitt Meadows grew the fastest among Lower Mainland municipalities to 2011 as it added 1,600 net new jobs (a 65 percent increase). Similarly, Port Moody experienced the second-fastest employment growth in the region over this period as it added 1,770 net new jobs to an employment base of 4,010 in 2001 (a 44 percent increase).

Employment growth in Surrey was third-fastest amongst the region’s 25 major municipalities, at 40 percent, with Surrey’s employment base growing from 89,625 in 2001 to 125,245 by 2011. Employment in The District of Langley, Chilliwack, Greater Vancouver Electoral Area A, Abbotsford, and the City of Langley each grew in the range of 30 percent over the past decade. Port Coquitlam and Squamish saw their jobs base grow by 26 percent and 20 percent respectively, while employment in Coquitlam grew by 16 percent. All of these municipalities grew faster than the regional average of 15 percent and, with the exception of Electoral Area A, were all in suburban locations.


In terms of population, the only core municipalities that experienced growth above the regional average of 17 percent were Greater Vancouver Electoral Area A (65 percent; 8,030 additional residents) and New Westminster (21 percent; 11,320 additional residents). All other core municipalities grew below the regional average of 17 percent, with all of the suburban municipalities growing more rapidly.

Port Moody led the way for the suburbs, with its population growing by 38 percent between 2001 and 2011 (second only to GVRD A). Surrey had the third-fastest growing population at 35 percent, with the 120,425 residents that Surrey welcomed over this period being the largest absolute increase of any municipality in the Lower Mainland. The additions for Surrey were also more than double the number of residents added in the City of Vancouver (57,830 people; eleven percent growth). In fact, Surrey accounted for more than half (53 percent) of the 228,745 residents added to the region’s suburban population between 2001 and 2011 (in adding 120,425 new residents Surrey accounted for one-third of population growth region-wide).

Despite both adding over 25,000 new residents since 2001, Burnaby and Richmond grew at a below-average rates of 16 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Interestingly, Abbotsford (with 18,040 new residents), the District of Langley (17,280 new residents), Chilliwack (15,010 new residents), Coquitlam (13,560 new residents), and Maple Ridge (12,885 new residents) all added a larger number of people than New Westminster—the first capital of the new colony of British Columbia way back in 1859, and the oldest city in Western Canada—which grew by 11,320 people, or 21 percent, between 2001 and 2011.

Having considered where employment and population growth has been seen, it is also important to note that seven of the region’s 25 municipalities experienced declines in employment over this period, while one also saw its population decline. Whistler’s 27 percent loss of jobs between 2001 and 2011 was the largest reduction of jobs (in absolute and relative terms) in the region, the result of a net loss of 1,825 jobs over the period. Although there were only 240 jobs lost in Hope over the past decade, this translated into the second-greatest relative decline within the region, representing an overall decline of 13 percent. Coinciding with a decline in employment was Hope’s 210-person loss in population (a three percent decline).

Job losses in New Westminster translated to a seven percent decline in employment in that municipality, representing the second-largest absolute loss of jobs in the Lower Mainland over this period, at 1,775[ii]. Employment in Mission and West Vancouver also declined, by seven percent and six percent respectively, while Delta saw virtually no change its employment base (a 10-job loss between 2001 and 2011).

Changing Commuting Patterns

Growth in the places of work and places of residence outside of the region’s historic urban core has resulted in a significant diversification of commuting patterns across the region. For example, in 2001, the Census reported that 17 percent of workers living and working in the Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) commuted to a usual place of work in the City of Vancouver, while nine percent of workers in the City of Vancouver commuted to one of the surrounding municipalities for work. A further 19 percent of those living in the City Vancouver also worked within the City. The remaining 55 percent of the region’s workers commuted between non-Vancouver municipalities.

By 2011 the City of Vancouver’s prominence as the region’s employment core had declines—for both Vancouverites and those in the rest of the region. The 2011 NHS reported that the share of the CMA’s commuters traveling to the City of Vancouver had declined to 16 percent. With those living and working in the City remaining relatively constant at 19 percent, the share of commuters traveling between non-Vancouver municipalities had increased to 56 percent of all commuting trips. 

(Click here to link to an interactive map showing where within the region Lower Mainland residents work.)

The Suburbs: Alive & Well

With most of the region’s growth in employment and population occurring outside of the historical urban core over the past decade, reports of the death of the suburbs have been greatly exaggerated—at least here in the Lower Mainland.

If the trends of faster population and employment growth in suburban municipalities continue in the coming years, the distribution of jobs within the Lower Mainland will increasingly be influenced by the suburbs. Why should we care? Monitoring these trends and understanding the drivers to them will be crucial for the region’s future, as the changing network of places of work and places of residences will need to be accompanied by growing network of transportation infrastructure and services.


[i] Employment for Lower Mainland residents was at a usual place of work outside the home.

[ii] Note that all of this decline was in the 2001 to 2006 period, with a net increase in the number of jobs with a usual place of work outside of the home in New Westminster of 915 between 2006 and 2011.