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Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Buzzelli, Michael


This dissertation responds to a single overarching research question: what is the nature and extent of the federal government’s influence on urbanization in Canada, both on its systems of cities and on their internal structure? Lessons learned regarding the federal role in Canada’s urbanization remain relevant and applicable to emerging conditions. They offer a sound, streetwise foundation for future urban policy development, based on understanding the vital politics of where.

Large, complex systems of cities are both self-organizing and responsive to strategic guidance by the federal government. Politically-difficult choices among competing urban locations can be made both by hiding selections and by disclosing them according to well-established protocols. These methods ease acceptance of potentially controversial decisions and promote ongoing cooperation amongst local ‘winners and losers’ of successive competitions.

Data sources to track long-term urbanization outcomes include: historical Census statistics; Statistics Canada indicators of system outputs and counts of business establishments by location; wealth distribution data; and program data from federal department and agency sources. Operative politics of where are revealed by ranking places to assess which benefitted most and least over decades of urbanization, and by finding silences and suppression of locational detail in federal publications.

Based on available evidence, the federal government has had a fundamental influence on Canada’s urbanization, even if that influence has often been undeclared. Specifically, named federal powers in the Constitution have demonstrably accelerated and shaped urbanization processes. Organizations comprising a national community of purpose in urban growth have supported and implemented a continent-wide system of linked cities. Competing claims of local growth-promoting coalitions have been managed or denied in building up this system. Governance arrangements called here executive federalism have engaged the private sector and other levels of government in federal policy implementation and smoothed competition amongst municipalities. Methods used to make most productive use of competition amongst urban locations have largely succeeded to 2017, but there is a paradox on the horizon. Different politics of where are emerging as long-term urbanization processes increasingly diverge between growing and declining regions, calling for clearer declaration of desired outcomes.

Summary for Lay Audience

From the beginning of European settlement of lands that became Canada, urban places have played a decisive role in their economic development and human geography. Settled locations have competed for population, capital investment, services and political attention, first from founding country and then from national governments. Cities and towns have also had to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit.

This study reveals end results of competition and cooperation among Canadian cities over 150 years or more, using ranked statistical indicators. Today’s comparative population sizes, attractiveness to immigrants and industry, wealth, and connections with national urban systems reflect competitive success. The federal role in shaping these outcomes has been large: building national infrastructure; guiding immigrants; promoting industry; supporting technological innovation; and funding Canada-wide programs. Focusing only on municipal decision-making downplays the part played by those who manage higher-level competition among some 4,900 municipalities and 152 urbanized regions across Canada. For that process, the federal government is the main one to watch.

Specific choices of where always tend to displease many more residents and localities than they please. Such competitions must be handled effectively in order to build or maintain political support and legitimacy in most if not all regions of a vast and diverse country. Federal governments use a system called here “executive federalism” (administrative decision-making behind closed doors followed by individual public announcements). They avoid, whenever possible, declaring exactly where urban growth should occur, explaining the lack of a stated “National Urban Policy”. How competition is managed, and who actually does it are revealed here.

A growing dilemma is posed at the end of this study: not declaring where new urban growth should occur or existing development sustained is becoming more and more difficult. For example, both climate change and an aging population are pushing toward reducing growth in or even closing down settled areas where people will be at high risk. These and other trends are likely to call for much clearer federal choices of locations to finance and support in future, based on sharing credible scientific evidence and explicit, reasonable alternatives to residents.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.