Is the Lifeblood of Vancouver Leaving?

The rising unaffordability of housing is a real concern in Vancouver.  But we should be clear about how and why.  Summarizing the concerns of many, The Globe & Mail’s Gary Mason writes of “A crisis in Vancouver: The lifeblood of the city is leaving.” As I noted previously, scares about the depopulation of Vancouver are easily dismissed by examining migration and mobility figures.  Both the City and the Metropolitan Area of Vancouver are growing, not declining.

So just who are we talking about as the lifeblood of Vancouver?  For that matter, what are we talking about as Vancouver?

Let’s start with the latter question.  The City of Vancouver, of course, lies at the heart of the Metropolitan Region of Vancouver.  Should we be concerned about anyone leaving the City of Vancouver?  Maybe.  But if they’re just crossing Boundary Road to go live in Burnaby or even catching the SkyTrain down to Surrey, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.  Indeed, to stick with the metaphor, if Vancouver is the heart of Metro Vancouver, so long as our lifeblood keeps flowing in and out and all around the larger region, we shouldn’t have a problem.  That’s kind of what we want it to do. The bigger problem, it seems, is if our lifeblood is leaving the region altogether.  This suggests we should be most concerned with patterns of migration and mobility pertaining to Metro Vancouver as a whole.  Or maybe it’s worth keeping an eye on both Vancouvers: City and Metro Area, but keeping in mind that different issues are involved with each.

So who are we talking about as lifeblood?  After all, both the City and Metro Area just keep getting bloodier and bloodier as they grow in size.  Gary Mason tells us to pay special attention to those in their 20s and 30s.

 For many young adults, however, the city increasingly represents a place of which they no longer can afford to be a part. Consequently, Vancouver faces an almost existential threat; what happens when the lifeblood of any community, those in their 20s and 30s, decide to leave? … Frustrated over the inability to find even a condo at prices their salaries can accommodate, many young people are saying goodbye.

Really?  Are more of these young folks leaving than coming?  Using Canadian Census data, I ran the numbers for the most recent time period I could get a handle on: 2006-2011.  There’s a simple technique in demography of gathering age-specific net migration figures by breaking down the population by age-group in each year, aging them forward (giving them babies at appropriate fertility rates and killing them off at appropriate mortality rates – here I used age-specific death rates for Canadians in 2008), and then seeing how many of them you’d expect to be around.  If you subtract this figure from the actual figure you see in the next census, you get an age-specific net migration rate (expressed below in percentage form).  Here’s what I get for both City and Metro Region:


For the greater metrolitan region, Vancouver’s lifeblood doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Many more people in their 20s and 30s are pouring into Vancouver than are leaving.  This is an important point to keep in mind, if only to set the record straight about the implications of the region’s unaffordability.

What about the City of Vancouver?  For those in their late teens and early twenties, the phrase “pouring in” is simply inadequate.  We have a tsunami on our hands.  Why?  Probably in part because Vancouver is a university town – in fact it’s MY university town.  But also because central cities tend to attract young people, provide them with jobs, and provide the diverse kinds of housing stock able to support them.  It’s true that the balance shifts between the City of Vancouver and the rest of the metropolitan region as people age.  The City of Vancouver is a net loser for people in their thirties and beyond.  No doubt many of them are looking for more spacious and affordable housing, and they would stay in the City if they could find it there.  But crossing the border into Burnaby, or down to Surrey, or out to Coquitlam, seems like pretty normal circulation.  The type experienced by central cities everywhere (yes, I checked, and Toronto experiences it too).

2016 is upon us, and soon we’ll have a new census.  We’ll all be eagerly awaiting the results (well, anyone who has bothered to read this far, anyway).  Who knows?  It’s possible patterns will have shifted by then.  But it’s also worth holding on to a healthy dose of skepticism.  Vancouver has at least 99 problems associated with housing affordability, but losing our lifeblood ain’t one.


10 thoughts on “Is the Lifeblood of Vancouver Leaving?

  1. This data ended 5 years ago. A lot has changed in 5 years, including the amount of people I personally know who have left this city.


    1. Hi Kirk, I’ve got a comparison to Toronto and Edmonton at the metro level somewhere – they look pretty similar, with metro Edmonton growing a little faster and metro Toronto a little slower at nearly every age group (except for the very young and the very old, where metro Vancouver’s the fastest). For cities, I think the patterns differ a little, though I haven’t yet charted them. I believe the City of Edmonton is much closer to the Metro Are than is true for Vancouver and Toronto (even after amalgamation), which look more like the standard central city pattern, with adults moving disproportionately to the suburbs in their 30s. Seattle and Portland might require a different timescale for comparability purposes (ten year censuses), but I’ll look into it when I get the chance. Thanks for reading!


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