About the CMA-GDP 2009 Map

Special thanks to Sean Marshall (found on Twitter at @Sean_YYZ), who is entirely responsible for  design of the CMA-GDP map at my request.

Early in 2014, a Reddit user named Alexandr Trubetskoy released a map that divided the United States into two zones. One orange zone encompassed most of the largest US cities. The other zone – colored in sky blue - was largely rural or exurban (although it did include several large urban areas). What distinguished each zone: each produced approximately 50% of the GDP of the United States.

The map served an important debate point for urbanists, helping to drive home the point to casual viewers that cities are the premier economic institution in a country (and on a continent) where exurban and rural economic policy issues are often the priority for policymakers.

Until recently, it was difficult to make the same point in Canada, given limited data available. However, in November 2014, for the first time, Statistics Canada released an “experimental” dataset – CANSIM 381-5000 - that tracked GDP by census metropolitan area (CMA) from 2001-2009.

Notably, Canada’s CMAs often consolidate suburban communities into larger metro regions, not simply metro areas; For example, Toronto’s CMA includes all of the rapidly growing suburban cities in York Region and two of Ontario’s largest new cities (Mississauga and Brampton), while the Vancouver CMA includes all of the cities within the Greater Vancouver region.

Like all generalizations, it’s important to remember these three points when considering the CMA-GDP 2009 map:

1.    It’s Arbitrary (For a Reason)

Just as the Trubetskoy map excluded several large cities in the U.S., the chosen cities in orange on the CMA-GDP map do NOT include all of Canada’s largest cities, The key choice: several major cities on the prairie west are completely excluded by the 50% weighting chosen.  

StatsCan’s original dataset notes remarked:

About half of Canada's gross domestic product (GDP) is generated in the six census metropolitan areas (CMAs) with populations of one million or more: Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa–Gatineau.”


The new estimates reveal that as with population, economic activity in Canada is predominately concentrated in cities. While accounting for 69% of Canada's population in 2009, CMAs generated about 72% of Canadian GDP.” 

Although I live in Toronto, I grew up as a western Canadian, I’ve spent most of my life in Western Canada and I still tell people that I ‘think like a British Columbian.’ Yet I’ve deliberately weighted the 50% of urban choices toward eastern, industrial cities, choosing CMAs like Hamilton, St. Catherines and Quebec City over Calgary or Edmonton. Given the Canadian establishment’s present fixation on the economics of oil and gas, and given the overstated discussion of Central Canadian decline,  this weighting is useful to drive home a point: as long as you acknowledge the relationship between primary resource production and urban success (as I do in #3 below), city economies – as opposed to rural resource economies, or even resource-dependent city economies - are still the stars of Canada’s economy.

2.    It’s Dated

It helps to note that StatsCan’s dataset stops at 2009. It’s over five years old. With this in mind, the map reflects a period in which oil prices had plummeted from their 2008 peak; trading cities reliant on international trade were experiencing the first blows of the global recession.

Since that time, Edmonton and Calgary’s relative GDP share will have grown from their combined 2009 GDP share of 9.8%. while the combined share of many smaller urban CMA’s in Ontario and Quebec (like London, ON and Quebec City) will not have kept pace. However, these shifts should not be significant enough to throw off the rough balance (if, for example, Windsor was included in the orange zone to compensate for any growth in Alberta’s cities).

Further, while the data isn't as current as we'd like, it’s also timely – since oil prices have dropped by almost 1/3rd in just two months, which poses significant challenges for Alberta and Saskatchewan if neither is able to diversify growth in the medium term. So, the balance shown is reasonable – provided viewers are aware of the anomalies.

3.    It’s a (Useful) Simplification

As with any generalization in public policy, it’s important not to overstate the point. Cities are obviously paramount in the Canadian and US economies, but a broad view is needed.

Urbanist patron saint Jane Jacobs herself argued that any city’s first economic impact is to create a market that drives nearby agricultural growth, inextricably linking city economies to nearby regions. In much the same way, the vast blue hinterland on the CMA GDP map feeds urban growth directly as well as indirectly; Toronto's Bay Street finance sector is a beneficiary of the nation’s rural & northern mining economies just as much as Quebec City’s public sector is powered – literally and figuratively - by remote hydroelectric generators hours away from the provincial capital.

These linkages between one half/colour on the map and another shouldn’t be forgotten when selling the simple message of either the CMA-GDP 2009 map or its American counterpart - even if the relationship is usually less pronounced than the relationship between, say, Alberta’s cities and the Alberta oilpatch. Even Vancouver – with an economy mocked by some as “Consumer City” - is itself the productive beneficiary of Canada’s western resource economy, as the outbound shipment of raw materials is one reason why Vancouver is one of the world's top 50 commercial ports.

Still, with that warning, the simplification is useful – especially in a country where traditionally urban economic issues (soft and hard infrastructure, innovation, barriers to trade and investment both internally and externally, etc) are often sidelined in favour of the endless debate on energy policy.

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Please forward any questions, comments, trolls or requests for a text-free copy of the map using this contact form.

Reproduction is encouraged, provided graphic credit is given to Sean Marshall (found on Twitter at @Sean_YYZ).