So, is Toronto really bigger than Chicago? It’s complicated

And involves lots of math.

(Photos: Daniel Schwen; Túrelio/Wikimedia)

(Photos: Daniel Schwen; Túrelio/Wikimedia)

If you live in Toronto, you likely heard yesterday’s inspiring news: Canada’s biggest city is now the fourth largest in North America, having overtaken Chicago in population, according to new data from Statistics Canada. But hold off on the confetti for one moment. Because while that’s true, it’s only half the story.

Now, bear with me while I get technical. Yes, the City of Toronto has overtaken the City of Chicago in terms of people living within its borders. As of July 1 of last year, Toronto had 2,791,140 people compared to Chicago’s 2,707,120—an 84,000 lead. But many would argue that those numbers don’t matter.

Why, you ask? Well, it’s because where a city draws its lines is somewhat arbitrary. Indeed, if Toronto hadn’t amalgamated in 1998, it wouldn’t be nearly as big as Chicago, at least not technically.

It’s also why a city like Vancouver is actually, believe it or not, the eighth largest in Canada. Wait, what? Yes, you heard me. Eighth, just behind Winnipeg and Mississauga.

You see, the City of Vancouver is unusually small. For example, North Vancouver and West Vancouver are separate cities—the latter even has its own police department. Of course, Greater Vancouver, which is what most people really measure, has close to 2.4 million people, making it the third largest metropolitan area in Canada.

Many people—on Twitter, naturally—have pointed this out, claiming that Toronto still has a long way to go to catch up with Chicago. This is because the Greater Toronto Area is about 6 million people, according to the latest StatsCan data, while Chicagoland, the colloquial term for Chicago’s metro region, is closer to 9.5 million.

So, then, is Toronto actually 3.5 million people behind Chicago? Eh, not quite. I told you this would get technical.

It turns out that how you measure your metro region is just as arbitrary. There’s no standardized way for doing so. Indeed, a 2009 study revealed there are many disagreements over which cities constitute the largest. The problem is often even more pronounced when comparing cities in different countries.

That’s certainly the case here. Chicagoland is 28,120 square kilometres, but the Greater Toronto Area is only 7,125km2, and doesn’t include the likes of Oshawa, Hamilton and a range of other nearby cities.

If it did, the picture changes once again. Luckily, we have data on another subregion known as the Golden Horseshoe, which wraps around the western end of Lake Ontario—and yet another one called the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The former covers 10,097km2, and the latter, 31,562km2.

The GGH includes the GTA, Hamilton, St. Catharines-Niagara, Oshawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, Barrie, Guelph, Brantford, Peterborough and everything in between. (Boy, that’s a lot of OHL teams.) And it’s actually pretty close in size, geographically, to Chicagoland.

So, how big is the GGH, then? Well, according to StatsCan, it was about 8.1 million people in 2006. But in the five years following, Ontario grew by 5.7%, while the GTA grew an impressive 9.2%. The percentage increase for the GGH is probably somewhere in between.

In other words, in 2011, the GGH probably had between 8.6 million and 8.9 million people. It’s reasonable to think the region now houses more than 9 million. Which is not at all far behind Chicagoland’s 9.5 million.

To boot, we’re killing them in terms of growth. Chicago continues to waver between stagnation and decline; the city lost 6.9% of its population between 2000 and 2010.

For now, any way you slice it, Toronto is roughly the same size as Chicago. But if both cities stay on their present paths, ours will eventually become noticeably bigger.

Oh, and sorry about all the math.

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15 comments on “So, is Toronto really bigger than Chicago? It’s complicated

  1. Not only are North and West Vancouver separate cities, but there are two North Vancouver’s. (yes, really!)

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  8. At the risk of pedancy, I’ll point out that _nobody_ in the Chicago area says “Chicagoland” unless they’re on television selling used cars or carpeting…

    That point aside, I have to wonder if it really matters at all. Toronto and Chicago are both wonderful places to live and to visit, and both have unique strengths and weaknesses.

    As a lifelong resident of the Chicago suburbs, I can also say with conviction that Toronto politicians are gaining ground on Illinois politicians. You’ve still got time to fix that…

    • If you’re going to accuse people of pedantry you really ought to spell the word correctly. Plus, my family always said Chicagoland, for whatever that’s worth.

      • how about all that illegal immigration growth that goes unmeasured 2/2 to fear of census people. Any claims about growth rate as regard Chicago ignore the notoriously difficult-to-measure a) undocumented population and b) black market. It is suspected that these are both large.

        • I would imagine , with regards to illegal immigrants and their population, that Toronto would have a similar population, especially if it is related to the legitimate population increases. Toronto has very large immigrant population and I am betting that the US is better at finding illegals than Canada. Man, Toronto is growing fast.

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