Corp Comm Connects

Public editor: Is it wrong to call Vaughan a Toronto suburb?
May 23, 2014
By Sylvia Stead

When is a suburb not a suburb? Can an adjacent city also be a suburb? Does it matter if the region is more suburban than urban? Does it matter if it is right next door to a major city? And what if that major city (Toronto) is also the centre of the universe?

An Ontario election story referred to “the Toronto suburb of Vaughan.” A resident of the city of Vaughan was unhappy with that description. “Vaughan is not a suburb of Toronto it is the City of Vaughan – we have our own Mayor (thank goodness we don’t have Mayor Ford as our Mayor!!) – can you please print a correction?”

Vaughan is just north of Toronto, but it is its own city, with a mayor and council. It is also a quickly growing mostly suburban area. According to its website, its population in 2013 was 313,490 and it is the eighth-largest municipality in Ontario after Toronto, Ottawa, Mississauga, Brampton, Hamilton, London and Markham.

Still, I wondered if it could be described as a suburb of another city. Here are a few online dictionary definitions (first and then Merriam-Webster):

1. a district lying immediately outside a city or town, especially a smaller residential community.

2. the suburbs, the area composed of such districts.

3. an outlying part a: an outlying part of a city or town b: a smaller community adjacent to or within commuting distance of a city c: plural: the residential area on the outskirts of a city or large town.

Conceivably then, Vaughan could be considered 3(b) under the Merriam-Webster definition. It is a smaller community adjacent to Toronto and within commuting distance.

But I was stuck on the word “community”. To me, community does not imply a city, but something smaller, such as a town. Initially, I canvassed a few editors at The Globe and Mail and they agreed. Vaughan is its own city and just because we live and work in Toronto, it doesn’t mean everything in the broader 905 area code can be viewed through that lens. Later on, some said yes it’s a suburb because it is right next to Toronto, it is much smaller and its growth is predicated on being right next to Toronto.

After much discussion with journalists here, I think the description could have been “Vaughan, a suburb north of Toronto” or “Vaughan, a city north of Toronto.”

Both of those wordings are better because they do not suggest that Vaughan is part of Toronto, as in the original “the Toronto suburb of Vaughan.”

Although some people use the term bedroom community, I’m not a fan because I think people can relate to both the community where they live and a separate community where they work.

So can you establish a rule for the use of the word suburb? Do we avoid the word when referring to cities, but not to towns or villages? Does this apply more to Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area than to other municipalities in the city?

The Globe and Mail Style Book lists the suburbs of Vancouver: Burnaby, New Westminster, Port Moody, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Belcarra, Richmond, Delta, Surrey, White Rock, Langley and Tsawwassen. It also lists the suburbs of Montreal more vaguely as communities on the South Shore, Laval and several off-island suburbs.

But there is no description for the communities, suburbs or cities around Toronto.

Also, any naming of a suburb implies static community growth.

I asked noted Ryerson University politics and public administration professor Myer Siemiatycki what he thought.

“There is no universally agreed upon definition or understanding of the term ‘suburb’. Very literally, the term can be taken to mean ‘less than fully urban’. So the postwar ‘bedroom communities’ of look-alike subdivisions could easily be characterized as suburbs for their lack of major employment/institutional areas. But what to do when a postwar suburb (e.g. North York) over time evolves to have its own commercial towers, industrial zones, subway stations, etc.? Is it still a suburb?”

Dr. Siemiatycki said it was “not uncommon for observers of the GTA to refer to Toronto’s ‘inner suburbs’ (referencing Scarborough, North York & Etobicoke) and Toronto’s ‘outer suburbs’ (typically referencing Vaughan, Markham, Richmond Hill, Brampton & Mississauga). Alternately, for a while it was fashionable to refer to these outer suburbs as ‘edge cities’ in recognition that they were on the outskirts & economically connected to a central city, had some characteristics of traditional suburbs (subdivisions) but also some central city characteristics.”

He noted that it is difficult to use labels when urbanization is complex and nuanced. However, he said he was comfortable with calling Vaughan a suburb. “Its location, land use, auto reliance, socio-cultural texture and attachment to Toronto (they cheer for the Leafs, they rise and fall with Toronto’s economic condition) – all these qualify Vaughan and other neighbouring municipalities as Toronto suburbs.”

Before hearing from Dr. Siemiatycki, I put through a correction calling Vaughan a city, not a suburb of Toronto. But now I am not sure. I prefer the term city because it is its own separate city. In the case of Toronto, the city I know best, I wouldn’t refer to any region as a suburb of Toronto. I would refer to suburban areas of Toronto, but those would be what Dr. Siemiatycki refers to as the inner suburbs, which are part of Toronto.

But I can see the argument that both terms, city and suburb, can be correct and the original article should not have been changed.