Jordan: What makes any community a good place to live? And when you’re choosing one, how do you balance those things against all the things you want to change? I mean, if I could make a perfect Canadian community, I would want a small prairie towns affordability, B.C’s weather, Quebec’s childcare, Toronto’s hospitals, Montreal’s culture, Vancouver’s restaurants, a tiny Ontario village crime rate, a golden horseshoe economy, and Alberta’s sales tax rate. Now that doesn’t exist, so we all do our own cost benefit analysis when we’re choosing where to live, and that brings us to an annual project that attempts to incorporate all the factors that I just mentioned to determine which actual community is Canada’s best. It’s kind of an impossible question to answer, because everybody’s looking for something a bit different. And, of course, even when we know what we want, a lot of us, especially in Toronto or Vancouver, can’t afford it anyway. But if you do crunch every bit of available data that you can scour from hundreds of statistics repositories across the country, then you end up with at least an interesting place to start. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Claire Brownell is the reports and rankings editor at Maclean’s. Hi Claire.
Claire: Hi, how are you?
Jordan: I’m doing great. I’m gonna do it on the desk, but Claire will probably dub it in because I can’t even do a proper drum roll on the desk, but tell me what is Canada’s best community?
Claire: Canada’s best community is Burlington, a suburb of Toronto that’s west of Toronto.
Clip: Burlington is fortunate to have a beautiful and publicly accessible waterfront along the shores of Lake Ontario and in our north through the cliffs….
Claire: It is also part of the Hamilton Niagara Economic Region, which is a big reason why it was Canada’s best community because it has all the benefits of proximity to Toronto and all the amenities and entertainment options and job prospects that offers, while also being part of that booming Hamilton Niagara Economic Region, which has seen a huge gross and growth in housing prices in population and is doing really well.
Jordan: What kinds of things, and I’m gonna ask you specifically about what goes into Burlington in a minute. But what kinds of things do you measure to put this ranking together?
Claire: We look at 10 different categories and try to think about all the things that can be measured that make a community a, you know, a great place to settle down. Obviously, you can’t measure everything they’re all kinds of intangible things.
Jordan: So list 10 things. List the 10 things that matter.
Claire: They include wealth in the economy. So we look at incomes, we look at the unemployment rate, we look a growth in full time jobs. Affordability, so those to sort of balance each other out. We also look at, you know, does it have affordable housing? How much of your income do you actually get to keep after spending money on necessities? We also look at population growth, the more the better. We look at crime, the lower the better. Whether putting a lot of emphasis on warm winters, access to health care, access to amenities, so that’s things like is there a university nearby? A college nearby? Are there lots of bars and restaurants and culture and communities? So we look at, are there a lot of people working in the arts, and how engaged are the citizens in their community?
Jordan: I can see why Burlington would score highly in a lot of those just by virtue of its proximity. But how do places like Burlington in Ontario but also adjacent to huge cities elsewhere in Canada do for affordability?
Claire: Suburbs of the large cities tend to do really well in this ranking because they benefit from that combination of the strong job market, because people can commute into the city while also being more affordable than the city itself. So that’s definitely a trend you see across the country is that the outer municipalities, the outer suburbs of the bigger cities do better than the big cities themselves.
Jordan: So what is it about this region then in particular, that leads to; Were there other cities from this region high on the ranking?
Claire: Yeah, so the Hamilton Niagara Region did really, really well in the ranking this year. Three out of the top 10 are in this economic region, the other two are Grimsby, which is a small town that’s sort of between Hamilton and St Catharine’s, and Niagara on the Lake, which most people know for its wineries. And yeah, I think what the ranking is trying to, you know, basically bring to the surface is that if you’re gonna live in the Hamilton Niagara Region, sort of why not live in, you know, a nice, quiet, small town that offers access to, you know, the culture and engaged community and all the other great things that small town has and you can still drive to somewhere like Hamilton or Toronto if you’re really committed to a long commute for work.
Jordan: And you don’t need seven figures to buy a house.
Claire: You definitely do not need seven figures to buy a house, especially in the Niagara region.
Jordan: How does this break down across Canada In terms of what you mentioned, three of the top ten are in one little pocket in Ontario. Without listing all of them what do you see in terms of regions when you crunch the numbers?
Claire: Well in terms of provinces across the country, we see; So Ontario completely dominated the top of the ranking, they took 28 of the top 50 spots, and I’m sorry for any of our listeners outside of Ontario who love to dunk on Ontario.
Jordan: They already hate me for talking about Ontario too much so this is not gonna help.
Claire: Yeah, I know. I’m sorry, I’m sure I’m gonna get lots of blow back for this. But when you look at the numbers, there’s a reason why it’s the part of Canada that has the most dense population in the country, because the economy is really strong, with Toronto being the economic engine of really, a lot of the country, the weather is quite good compared to most of the other parts of the country. It has some of the; Our small towns have the lowest crime in the country and our access to health care is really good. So just when you’re looking at, you know, sheerly at a numbers based ranking like this, Ontario tends to come out on top regardless of your personal opinion about Ontario.
Jordan: What’s 2nd?
Claire: 2nd is BC, so BC also did really well. Again it’s got Vancouver, that real engine of the economy. It’s got weather, great weather, it has pretty low taxes, BC. Low sales taxes, low income taxes, which is another category we look at. So yeah, BC also did; and ya it has some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country right now in BC.
Jordan: How much of the top, I don’t know 50 or 100 are dominated by Ontario or BC, and then what region comes after that?
Claire: Yeah, so it’s 28 of the top 50 are Ontario, 16 of the top 50 are BC, and then it really drops after that. So the third most is Alberta, which only has three communities. That is largely because of the just sort of boom and bust economy of Alberta, I’m sure once oil and gas, you know, recovers again it’ll make a much stronger showing, but because it’s, you know, it had a bit of a recovery for a while, but it sort of started to slow down again and that’s really, you know, raise their unemployment rates to a lot higher than there are in other parts of the country and really hurt them in the rankings. So, Alberta for now, not doing so great, I’m sure it’ll come back. We’ve got two Quebec communities that are in the top 50, like Quebec gets hurt because it has high taxes, some of the highest taxes in the country. We’ve got one in the prairies that is waver in Saskatchewan, but ya the prairies in general suffer because of weather, crime and labor statistics because they’re also pretty dependent on the oil and gas industry and sadly, sorry Atlantic Canada but there aren’t any in the top 50 just because it historically, you know, struggles in terms of unemployment rates. Labor statistics, has lower incomes.
Jordan: So I’m going to speak for all the people in Atlantic Canada and Alberta and Quebec, and the prairies, isn’t this all subjective? I mean, how do you pick which categories and which ones do you leave out, and how do you weigh them? Because I’m assuming some must be weighted more heavily than others.
Claire: It’s definitely subjective. This is just sort of based on our own personal opinion of what would be important to the average person. Obviously, you’re not the average person, and I’m not the average person and everyone reading the ranking isn’t. People have different priorities but you know, we weight wealth and economy and affordability equally because I think that’s something that, you know, people really try to balance when they’re trying to pick a place to live. But then, in terms of the other categories, I mean, would the weather be worth 10% of someone’s decision on where to live? For some people it might be more, for some people it might be less. So that’s why online we offer a tool so that people can adjust the weightings of the categories and come up with, you know, they’re perfect community based on their own priorities.
Jordan: Do you go through and wait them differently for different classes of people who might be using them? I’m talking about myself mainly because once you have kids, for instance, which we did just a couple of years ago. I know that my ranking of where I’d want to live changed drastically based on that.
Claire: Yeah, absolutely so we offer three sub rankings, one for the best communities for families, one for retirees and one for new Canadians.
Jordan: What are those?
Claire: So the families one is we change the weighting a little bit, we increase the weighting of crime, we increase the weighting of affordability and we also add some categories that aren’t in the main ranking, so we add the cost of an access to daycare and we add the percentage of families with children.
Jordan: So does Quebec like shoot way up when you do that?
Claire: It does, yes, Quebec does very well in the family’s ranking, much better than in the main ranking.
Jordan: And what other categories do you sort for?
Claire: We also have retirees, the best place to retire. So in that one, we completely get rid of labor statistics because you don’t have to worry about that, you don’t have to worry about finding a job, you’re retired, and we increase the importance of weather and health care. And yeah, interestingly I think this is not a place that many people would think of as the ideal place to retire necessarily but again the numbers suggest that it’s Toronto just because, you know, when you increase that access to healthcare importance, there’s really no better place in the country to be if you get sick, if you develop a chronic illness, if you need emergency care, you’re gonna be right there at some of the best hospitals with, you know, the best medical professionals in the country and Toronto’s weather is not known for being great, but compared to the rest of the country, pretty good.
Jordan: And I guess by the time you’re retired, hopefully knock on wood for a lot of us, you might even have enough money to afford to live in Toronto.
Claire: Well that’s the; Yeah, you can, you know, it’s something that people can do, lots of people do is downsize to a condo.
Jordan: Right! Right next to the hospital strip.
Claire: Exactly. So, yeah, I mean, you know again, it totally depends on what kind of retirement you want, if you want that sort of quiet small town retirement that might not be for you, but you also might want to think about what happens if you have a heart attack in the middle of that rural small town and can’t get to the hospital for, you know, an hour’s drive, it’s something maybe people should put into more consideration.
Jordan: And what’s the last category?
Claire: The last thing is best communities for new Canadians, and this year again it’s sort of one that you might not have thought of as the best place for new immigrants but it’s Grimsby, which I talked about earlier as being one of our top communities in the Hamilton-Niagara Region.
Jordan: How do you weigh these factors for new Canadians?
Claire: For new Canadians we increase the importance of labor statistics. So the unemployment rate, growth in full time jobs, things like that. We increase the weight of affordability and we also add a category that looks at linguistic diversity, which talking to professionals, that is the best way to look for what a diverse community is because it suggests that, you know, not only is the diversity there but the culture in the community is thriving if people are keeping their mother tongues that are different from English and French. So Grimsby actually had, you know, it’s a more linguistically diverse community than you might expect, about 20% of its residents speak languages other than English and French. And it also, you know, like I was saying, it offers those benefits of living in the Niagara region where housing prices are affordable, you can drive to you know, to jobs in Hamilton, to jobs throughout the Hamilton-Niagara region or if you’re really committed you can drive all the way to Toronto for work and it’s somewhere that, you know, might be something that new Canadians aren’t really considering but maybe they should.
Jordan: So far we’ve talked almost exclusively about small towns and suburbs and places on the outskirts of big cities. How do the big cities themselves do? Where do Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, etc show up on this list?
Claire: Urban areas generally do well, largely because of the importance of access to amenities, access to hospitals, things like that, and also because they tend to be centers of economic activities. But you know, in terms of the city’s themselves when you’re talking about not just the suburbs of Toronto but the actual city of Toronto, same thing not just the suburbs of Vancouver, the city of Vancouver generally they tend to excel in some areas, things like access to bars and restaurants obviously, they tend to be really close to the top. Access to healthcare, other categories like that but then they tend to also really suffer in other categories, namely affordability, where, you know, both Toronto and Vancouver are close to the bottom in terms of affordability, because when we consider affordability, we don’t just consider that housing prices, we consider the incomes and the median household income in the city itself is the post; the suburb tends to be lower, so you get hit with a double whammy of it’s really expensive housing, and you may not have as much money to afford it.
Jordan: So where did Toronto and Vancouver end up then?
Claire: Toronto is our 19th best community, which is, actually, you know, that’s really good. But it got beaten by quite a few sort of Toronto surrounding, you know, Greater Toronto and greater…
Jordan: Right, the Burlington’s, and Oakville’s…
Claire: Ya, exactly. Vancouver faired not quite as good, it is 112th compared to the rest of the country.
Jordan: Out of how many places did you measure?
Claire: 415, and Vancouver has the dubious distinction of being the least affordable place in the country, it ranked worst in that category if anywhere.
Jordan: What about in Quebec? What about Montreal?
Claire: So Montreal is the 64th best community in Quebec and 296th in Canada, again, that’s out of 415. So similarly it’s great for commuters, it has a high percentage of the population taking transit to work, that’s another category we look at. If you want access to amenities and entertainment options, it’s second only to Toronto so you know, it really excels in a couple of categories like that.
Jordan: So how does it finish so low? And it’s known for being fairly affordable, too, right?
Claire: Yeah, so it’s fairly affordable but again when you factor in that income factor as well as the housing price, it’s really not that great. The average housing price is $523,000 right now in Montreal, which is a bargain compared to Toronto and Vancouver, obviously, but it has significantly lower median household incomes than either of those two cities. So that hurts it in our affordability ranking, and also it has all those unfortunate drawbacks that come with living in Quebec, like the taxes are higher and the weather isn’t that great.
Jordan: Okay so not to pick on anyone in particular, except that I’m gonna ask you to do exactly that. What was 415th?
Claire: So unfortunately, sorry Mountain View County, Alberta but you came in 415 this year.
Jordan: Where is Mountain County, Alberta?
Claire: It is between Calgary and Red Deer, and it’s one of those towns that’s really dependent on the oil and gas industry, sort of a boom and bust type place, and unfortunately, it is right now in bust mode, so, you know, it’s poor labor statistics combined with Western Canada has much higher crime than the rest of Canada, and whether, you know, put it down in the ranking but I’m sure you know, again, because of that boom and bust cycle I’m sure it’s not going to stay there.
Jordan: How quickly can these things change?
Claire: They can change pretty quickly, the labor statistics can change quite a bit from year to year. Right now across the entire country honestly, even the places that have, you know, quote on quote high unemployment rates, they’re still pretty low. Almost everywhere has under 8% unemployment right now, which I think is what economists say is sort of your average or ideal unemployment rate. So, yeah, it really it depends a lot on the economy, which is regional from place to place. It depends on, you know, the housing markets if we ever had a major; That major housing crash that everyone keeps predicting in Vancouver. Toronto, we’ve got to slow down, but not a crash that would affect things a lot. So yeah, they can change from year to year but there are certain things that don’t change that much like Quebec having high taxes.
Jordan: What are some of the most interesting, weirdest etc. things that you discovered about various places in Canada? Cause I’m sure when you go through this you end up finding a few outliers.
Claire: Definitely. There are quite a few things that end up sort of jumping out at you and other things that are just fun to look at. You know who did the best and worst in certain subcategories? I like the subcategory we have of the percentage of the population biking to work. If you’re an avid cyclist and you want to be around a lot of other cyclists, you should move to Victoria where 6.7% of the population rides their bike to work. If you’re an arts person, and you want to work in the arts and be surrounded by other artists, you should move to Whistler B.C. which has the highest percentage of artists in the country with 5.7% of the population working in the industry. And if all you want is, you know, get me a cheap place to live I’m sick of trying to afford rents in Toronto or Vancouver, I don’t care about anything else. If you’re a renter, you want to move to Quebec, which is in North central Quebec, and you can rent a two bedroom apartment for $432 a month.
Jordan: That is also an amazing name for a town.
Claire: And if you want to buy a house, the cheapest home prices in the country are in Elliot Lake, Ontario, which is a popular community for retirees. The average house there is $130,000.
Jordan: $130,000. Sounds nice.
Claire: Imagine that.
Jordan: Yeah. You did all this work. You crunched all these numbers basically yourself.
Claire: I did, yes.
Jordan: After looking at everything in this report where do you want to live?
Claire: So one place that really jumped out at me that I thought was interesting is Salmon Arm, British Columbia. And if you read my feature in Maclean’s based on the ranking, I interview somebody who moved to Salmon Arm from San Antonio, Texas, and it’s just, it’s a little town in the BC interior. It’s for a long time been known as a vacation destination for Western Canada because it has access to the mountains and great hiking trails and a lake and all kinds of nice stuff like that. But it also, it’s in the Thompson Okanogan Economic Region, which sort of similar to what I was saying about Grimsby, it’s you know, there are other jobs, that region’s doing really well. You could use that as sort of a home base to commute to other jobs in the region. You could also if you are able to do this you could telecommute, according to the mayor of the town, and other people who lived there that’s what a lot of people are doing. They have the ability to and live in a beautiful little mountain town with, you know, all your food locally grown and knowing all your neighbors, and affordable housing prices and it just sounds like a really nice place to live that I’d never even heard of.
Jordan: Amazing, thanks, Claire.
Claire: Thank you.
Jordan: Claire Brownell is the reports and rankings editor at Maclean’s. And that was The Big Story. If you’d like more from us, if you’d like to tell us that you are not from Burlington and you’re very angry, you can find us at thebigstorypodcast.ca You can also yell at us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. You don’t have to yell, and you can download us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify. Leave us a rating or a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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