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?

 By Sylvia Stead, public editor of The Globe and Mail

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.


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Still, I wondered if it could be described as a suburb of another city. Here are a few online dictionary definitions (first dictionary.com 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?

To continue reading this column, please go theglobeandmail.com where it was originally published.


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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.