Canadian Geographic
Left navigation image
Evolving cities


Founded: 1793
City Area: 630 sq km
Urban Area: 1,749 sq km
Rural Area: 7,125 sq km
Population 2006 (Metro): 5,113,149
Rank by population: 1

Toronto in the 1840s still bore its twin birthmarks of a British colonial establishment and a North American frontier outpost. The town had quickly assumed its role as a seat of government and bore the signs of the appropriate, if modest, investment needed to accommodate its institutions: the military, the executive, the legislature, the courts, and the established church. The town, like Montréal and Halifax, was on the water. Unlike them, however, the young city faced no major restraint on its spread inland. The expanse of the original government reserve rapidly shrank, settlement moving quickly beyond limits set for it. But major development took place near the water. It was here that traders had always congregated. And it was here that an energetic mercantile community, its efforts now organized from the main commercial street, King Street, worked to ensure that Toronto would remain the leading city of Upper Canada.

With a population of 86,400 Toronto was the second-largest city in Canada in 1881. It was the political capital of Ontario; it contained important educational and religious institutions; and it was an important financial, wholesaling, and manufacturing centre. By 1914 Toronto had consolidated its position as the leading industrial centre for Ontario.

As Toronto rose to national prominence in the post-war period through the growth of industry, its continued development as a head-office city, and its role as the primary destination of post-war immigrants, the built-up area underwent dramatic expansion. A considerable number of peripheral industrial tracts were created, suitable for light and clean industries accessible by truck rather than on the rail lines. While the population of the City of Toronto remained fairly constant at about 670,000 between 1941 and 1961, the populations in the municipalities around the city (which became part of Metropolitan Toronto) increased from 242,000 in 1941 to 442,000 in 1951, and then to 946,000 in 1961. The suburban governments could barely cope with the new demands for infrastructure, services, and transportation, and Canada’s first metropolitan government was formed in 1953.

In an attempt to make this new sprawling metropolis work a round of infrastructure development was initiated. The Yonge Street subway, planned even earlier, was built as far north as Eglinton Avenue, arterial roads were pushed through, expressways were planned and some built. Gradually a new sewer and water system caught up with suburban growth.


This piece describes the history of Toronto’s urban development. Users can choose to learn about distinctive ethnic neighbourhoods throughout the multicultural city, or they can view the image gallery.


On the next page:


Go now!  Go now!
Quiz :

How much of the population of Canada lived in urban centres by 1961?