Urbanization is a complex process in which a country's organized communities become larger, more specialized and more interdependent. Urbanization is the result of many variables - economic, technological, demographic, political, environmental, etc - and it is inevitably accompanied by other changes in society. Some 78% of Canada's population lives in urban areas (1996 census). In this respect it ranks 39th in the world, behind such countries as Belgium, Australia, Israel, the UK and Argentina, but far ahead of Pakistan, India, China and most African countries. Despite its overall high national level, an important characteristic of Canadian urbanization is its regional variation reflecting in part economic development differences among the provinces. Since 1881, Ontario, Québec and British Columbia consistently maintained the highest levels of urban concentration.

Canada became an urban nation relatively early in its history. The urbanization process has passed through 4 major phases and, in the 1970s, entered a fifth stage. The earliest began with the founding of Québec in 1608. Urban development was mercantile or colonial in nature and was characterized by imperial (French and British) control over location, function and growth. Functionally, urban places - notably Québec City, Montréal, Halifax and St John's - tended to be administrative or military centres. Economically, they were entrepôts, collection agencies for colonial staples and distribution centres of manufactured goods from the mother country. A characteristic of these mercantile forms was their lack of significant connections with other towns in the colonies, for the primary connection was the overseas metropolis. Another common feature of urban centres during this period was a dependence on water transport, powered by wind and sail. In terms of form, the mercantile town reflected imperial needs and designs.

The second phase began in the early 1800s and was marked by the increasing control of commercial interests - rather than imperial - over urban development. In the sphere of economic activity, the outstanding characteristic of this period was a move away from an exclusive reliance on staples export to a new concern for regional and interregional commerce and small scale artisanal production for a local or regional market. Several cities began to assume metropolitan functions by dominating their immediate region. A third aspect of the economic reorientation of this period was the use of new technologies in transportation, notably the application of steam to shipping, to railways and to the means of production. The form of cities in this era is not readily definable, but a number of features distinguish them from both their predecessors and successors. While there was now an absence of central direction in shaping cities, there was nonetheless a semblance of order and regularity. Transportation routes and the provision of services - such as water and sewers - often determined the direction of development. Commercial cities were also characterized by a sorting out of the city's functions (residential, commercial, etc) and people, the latter by class and ethnicity.

The third phase, which began with the industrial era in the 1870s and lasted until the 1920s, saw the development of a national urban system that tended to concentrate power in major central Canadian cities, notably Montréal and Toronto. The political economy of this industrial era was marked by the emergence of industrial capitalism and its counterpart, the industrial working class. The extent and nature of urban development was dependent on major improvements in the technological capacity of Canada. Science and engineering were systematically applied to transportation, communications, building methods and production. The outstanding physical characteristics of cities were the enormous spatial expansion of the suburbs and the tall office towers of the central core. The social landscape of cities was affected by the changing scale of development. A kind of giantism prevailed, from the size of suburbs and the height of the buildings in the central core to the organization of new business enterprises and the building of enormous factories. Land use was increasingly specialized.

A fourth era of development began around the 1940s and extended in most senses to the 1970s. The corporate era was characterized by the technology of the automobile and truck, an economic orientation away from industry to service functions, and spatial decentralization of population and activities. Canada's population grew rapidly and corporate concentration in all sectors of the economy tended to centralize growth in major cities. In terms of form, the corporate city was characterized by 5 features: corporate suburbs developed by the private sector; high-rise apartments; suburban industrial parks; downtown office towers; and regional shopping centres.

By the late 1970s a new "post-urbanization" era was beginning to be identifiable in urban development. The crises in energy and high interest rates, and a variety of other factors, began to have an affect on urbanization patterns and suggested that Canada was entering a new era. Since the beginning of the 1970s, the population of the old urban cores and the central districts have levelled off or even declined, while that of peripheral areas around cities has increased considerably. The city, which has until the 1970s consistently attracted the rural population, is now losing population to the rural areas. Along with many countries in the industrialized world, Canada has entered a "post-urbanization" era. Of Canada's 12 provinces and territories, only 4 experienced greater growth in urban rather than rural areas between 1976 and 1981. Urban Canada was losing ground to "exurbia," but by the 1986 census, 8 of the 10 provinces had experienced modest growth in their urban areas. Canada's population is avoiding the very large and very small urban concentrations in favour of medium-sized cities. More and more Canadians are settling outside metropolitan areas, choosing the urban fringe areas. The increase in Canada's rural population thus does not indicate a return to farming; rather, people are seeking out "rural" environments that are close to a city. In the 1980s, slower economic growth led some municipalities to annex adjoining lands to increase their tax base. For example, in 1982 Edmonton's land area was effectively doubled through annexation, a process which approximately 100 000 new "residents" to Edmonton's population by 1986.

Recent trends in Canadian urbanization are complex but can be identified. The country's urbanization rate is stabilizing in the high 70% range as the population ages and natural increase slows. But high immigration levels to Toronto and Vancouver fuel these cities' growth. As well, retirement and leisure centres are booming across the country. Thus, while larger metropolitan centres are growing, smaller urban places are declining except in metropolitan commuting fields and leisure areas. In terms of urban form, decentralization continues at a rapid rate as outer suburbs and the rural-urban fringe grow rapidly. These trends all suggest that the decline of the monocentred metropolis in favour of the polycentric urban field will continue. There is, however, growing concern about the environmental consequences of these patterns, particularly the dependence on the automobile. By the mid-1990s, there was growing attention being paid to reversing these trends in urban and regional plans. Yet the city as a focus of cultural, economic, environmental and transportation relations probably has a future in Canada. One indication of this, evident by the early 1980s, was a growing concern to preserve or create identifiable symbols of a community in the forms of historic buildings or significant space. And Canadians still continue to identify with urban places in a traditional manner - even if they live in exurbia - suggesting a good deal of continuity in how society perceives place.