ACCENT: Inside-out city [economic challeges of Sudbury geography] – by Mike Whitehouse (Sudbury Star – July 30, 2011)

The Sudbury Star, the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper. 

The mining supply and service industry evolved on its own … In Sudbury, this sector
employs 13,800 people and generates $3.94 billion in economic activity…. Under the
radar, this rag-tag group of largely family-run fabricators, welders, communications
experts, technologists, engineers and suppliers spread across the city have taken
on a life of their own. These businesses share common causes and face common
challenges. They have developed their own networks, working relationships and de
facto strategies designed to meet these challenges. And, at least in the beginning,
they did so without encouragement or help from anyone.
(Mike Whitehouse – July 30, 2011 – Sudbury Star)

Look at a Google satellite map of northeastern Ontario, down onto a landscape without labels. The most visible feature is a wide, grey scar to the south cut into the Canadian Shield. Free of political boundaries, this is how the world knows Sudbury.

Zoom in a little closer and Greater Sudbury appears as a gormless sea of blobs, shapes and lines, islands adrift in the deep green Boreal forest. Look down on most Ontario cities and you’ll see patterns emerge. Confined urban matrixes with patches of remna nt forest and wetlands inside. From above, these cities define themselves. They have beginnings and ends.

Greater Sudbury is the opposite. It is nothing more than patches of development cut out of the endless Boreal forest, arbitrarily confined to borders that climb like a staircase to the northeast. It’s like taking any other city and turning it inside-out, and wondering why it doesn’t look right.

Sudbury is traditionally hard to explain that way. Its size, its shapelessness and its diversity make for endless speculation. It’s an industry town, a labour town, a regional hub, an educational or health centre, a northern tiger or a southern city that just happens to be north. All wrong, if only because something so big and shapeless can’t possibly be only one thing.

Seen from on high, most cities are islands of lines and patterns woven into their landscapes. Often, the patterns offer context — shapes that delineate use and offer clues about when and why they were built.

Cities, as they grow, become layered with history, wealth and endeavour — all visible from above.

But the configuration of Greater Sudbury, because of its context, its past and its sheer size, defies easy explanation.

Looking down on Greater Sudbury, there is no beginning and no end … nothing to explain or mark its borders. Only the scarred remains of industry to make sense of it.

Greater Sudbury is a green sea dotted with islands of towns, neighbourhoods, institutions and industrial complexes whose strengths, weaknesses and sometimes tenuous links are keys to Sudbury’s identity and future in ways we are only beginning to understand.


One of the most enduring memories of John Rodriguez’s mayoralty has to be his what-fits-into-Sudbury map. The map depicted Sudbury’s boundaries with 14 southern Ontario communities wedged easily inside — with room to spare. It was to scale and, to the degree that maps tell stories, it was a whopper.

Drawn up sometime in 2008 as part of a campaign to get Sudbury’s “fair share” of revenues from the province, the mayor’s map depicted better than words ever could exactly how big Sudbury is. He handed it out to everyone, spoke of it constantly and even had it mounted in the lobby at Tom Davies Square.

Rodriguez’s point was that it costs so much more to operate a city as sparsely and unevenly populated as Greater Sudbury than it does a single urban tangle like Toronto. Setting that conclusion aside, the comparison was prescient. Two more disparate siblings than Sudbury and Toronto can hardly be contemplated. Toronto has 2.5 million people crammed into 630 square kilometres, for a population density of 3,972 people per square kilometre. Sudbury has about 160,000 lolling about on more than 3,200 square kilometres, for a population density of 49 people per square kilometre.

If you were to invert the two extremes, the numbers become absurd. Applying Toronto’s density to Sudbury’s girth would yield a population of 12.7 million people, or one-third the population of Canada. In striking contrast, applying Sudbury’s density to Toronto yields a population of 31,000 people, roughly the size of Orangeville.

These are not fantastical numbers — they exist, just in different contexts. If Sudbury had the same population density as St. Catharines, it would have a population of 4.4 million. Of Oshawa — 3.1 million. Of North Bay — 550,000. All are smaller in population than Sudbury, but imagine how this city’s fortunes could be changed if their densities were the same?

Of course, the sheer size of Sudbury means we’ll never know, and therein lies the message. Sudbury is so big, it can never take for granted what other cities do.

Everything about Sudbury is super-sized. It is the largest city in Canada by size — five times larger than Toronto and two-thirds the size of Prince Edward Island. It’s so big it held the largest city-encompassed lake in the world in Ramsey Lake … until the city expanded and now Wanapitei Lake is the largest.

It’s so big, the city has 330 lakes within its borders — more than 100 of them larger than 250 acres. Many of these are undeveloped and unreachable except by air or paddle.

Greater Sudbury is so big it encompasses three distinct watersheds. The Vermillion, Wanapitei and Whitefish river systems — and the 25 sub-watersheds they comprise — all flow through the city and into Georgian Bay and Lake Huron.

Sudbury is so big, its agricultural reserve (13,170 acres) is larger than the communities of Newmarket and Orangeville combined — and those communities feed Toronto.

Sudbury is so big, an unprecedented 42% of it is Crown land and subject to forest management plans. The city has little to no ability to control development of these lands.

Rodriguez was a great pitchman and his what-fits-into-Sudbury map was the start of an important story. But bigness is relative — it’s what’s actually in Sudbury that sets it apart. It’s too big to understand, too wide to digest, too tall to comprehend. It’s so big, no single superlative can do it justice.


Of course, while five Torontos could fit into Greater Sudbury, dozens of towns already do. And much more.

In its 2007 Constellation City report, the community solutions team led by Floyd Laughren addressed the unwieldy size and shape of the city as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Moving forward means understanding and embracing the city’s shapeless diversity rather than papering over it.

“Levack the mining town, Blezard Valley the agricultural village, Capreol the railway town, Garson the bedroom community. Each of the 20 centres visited during the consultation process is a unique community with a story to tell. Each also has residents who are fiercely proud of their community and concerned for its future,” Laughren wrote.

These towns have maintained their identities in the face of decades of political indifference that amalgamation has brought — perhaps because of it, he added.

But they are not independent. Someone living in Garson is as likely to work in Copper Cliff as anywhere else. That commute is akin to living in Burlington and working in Toronto, like travelling from one island to another, likely passing others along the way.

Even within towns and cities, hills, wetlands and lakes separate neighbourhoods. Builders have been slow to fill in the gaps between them, a process that in other cities weaves disparate neighbourhoods into urban fabric. Thus, places within places — Minnow Lake, Blezard Valley, Little Italy — also stand out.

And within these places, there are towers. Laurentian University, Cambrian College, College Boreal and even Sudbury Regional Hospital and Tom Davies Square, while close to each other, work apart fulfilling their own mandates.

Every economic development strategy over the past few decades has sought to harness the combined influence of these towers in the service of the city and region. A sample slice from 2009’s Digging Deeper:

“Be wary of ‘silos’ as they impede wealth creation for everyone in a city-region,” it said.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Sudbury Star website: