I hope you’re ready to hunker down for a long one. This post is 20,000 words, and details a current obsession of mine – trying to determine an ideal city in which to live and thrive. It stems from something of dissatisfaction with my current location; it’s the same inner impulse which pushed me to move to Toronto and Austin previously.
This research project was primarily created for myself. I initially wasn’t going to publish it – even though I did a lot of reading and research, the whole post is still highly subjective. But maybe there’s someone out there who will benefit from having a framework of considering various cities in which to live. It is for that person that I publish this.
By nature, I’m somewhat nomadic. Not a lot, but a little. I was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, and I find myself living here again after many years away. I’ve lived in Austin and Toronto, and on the other end of the spectrum I’ve lived in small-town Saskatchewan, population 12,000.
I often find myself fantasizing about where I could live next. Where would be a good place to raise my daughter? A place where she’d have high-quality education and safety? Where is the place most likely to stoke her genius? Where will she be happiest? And, of course – where will I be happy?
Picking a location to live is somewhat like picking a partner. You’ll be intimately connected with this place, possibly for years. Some people fall in love with a place, or have a love affair with one; others suffer through a place because it’s where their work, or family, is. The idea of being deliberate about picking a place appeals to me in the same way it does about picking a partner. I want to live somewhere that I love. I don’t want to simply settle for what’s easiest.
I don’t recall ever loving Regina, Saskatchewan. I’m sure I could, though, if I tried really hard. After reading This is Where You Belong, I’ve learned that there are a variety of things I could do to foster a relationship with a place that extends beyond “I grew up here”. I could volunteer, get involved in local politics, explore the parks, walk, and while I’m at it, I could live in a more walkable neighborhood.
And Regina isn’t so bad. I have friends and family here. I know all the venues. It’s a frozen wasteland half the year, but it’s a dry cold, and you get used to it. The people here are nice, in that homey sort of way associated with the Midwest, and it’s a reasonably diverse city. You can drive across the city from one end to the other in 20 minutes, and then be in vast, unpopulated farmland. I’m able to garden on my parent’s plot out of town. My child has Buddy the pony. What other kid has a pony? (Thanks, mom.)
But by a series of 21 metrics that I created and determined as objectively as possible, which is to say, still highly subjective, Regina scores nearly dead-last on a list of 10 cities I might potentially enjoy living in. Why did it score so low? We’ll get into that. And what was the worst one, if not Regina? We’ll get into that too.
After creating this list, I’m left with a conundrum. Should I keep living in the nearly-worst place on my list, and do my best to make the most of it, the way the author of This is Where You Belong suggests? Should I prioritize the friends and family who live here above every other bit of criteria? A compelling case could be made for that. If anything were to convince me to stay in Regina, it would be two things: One, the presence of friends and family – a reason, I suspect, many people stay where they are, even (especially?) if the location is unglamorous – and two, because though my work might be portable, Michael’s isn’t. He can’t just up-and-move in the way I can.
But that’s not entirely an argument for staying put. People move away from their families all the time, including past me. It’s not a necessity to be physically near even a loving family, and few things energize like the grand reset button of a new location. What times in life, aside from falling in love, are you as alert and switched on, as when you relocate? What else, aside from loss, transforms you as much as a new place?
There is some urgency in these questions. As my daughter nears kindergarten age, it feels all the more crucial to pick a place and stick to it, at least for the next five years but ideally more. This means that, if I’m to move, it would be best if it was within the next two years. Once she’s in kindergarten, I want to try harder to stay put. Perhaps these are unneccessary constraints – people move with kids all the time – but unlimited options can stall out any action.
The Ten Cities
There are a lot of places I could move to in Canada, let alone in the entire world. However, this discussion is almost entirely limited to Canada (nine options out of ten are Canadian), since Canada is the most practical place for me to live for the next 5-10 years. I am, after all, Canadian, and moving to another country is very challenging. Probably unneccessarily challenging. Even if I were able to live in another country, what about Michael? What about his partner? What about my daughter? Never mind the difficulties involved in relocating as a single person, but an entire group of people? We would all equally have to really, really love a place to do that.
So nine out of ten places on this list are Canadian, with a single American city – New York City. Why? There are a lot of great cities in the US, ones that I’ve personally been to and enjoyed, so why pick one of the biggest and most expensive?
An easy answer this time. My partner is American, and he grew up in New York City. His family is there. He never imagined leaving, but then he started dating me, and found himself in Regina of all places. Even though living in New York would likely be impossible for me, I wanted to at least consider the idea. If it ended up ranking high on my list, perhaps a case could be made to move the whole crew across the border. If it ranked low, all the more reason to encourage my partner into a Canadian way of life, at least for a while.
What are the other cities on this list, then? Here they are, in order from west coast to east coast:
- Victoria, BC
- Vancouver, BC
- Calgary, AB
- Regina, SK
- Toronto, ON
- Ottawa, ON
- Montreal, QC
- Quebec, QC
- Halifax, NS
- New York, NY
Let’s return to an earlier point about there being a good deal many more cities, and even more towns, in the huge country of Canada. Why these specific ones? Why didn’t I include Saskatoon, or Winnipeg, or a variety of others? The simple reason is that they didn’t make the pre-screening cut. As far as my research and personal experience has led me, small towns don’t make the cut – I want a city, even if it isn’t a big one – and some cities have rubbed me the wrong way (sorry, Winnipeg).
Regina wouldn’t be on this list if I didn’t happen to grow up here – it’s certainly not a top-10 location by most standards. Regina is not without its merits. It’s spacious, friendly, and the cost of living is very low. Until recently, most people with decent jobs could buy a house there if they wanted. But it’s also cold and isolated. It’s small for a city (around 230,000 people), very conservative, and not a great place for artists.
But it is a serious consideration because my roots are here. As such, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan doesn’t make my list because, though it might be a better city than Regina (it is more beautiful, though Regina doesn’t set a particularly high bar), it’s really more of the same. If I had to live in Saskatchewan, I’d live near my family.
Some big cities are ommitted, like Edmonton and Winnipeg. This is because I don’t like them, plain and simple. Calgary and Edmonton are major cities in Alberta, and I chose Calgary for this list, which I understand is possible blasphemy to some. But I have family in Calgary, and though the city is sprawling in a way Edmonton isn’t, I also find it to be nicer, cleaner, and friendlier. Edmonton reminds me if Regina were to blow up to five times the size, whereas Calgary feels like somewhere new – even if it’s still littered with Ford F-150 trucks. Plus, Calgary is a hop and a skip from the Rocky Mountains.
And Winnipeg, well, it’s one of my least-favorite cities I’ve ever visited. I even lived there for a few months, so it wasn’t just a casual two-day visit that caused this harsh judgment. Winnipeg might rank higher than Regina – passionate Winnipegers could convincingly argue its superiority – but for the same reasons I pass on Saskatoon, I pass on Winnipeg. The climate is very similar (read: very cold), the crime rate is very similar (read: the only city I ever saw someone get mugged in), and if I’m going to go through the effort to move somewhere new, it isn’t going to be somewhere that’s a slight upgrade of the place I’m already in.
As a non-French-speaking person, including Quebec City on the list was probably foolish, but I wanted to see how it ranked on the simple metric that it’s a beautiful city. Moncton, NB almost made the cut for a similar reason, but ultimately was ommitted because of its size and isolation (it’s a small city on the tip of Canada’s east coast).
The criteria I chose to rank each city on is as follows:
4. Cost of living
6. Vegan friendliness
8. Walk score
12. Green space
13. Air quality
14. Long-term livability
15. Community/community spirit
18. Family friendliness
20. Airport quality
I didn’t include “healthcare” on the list, because it’s largely a similar story across Canada. I only included it with New York’s assessment, since the healthcare system in America is, to put it gently, flawed.
These 21 metrics are not made equal in my eyes. The beauty of a place is much more important to me than, say, its family friendliness (I may have a child, but only one, and she’s nearly four), and its walkability is more crucial than its bikability (I haven’t biked since I was a kid). As such, in assessing each city under each criterion, and in finishing my final tally, I have weighed things like “walkability”, “weather” and “cost of living” much higher than “culture/nightlife”, “liberalness” and “biking”.
Let’s begin with a discussion of each of the ten cities in turn.
Victoria is the Florida of Canada. It’s one of the warmest places in our cold country, and it has a high amount of relocated retirees. Fortunately, since it’s also the west coast, it’s a land of hippies and green-minded people, not conservatives with guns.
Victoria is situated, somewhat confusingly, on Vancouver Island (the city of Vancouver is not on Vancouver island). It’s the capital city of British Columbia and is as far west as west goes. Since it’s on an island, it’s relatively remote (you need to take a ferry or plane to get to the mainland), and as such, the city has a population of only around 400,000 people – still double my hometown of Regina, but small overall.
It rarely snows in Victoria, and it’s much sunnier than the mainland; Vancouver, another west coast city, much like Seattle or Portland, is rain-soaked most of the year. As such, Victoria earns top marks for weather, a near-perfect 9.5/10. The only thing that would make the climate in Victoria more appealing is if it were just a little warmer. Summer temperatures rarely peak above room temperature. Though Regina gets very cold in the winter, it also gets very hot in the summer, and I love the heat and subsequent warm summer nights.
On the other hand, Victoria is a very white city. I vastly prefer multicultural cities, especially when it comes to raising a child; children, and adults, flourish with diversity. Toronto, for example, is a great example of true Canadian diversity. It also means, on the whole, better food.
Despite the high retiree population (I’m almost certain it’s not because of it), Victoria still struggles with a high crime rate. On my particular top-10 list of cities, it scores the 2nd-worst (the worst is – you guessed it – Regina), and 32nd-worst in the country overall. It’s worth noting that most people consider Victoria safe, and that perception of crime is low. In the words of a Redditor,
“Never felt unsafe walking around the city, but I’m not often walking downtown. You do hear about incidents with homeless and drug addicted individuals. There seems to be a stabbing every other day, or some other violence. I feel like these incidents are mostly isolated to people in their own communities. If you don’t see any reason why you would get into an argument with someone about the crappy drugs they just sold you, or you aren’t getting a good trade-in value on the items you stole from a car, then you probably won’t be stabbed…or stab someone else.”
Another problem of Victoria, though it’s by no means the worst on the list, is the high cost of living. Estimates for costs for a family of four are 4,290.41C$ without rent. Rent in Victoria is, on average, 64.15% higher than in Regina. Regina, being one of the most affordable cities in the country, is my baseline for these metrics, which I’ll use in upcoming cities as well.
How liberal and vegan-friendly a city is matters to me just a little. I’ve lived as a new democrat and green advocate in the land of conservatives for my entire life, and it hasn’t been much of a tangible problem. I still have many liberal-minded friends, and there are benefits to discussions with more conservative-minded family members. I like to think I avoid political echo chambers by living in Regina, and hopefully I’m more tolerant as a result. As for vegan-friendliness? I’ve been vegan in the land of animal agriculture for over a decade, and it has only gotten better and better with time. The days of no vegan cheese and sad fast food burgers in were dark times. Nowadays it’s easier than ever to be vegan anywhere in North America. It’s great to visit incredibly vegan-friendly cities like New York, but I have plenty of options wherever I go, even in comparatively un-vegan Regina.
Victoria is both highly liberal-minded, with less than 20% of the population voting conservative, and green – one of the only green party seats in the country is from the area. It’s also a very vegan-friendly place, despite being small.
What, then, of car friendliness? The reality is that I drive, even when living in cities like Toronto. I prefer driving in cities where not “everybody treats every car length like it’s worth dying for”, as one Redditor put it. I appreciate the lack of traffic in Regina, and the ease of getting from Point A to Point B. Victoria is similar, but it has the downside of being on an island, so if you wanted to road-trip to the mainland, you’d need to pay for the ferry – and even then, would you really want to drive across the mountains? (No. No I wouldn’t. I white-knuckle it on flat prairie highways if conditions are one degree shy of perfect.)
British Columbia’s average annual traffic fatality rate was 6.2 people per 100,000 people between 2011-2015, which is about mid-range for Canadian provinces overall. This surprised me, because I guess I just assume drivers are careening off mountain cliffs left and right.
Victoria wins top marks for walkability (its “walk score” is 76 overall, with certain neighborhoods being higher). There is plenty of good hiking to be had nearby, with close access to trails, beaches and forests. Its public transit, however, leaves something to be desired (the “transit score” is 62). But what do you expect with a smaller city? Victoria is also the most bikeable city on my list, with a “bike score” of 80 and a close-to-perfect 9/10 rating by my own account.
Where it really shines, aside from the temperate climate, though, is beauty. It ain’t called the Garden City for nothing. Victoria simultaneously has that pleasant small-town vibe, but with good cafes and restaurants. The city is surrounded by natural beauty and plenty of greenery. Parts of downtown could use a facelift, but Victoria benefits from not looking too urban. The access to nature and green space is unparalleled on my list, and many great hiking trails are just a 30-minute drive from the city.
As for air quality, Victoria has the lowest amount of PM2.5 (air particles of 2.5 or less micrometres in diameter, considered to be hazardous to health) in the entire country, along with Prince Edward Island and remote, northern Whitehorse. The WHO recommends cities not exceed a maximum of 10 micrograms of PM2.5 – only 9% of cities worldwide meets this criterion. Fortunately, Canada meets this mark, as well as most cities within it, including Victoria with 6 micrograms of PM2.5.
Before we ride too long on this Victoria-style high, it’s worth discussing what I consider to be the worst thing about the city: The fact that it’s built over several major fault lines, and that there is a 1/10 chance of there being a major, tsunami-producing earthquake on the west coast in the next 50 years. They call this massive potential hotbed of destruction “The Big One”, which is sort of like calling Godzilla “The Big One”, or the creation of our cosmos “The Big Bang.” It just doesn’t quite capture the scale.
Vancouver Island sits near the edge of the Juan de Fuca Plate, and along with much of southern coastal BC is part of the ‘Cascadia subduction zone’. Victoria also sits directly on top of a fault line (the Leech River fault line). If there were a large earthquake, parts of Victoria would flood in a tsunami, and people on the coast of Vancouver island would only have 15-20 minutes to get to higher ground in the case of a high-magnitude earthquake. Victoria might have an hour. As someone who has spent most of her life on a land-locked prairie, this is a terrifying prospect to me.
Unfortunately, compared to earthquake-threatened U.S. cities, Victoria doesn’t adhere to basic regulations. They don’t require parapet bracing, they don’t have a mandatory retrofitting program, and don’t keep track of which of its buildings are earthquake-safe. It’s possibly a disaster waiting to happen.
But it’s also worth remembering that there’s a 9/10 chance it won’t happen anytime soon. Considering Victoria’s near-perfect weather, I suppose there had to be a downside somewhere.
On another note, one benefit of living in a smaller community is the friendliness. According to a Redditor,
“People are friendly here. I’ve lived in a lot of small towns where people make eye contact on the street, say good morning, etc. The cashier at the store will take the time to make small talk, people apologize for even the slightest possible inconvenience, etc. I’ve found all of that happens here constantly. It’s like we’ve taken the mentality of a 3000 person town and scaled it up.”
With a good mix of working professionals, the stereotypical hippie islander, the elderly, and tourists, it’s a nice blend of people, and an overall very laid-back population.
Victoria has a good education system, with British Columbia earning a “B” ranking overall. The University of Victoria is a popular and high-quality university, and it’s beautiful too. There is a wide array of other post-secondary options.
If fast-paced city life is one’s jam (it’s not a requirement for me), then Victoria will seem to be a pretty sleepy city. There isn’t much happening past 9pm. Despite the lack of nightlife, there is a decent amount of culture – arts events, farmers’ markets, and high-quality cafes are common.
If I ever wanted to buy land and abscond from society on Vancouver island, the growing zone would be fabulously cooperative, except for perhaps having to deal with garden slugs. The first frost date is December and the last frost date is February, so it’s basically year-round gardening, similar to parts of California, Florida, Arizona and Texas. Of course, being able to afford said land would be another thing entirely, and Vancouver Island is anything but cheap.
Then there is the issue of the getting off the island. For road trips and vacations, leaving the island is expensive and requires either a plane or ferry.
Victoria’s international airport has 15 nonstop destinations by flight, including Vancouver (a mere 25-minute flight) and Saskatoon (but notably, not Regina). Flying to Vancouver, round-trip would cost around $180. When traveling, I would almost definitely need to make a connection anywhere I wanted to go. The saving grace is that, like Regina, it’s a small airport that’s easy to get in and out of. Another benefit of Victoria is the proximity to Seattle, accessible by ferry, and Portland, and virtually anywhere else up and down the west coast.
Still, I consider it a high priority to be an easy flight away from my hometown, or my partner’s hometown in New York. This is a major strike against Victoria.
The final criteria to consider is “Michael-friendliness”, or “how difficult would it be for a high school teacher to get a job here”. Unfortunately, Victoria and suburbs are places where it’s quite hard to get your foot in the door. The upside is that math and physics teachers at a high school level are always in demand, and he has taught those classes before.
A final word on Victoria, from a Redditor:
“Love it way more than anywhere else I’ve been. Out east is nice, but life sucks. The winters are harsh and the people are always in a rush. Here, you get to enjoy life and take things one step at a time, although this is something that takes time to get used to. As long as clubs and partying isn’t your thing, you will love it here.”
Vancouver, situated on the west coast of Canada, has a a population of 2.5 million people in the city and surrounding area. It’s comparable in temperament to American west coast cities such as Seattle, Portland, and even San Francisco. Portland’s metro area is a similar size; Seattle is larger, and San Francisco is three times more populous. Canada’s film industry is concentrated here, and plenty of artists and musicians call the Vancouver area home.
Being along the Pacific ocean, Vancouver is one of Canada’s warmest cities in the winter – but, second to Victoria, it also has the coolest summer out of Canadian cities. Despite the moderate weather, there’s a lot of rain, like anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest. As someone who grew up someplace cold but very sunny, I find gray weather worse than cold weather (although neither is ideal).
Vancouver is one of Canada’s most diverse cities, perhaps second only to Toronto. It has the 2nd-largest Chinatown in North America (after San Francisco), and 49% of the population is non-white. Interestingly, Vancouver also has a higher percentage of interracial couples than comparable big cities like Toronto and Montreal. Top marks there. No place is perfect – racism still abounds in Canada – but Canada is better than most places in the world, and Vancouver is very tolerant.
After Regina and Victoria, Vancouver is 3rd place on my list for crime. Note that desirable Vancouver-area suburbs, such as Burnaby, are very safe. Gang violence – usually drug-related – has been a rising concern in Vancouver. The number of violent crimes is high compared with other Canadian cities, and burglary rates are above average.
The cost of living is absurd in Vancouver. It has the highest cost of living in Canada, and it’s among the most expensive cities in the world. A family of four estimated monthly costs are 4,295.68C$ without rent. Rent in Vancouver is, on average, 106.57% higher than in Regina. That means, for a comparable rental, I’d be paying north of $3.7k each month on housing. This is a very important consideration, because the more I have to earn to have an equivalent quality of life, the less time I have to actually live said life.
Vancouver, like Victoria, rates high on liberalness and vegan-friendliness – they’re roughly equivalent, with Victoria a little more liberal- and green-minded than Vancouver.
It’s not a great city for drivers – some lanes aren’t well-marked and they’re hard to see in the rain. One study by Canadians ranked it the worst city to drive in. Still, the traffic fatality rate in British Columbia is mid-range, so while it might be somewhat miserable to drive there, at least not a ton of people die on the road.
It also isn’t a great city for public transit. The sky train is much more difficult to navigate than the subways of Toronto or Montreal, and it isn’t as extensive. Toronto has streetcars and buses; Vancouver just has buses.
On the other end, it’s an extremely walkable city, with a walk score of 80. Vancouver is also planning on having every neighborhood scoring a walk score of 70 by 2025, an admirable goal.The bike score is good too, at 79.
One cannot deny that Vancouver is a beautiful city. As far as natural landmarks go, you have a triple-whammy: oceans, mountains and forests, all accessible and viewable from the middle of the city. I don’t find Vancouver’s downtown to be remotely beautiful, but some residential neighborhoods are gorgeous. Not much beats the mountain-clad skyline, viewed from the Pacific ocean.
Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, has the highest percentage of green park space in North America, and Vancouver has a Green Score of 190 (one of the top-scoring cities). In addition to many other initiatives, it’s aiming to be Zero Waste by 2040.Vancouver is one of the greenest and cleanest cities in the world, with excellent air quality for the population size – only Victoria scores (slightly) better.
As with Victoria, Vancouver is at risk of the “Big One”. According to one report,
“If, for example, a magnitude 7.3 quake hits close to Vancouver, the provincial emergency-response plan forecasts as many as 10,000 dead and more than 100,000 injured. In the City of Vancouver alone, 150 buildings would likely collapse and 4,000 would be so severely damaged they would need to be demolished.”
It seems the West Coast is “high risk, high reward”. The risk is a life-altering massive earthquake. The reward, however, is high livability points. Only Melbourne and Vienna finished ahead of Vancouver in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 global livability survey of 140 cities, based on factors such as health care, the environment, education, culture and infrastructure.
The “community spirit” in Vancouver, or lack thereof, leaves something to be desired. Vancouver has a transient population and its inhabitants don’t seem to hold the same passion for their city as, say, New Yorkers, who are fiercely proud of where they live. According to a Redditor,
“I hear many newcomers complaining about the difficulties in making friends in Vancouver. People say folks in Montreal are more eager to make friends and I know for a fact that ‘prairie provinces’ are the same.”
The University of British Columbia ranked 2nd in Canada for post-secondary options, according to Times Higher Education, with a global ranking of 37th (first place in Canada was the University of Toronto). There are also post-secondary art and film schools, and local public schools are generally high-quality. Schools can be difficult to get into, though, and many operate on a lottery system.
Vancouver’s culture and nightlife is good – third in the country, after Toronto and Montreal. Compared to Regina, it’s a real banger.
It isn’t an overly kid-friendly place. Only 15% of the population of Vancouver are children under 12, among the lowest rates in Canada (the number is 19% in neighboring suburb Burnaby).
According to one opinion,
“While many Vancouver parents embrace the city’s abundance of parks, nature, public transit and bike infrastructure, Vancouver lacks available childcare and kids programs, affordable housing, and safe streets.”
The growing zone for gardening in Vancouver is good, but it would be a distant dream to have the opportunity to grow anything there. I would almost certainly never earn enough income to move beyond the condo life, let alone have anything resembling a yard.
On the flipside, the airport is great and there are non-stop flights to basically anywhere I’d want to go in Canada. There are also direct flights to many US cities, including along the West Coast and out east to New York. The biggest travel downside is it takes longer to get to European destinations – London is 9 hours away. Australia, Japan and some Asian countries are closer, though, with flights being around 12-14 hours total.
Vancouver is crap for teachers, though, and Michael would likely be out of luck when it comes to getting a job there.
Moving away from the West coast, we make it to the prairie province of Alberta, which specializes in cows and oil. As you might expect, it’s the most conservative province in Canada, sometimes likened to Canada’s Texas (note: that unfortunately doesn’t apply to the weather). There are two major cities in Alberta – Calgary and Edmonton – but Calgary is the city that made the initial cut, in no small part because I have family there and have enjoyed visiting in the past. With a population of 1.4 million people, it’s no slouch of a city, though it’s got nothing on Toronto.
Calgary, like Regina, is a land-locked prairie province, with moody, wild-swinging temperatures. In January, the average high is -1C, and in July, it’s 23C. This is milder in both directions compared to Regina, which gets both colder and hotter. Calgary has a couple major advantages, despite getting quite cold: One, it’s the sunniest city in Canada, and two, it experiences a weather phenomenon called a “Chinook”, which means it randomly gets warm weather in the middle of the winter because of its proximity to the Rocky Mountains. This can happen suddenly, creating massive temperature swings in a short span of time. For example, in Pincher Creek, Alberta, in 1962, the weather increased 41C in the span of 1 hour due to a Chinook wind – from -19C to 22C.
Calgary is getting more diverse with each passing year; 61% of the population is Caucasian. Its crime rate is average – better than the West coast cities we looked at previously, and better than Regina, but not as good as locations out east, with a CSI (Crime Severity Index) of 90. It also loses points for crime because violent crime has been increasing in recent years.
Where Calgary really shines, similar to Regina and other prairie locales, is in the cost of living. A family of four estimated monthly costs are 4,165.80C$ without rent, and is only 3.03% more expensive than Regina. Rent in Calgary is, on average, 24.87% higher than in Regina. This is no small increase from where I am now – rent for a similar place would cost me around $2300 per month – but Calgary has a major benefit which significantly reduces the overall cost of living: Low taxes.
There is no general sales tax levied in Alberta, and shoppers only pay a federal sales tax of 5 percent. Shoppers in other Canadian provinces have to add a combined sales tax to their purchases ranging from 11 percent in Saskatchewan to 15 percent in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Income tax in Alberta is low as well. So though the cost of living is slightly higher there than Regina, lower taxes more than makes up for it.
Calgary does not shine with liberalness or veganness. It has a 50%+ conservative population, depending on what region you’re in. Alberta also has an alarmingly high number of people supporting the PPC (People’s Party of Canada) – they received as many as 5-8% of the vote in the previous election. Considering the PPC rests on a platform of anti-vaccination, xenophobia and anti-science, this is alarming. This is a group of people that supports withdrawing Canada from the Paris Accord Agreement, that have held anti-mask rallies, and who want to substantially limit immigration and build border fences.
Despite being beef country, and a place where many a truck bumper sticker proudly declares support for Alberta beef, there are still more vegan options to be had here than in Regina – a consequence of its 5x size difference more than anything else.
Aside from being conservative, Calgary is, if anything else, a city to drive in. The entire city maps like a sprawling suburb, very different from the condensed streets of Toronto. You need a car unless you’re very centrally-located. Though people in Regina complain about the long Calgary commutes and irritating traffic, my personal experience is that it’s not nearly as difficult to drive there compared to, say, Toronto. A benefit for me is that I work from home, and I don’t have to suffer through a rush-hour commute, so traffic isn’t a dealbreaker. However, the statistics that do get my attention are the ones that say that Alberta is the fourth-worst province for traffic fatalities, at a rate of 8.6 people per 100,000 population (between 2011-2015).
Since it’s such a driver’s city, Calgary is not a made for walking. Its overall walk score is 39 (note: many neighborhoods surpass that), and its saving grace in the ‘burbs are its abundance of beautiful walking and hiking trails.
Calgary’s transit score is 50, so not amazing. There are only three lines on the C-train, and the buses don’t run late. The situation isn’t much better for biking.
Is Calgary a beautiful city? There are two things to consider here. First – the city as a whole feels like a suburban sprawl (ugly), with very little cool downtown to speak of. It’s also all very new – Calgary isn’t a place you’ll find beautiful historic buildings lining the streets. But second, there are tons of walking paths, and it’s one of the cleanest cities in North America, so it depends what you consider beautiful. Calgary has two massive parks, Nose Hill and Fish Creek. Either one by itself is larger and more naturally beautiful than any from Toronto. But Toronto has older architecture, so there’s that.
According to a columnist,
“While Calgary may not have bragging rights when it comes to their modest Green Score of 123, the city is consistently ranked in the top of the greenest cities in Canada. With over 7,500 hectares of green spaces and parks, the city of Calgary is considered one of the cleanest cities in the world. The Green Calgary website is Canada’s oldest broad-audience environmental charity.”
Calgary gets top marks for water management, consuming 113 gallons of water on average, per person, per year (the Canadian average is 155 gallons).
Calgary was rated as the world’s cleanest city by Forbes Magazine in 2007 (this is the most recent survey published). Mercer carried out a survey of quality of life in cities around the world and rated Calgary as the world’s top Eco-city on the basis of the city’s waste removal service, sewage systems, water drinkability & availability, and low air pollution. Basically, it’s clean and green, especially interesting given that it’s oil country, and its air quality index is very good at around 5 PM2.5.
Would Calgary be a worthwhile city to invest in the long-term? This is a question I’ve asked about all the cities on my list, and it’s a difficult one to answer, given that I don’t have a crystal ball.
Calgary will be spared some of the problems of climate change. Drought might be an issue, and air quality from forest fires in British Columbia poses a risk. There is flooding and extreme cold to consider, not to mention tornadoes and winter storms. None of that is different from Regina. But Calgary is one of Canada’s wealthiest cities, and I suspect it’s growing. The thing is: Calgary will either undergo a major boom in the next 30 years, or have huge issues with the dying oil and gas industry. I optimistically think it stands to be one of the most long-term livable cities in Canada, and I think it’s a good time to invest in real estate there before the prices start spiking more than they’ve already begun to.
Calgary is full of friendly people, just like Regina, and there seems to be a decent amount of community spirit and pride toward living there.
Though it has good post-secondary education options, there aren’t enough public schools and overcrowding has been an issue. It is an extremely family-friendly city, though, with 26% of the population being children under 12. There is an abundance of families there, and it has one of the youngest and fastest-growing populations in Canada. All of this is why Calgary is the most family-friendly city on my list.
The culture/nightlife is no Toronto – Toronto is 6x the size of Calgary – but there is a diverse palette of restaurants and some nightlife to be had if you’re willing to drive and find it.
Gardening in Calgary would be a possibility because I might actually be able to afford a house there, and not be stuck in a shoebox my entire life. If I had a yard, the growing season isn’t long – a little longer than Regina’s, but not by much.
Surprisingly, Calgary boasts a sizeable international airport with a variety of direct national and international flights. Not only is flying to Regina from Calgary a breeze, I could road-trip to Regina in under eight hours, and New York is a simple 5-hour flight away.
And, as a final important note, second to Regina, Calgary is the most Michael-friendly. There are jobs available for teachers, with decent wages. He wouldn’t have to struggle in a shoebox in Calgary, either.
Moving further east, and deeper into the prairies, it’s time to discuss Regina, Saskatchewan, my hometown, population of 236,000. It’s the second-biggest city in the province, though Saskatoon isn’t much bigger at 246,000. Saskatchewan is extremely non-dense, with only 1.12 million people on 588,000 square kilometers of land. To put this into perspective, California is 424,000 square kilometers but has 37.3 million inhabitants. Averaging this out, there are two people per square kilometer in Saskatchewan; in California, eighty-eight people share that same square kilometer. Of course, most of the population of Saskatchewan is within a few hours of the American border – northern areas are largely untouched forests.
In January, the average high in Regina is -10C, and in July it’s 26C. It’s very extreme, sunny, and prone to drought (something which will be exacerbated with climate change, though climate change will make our growing season a little longer). Regina’s climate does also have the benefit of being dry instead of humid – is anything worse than the hot-bake oven of Toronto in the middle of the summer, or the wet cold of the winter? – but it’s so, so, so cold.
Having lived here many years, it’s been interesting watching Regina evolve. It’s safer than it was, more diverse, more lively. More restaurants are on the scene, more locally-owned businesses and breweries, and attempts have been made to revitalize the core. It’s ahead of the country in economic growth. But it still ranks the worst on my list of 10 on Canada’s Crime Safety Index (CSI), and 24th-worst in the country. It’s a small population, and the crime isn’t typically random, but it’s still concerningly high.
And, as with everywhere, the cost of living is soaring. When I was 21, I was renting a 1-bedroom apartment for $450/month. That was shy of 15 years ago, or 2007. The cost of living has gone up everywhere, but it’s disappointing to see how much housing prices have increased in a place that was once the beacon of cheapness. A similar 1-bedroom apartment might be $1200 per month now, at the end of 2021. Cheapness was Regina’s big lure for a good long while. In fairness, though, it’s still cheaper than nearly everywhere else on my list, with a family of four estimated monthly costs of 3,968.41C$ sans rent. On my list, only Quebec City has a lower cost of living.
Regina is neither very liberal, nor very vegan-friendly. It’s not quite as conservative as Calgary, but it’s close, with a 48% conservative vote and a 4% PPC vote. There are a lot of farmers here. Vegan and vegetarian restaurants tend to close down if they even open at all. But it’s not such a big deal; having lived here for a long time, I’m savvy to the options and really, there are still plenty.
You have to drive a car if you live in Regina. I didn’t get my license until I was 21 – five years after I was legally able to – and I relied on the unreliable city buses and the generosity of my friends in the interim. It was not fun. I wouldn’t recommend it.
It doesn’t help that my current neighborhood is extremely unwalkable. My current location has a walk score of 5, which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize it’s 5/100. You basically can’t walk anywhere. Some neighborhoods in Regina are much more walkable, but even so, it’s too small to get by without a car. It’s a city designed for cars.
Which brings me to an important point: Saskatchewan is the most dangerous place to drive a car in the country from a statistical standpoint. Traffic fatalities are higher here than every other province, and more than double the national rate at 13.2 traffic deaths per 100,000 population. Maybe it’s the stormy weather, the frequent highway driving, or irresponsibility, but if I’m going to be on the road with my child, I’m not in the best place for that.
Regina overall has a fairly dismal walk score of 44. My old neighborhood in Toronto, by contrast, had a walk score was 80, where most errands could be accomplished on foot. Even my old place in small-town Saskatchewan had a walk score of 63. Reflecting on this, I realize how important walkability is to me – how free and joyous I felt to be able to walk five minutes and get to the grocery store, health food store, Starbucks, bank, and so on. And if I was able to live in a walkable area in a town of 12,000, then I do believe that, while entire cities can be more or less walkable than others, there are neighborhoods within those cities that can be very walkable. Wherever I end up next, I’m going to live somewhere with an excellent walk score – no question.
Regina is not particularly bikable (its bike score is 56), and it’s not particularly beautiful, either. We do have a sort of “central park” around a man-made lake, and it’s nice enough, and then there’s the parliament building, but Regina is not a lovely city. It’s a functional city. Beautiful cities tend to have an abundance of old architecture, green spaces, and big trees. We have a little of that, but not a lot of that. It depends where you are. You can find beauty anywhere if you really go looking for it, but it’s much more apparent and easy to find in certain places, Victoria being a prime example.
Regina’s air pollution is 36th-worst in the country. In 2020, the city’s air pollution registered at 7.8 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre, still within the WHO’s recommended range. In 2008, the city had a PM2.5 of 4.6, marking an increase of 150 percent. Along with Quebec City (worst), Montreal and Vancouver, Regina has the highest amount of PM on my list.
How will Regina fare over the next 20-30 years, when climate change effects are felt more acutely? I expect that there will be more droughts and water issues in the summer, especially as you get further south. But weirdly, I think Regina (and southern Saskatchewan in general) will be one of the rare places on earth that will benefit slightly from climate change. If the droughts don’t wreck everything, we’ll have longer growing seasons and milder winters.
Regina is also growing very quickly; its population growth is among the top 15 most robust in the country; only Ottawa, Halifax, Toronto and Calgary are growing faster. Regina, like Calgary, stands to explode in size and popularity in the coming decades, as more people reject immigrating to the expensive centres and eject themselves from high-price lifestyles.
The main reason to stay here, as is usually the case, is because I know people here. I have local family members and friends, and my own personal history runs deep in this city. Regina is poised to become the food and agricultural capital of Canada, which could make it appear more attractive to Canadians, and a big factor of community is the perception of community. Right now, if you tell someone you’re from Regina, you’ll get a little bit of a pitying look. “Oh, that’s too bad.” There are few who envy you living in Regina, few who say, “That must be great.” This has a huge impact on overall community spirit, except for maybe banding us Reginians together as a collection of misfits and rejects.
Interestingly, in a social media study, Regina ranked #2 for “smiliest cities” – meaning there are more social media pictures of Reginians smiling in almost every other place in the country.
The University of Regina is okay – it’s thoroughly mid-range. It’s ranked in Macleans Top 15 Comprehensive Universities in Canada, but really, how many universities in Canada are there? If you have a small handful of major universities per province, the number doesn’t exceed 15 by much. Meanwhile, primary education earns a “D” overall and is among the lowest levels in the country.
Though there are a few live music venues here, and a few bars, and we have reasonably diverse restaurants, our nightlife and culture is understandably quite low – on par for a 240,000 population.
On the flip side to that, it’s very family-friendly. 27% of Regina’s population is a child under 12. If only it were more walkable, it would be more family-friendly. There is still a lack of childcare for families, a problem I’ve personally encountered with steep waiting lists, despite the relatively low population.
Along with having friends and family here, the big plus of living in Regina is having access to a garden. It’s very easy to garden here – that is, when it’s warm enough to do so. Community gardens are abundant, and many people actually own homes here and have yards. I also benefit from being able to access my parent’s space out of town, where I can garden on a large plot of land, something I’ve enjoyed for years.
I also like that it’s fast and easy to drive to the airport, and that our airport is small and quaint – there are no stressful lines, which make the pre-boarding experience very relaxing. Not having to spend an hour getting to the airport, and then getting overwhelmed by the crush of people at the airport checking in and getting through security, is a huge win. Of course, there aren’t many direct flights, so flying anywhere is a bit of a hassle.
The other big advantage of Regina, besides friends and family being here, is that it would be very, very easy for Michael to continue working and teaching here.
Moving further east, we make it to Toronto, the most populous city in Canada with 6.4 million people in the metropolitan area, and a place that I’ve lived and experienced firsthand. I can tell you this: I love Toronto. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I loved, past tense, Toronto. I’m not sure if the Toronto of today is the same Toronto of 2013, or if it’s gotten better or worse – it’s certainly gotten more expensive. What did I love about Toronto? Many points will be detailed below, but I loved the proximity to other interesting cities, like New York, Chicago, and Montreal. I loved that it mostly felt quite safe, public transit was good, and there were always people out and about. There were plenty of leafy, beautiful residential areas, even near to downtown. Good restaurants were abundant, many things could be accomplished on foot, and it was lively and culturally diverse.
I’m neutral on the weather of Toronto. It’s milder than Regina, and similar to Calgary, albeit a little warmer in the summer, with the major difference of being a little more humid and a lot less sunny, especially in the winter months. Toronto winters are wet-cold, with slush and ice that gets inside your bones, not like the dry cold of the prairies. That said, Toronto has better weather than Ottawa and Montreal, which both are cooler and wetter.
Toronto is also about as good as it gets when it comes to diversity, another thing I loved about living there. The Caucasian population totals 48.5%, and it feels welcoming and inclusive.
Maybe surprisingly, Toronto is safe. My family members fight me on this, citing gun violence and anonymity, but per capita, Toronto is safer than Regina. According to a Redditor,
“There’s nowhere in [Toronto] that I don’t feel safe. Night or day. When I lived in San Francisco, I always avoided walking through the tenderloin, which is right in the middle of the city. That place is just scary. Last year I was there and went to a restaurant in the mission. Went the wrong way from the 16th St. BART. A couple minutes later — holy shit, turn the fuck around and get out of there. I never get that feeling in Toronto.”
Toronto’s CSI is 66, slightly better than Halifax and Burnaby (a Vancouver suburb), and quite a bit better than Calgary, Victoria and Regina. For example, Regina’s CSI is 133, or double that of Toronto’s. Toronto has slightly more homicides per 100,000 people, but Regina has more sexual assault, significantly more impaired driving (by a factor of 3), more firearms incidents (Toronto has about 15 incidents per 100,000, whereas Regina has 29), and more general assault. Regardless of any feelings about it being a “big scary city”, it is in fact the little city on our list which is statistically scarier.
But the elephant in the room is the cost of living. It’s not quite as bad as Vancouver, but a family of four estimated monthly costs are 4,434.50C$. That makes it 6.82% more expensive than Regina, which isn’t so bad until you talk about rent. Rent in Toronto is, on average, 89.39% higher than in Regina, meaning my current (fairly nice) townhome would cost me around $3.4k per month.
Like many big cities, Toronto is very liberal, with around 20% of the population voting conservative, and it’s #5 on Happycow’s “Best Vegan Cities in the World” list. The abundance of excellent vegan options is something I remember with much fondness.
When I lived in Toronto, I drove through central Toronto at rush hour every day because I went to people’s houses to teach piano. And you know what? I got used to it. It wasn’t so bad. Granted, I was almost never on the major highways like the dreaded 401, but even when I was – to go to Niagara Falls, say – it was doable. Like any major city, you can avoid gridlock if you don’t travel on the freeways during rush hour, a luxury I have as someone who now works from home.
The one big problem with driving in Toronto is the snow and ice removal. As in, the lack thereof. I was in some dicey winter storm situations in Toronto that I’ve never experienced in Regina, and it seems that Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax are all much better and faster at removing snow to make the roads safer. But hey, Ontario also has the lowest traffic fatality rate in the country, at 3.7 people per 100,000 population, so it can’t be that bad.
Toronto’s overall walkability score is 61, but as with everywhere else on the list, it depends what neighborhood you’re in. My previous neighborhood, which I dearly loved, had a walkability score of 80. Transit is quite good with a score of 78. Though people love to complain about it, I always felt safe and comfortable using the city streetcars, subways and buses.
What of beauty? I think Toronto is much more beautiful than Vancouver or New York, depending on where you are. I know that Vancouver is much more scenic, with mountains and forest and ocean (Toronto just has a lake). And people will argue for New York’s beauty because Central Park, and all the landmarks. But Manhattan is a concrete jungle and Central Park is overwrought with people. There’s a small area of Toronto which feels like that, but much of the city is residential and very green. I’m not going to say that Toronto’s beauty is on par with many European cities, Quebec City or even Victoria, but I do think it outshines comparable cities on this list.
Toronto has an impressive green score of 179. With 7.2 metric tons of CO2 released per person, Toronto is comfortably below the 14.5 Canadian average. Torontonians consume less energy than average, and nearly twice as much waste in Toronto is recycled compared to other cities. It’s a clean city with good waste management – you’re not going to be stepping over feces on your walk to work. Toronto still deals with air pollution, though, with an average of 7 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre. Ontario cities often face high levels of smog in the summer months.
How will climate change impact Toronto? More heat waves, air pollution, and nearby forest fires. A major concern for eastern areas is Lyme disease, and the ticks that carry it. Energy demands could stress the grid and increase the risk of blackouts, and infrastructure damage is a concern with seasonal flooding. It’s also, as is probably worth mentioning given that we’re living through a pandemic at the moment, not the ideal place to weather another pandemic. But then, no cramped city is. I can’t imagine hunkering down in my old 450sq/ft apartment during the pandemic, a reality that many people have faced. Enduring Covid in spacious Regina has been a blessing, because, despite a heavy-hitting fourth wave, cases and fatalities have been overall low here. Plus, and probably more importantly, there is plenty of space to breathe.
Having lived in Toronto, I’ll call the community spirit average. People are generally friendly and there’s a meetup group for everything, which is a nice way to meet people.
The University of Toronto is one of the world’s most prestigious post-secondary institutions, ranking 18th in the Times Higher Education University rankings. Toronto is full of prestigious schools, from elementary to tertiary, and Ontario earns a B overall in Canada.
The culture/nightlife is about as good as it gets. There are a decent amount of young people, and it’s a good spot for being a musician (if you can afford a jam space). Toronto has a great food/bar scene, and tons of patios.
21% of the population in Toronto are children, which is higher than the west coast, but not as high as the prairies. It’s also very difficult getting childcare, and getting into schools, as is true with most big cities.
Toronto is in growing zone 7, which is nice for gardening, but where would I ever get the space to do it? Gardening would be a distant dream in Toronto; only if I were randomly wealthy and could afford a yard.
Let’s be clear – I hate the Pearson airport. It’s the only airport where I’ve nearly missed a connection. Not just once, but twice. It’s busy and confusing to navigate, and that’s not even mentioning the herculean endeavor to get to the airport in the first place. But on the other hand, it’s easy to get everywhere, including New York, overseas, and Regina. There are boundless direct flights, and plenty of travel potential.
Finally, how Michael-friendly is Toronto? Ontario’s school teachers are amonst the highest paid teachers in Canada. Unfortunately, the supply of teachers in Ontario exceeds the demand, and finding work is not easy. This would be one of the most challenging places for him to find work on the list.
Moving further East, but still in Ontario, we reach the city of Ottawa, population 1 million. Ottawa is generally described as boring, which I don’t mind, if boring means family-friendly, safe and low in crime. It’s basically a twin city, pushing right up against French-speaking Gatineau, Quebec, making it a truly bilingual city. It’s also the capital city of Canada, and home of Parliament Hill, which is basically the White House of Canada, with Ottawa being the Washington, D.C. equivalent.
Let’s start with the weather. Ottawa is in growing zone 5, and is one of the cooler places on my list – nearly as cool as Regina. Except it’s wetter and more cloudy in the winter, always a negative from my point of view.
Ottawa is also fairly white. 69% of the population is Caucasian, so it’s pretty middle-of-the-road for Canada – perhaps a bit less white than Quebec, Victoria and Halifax.
A benefit of being boring is indeed Ottawa’s low crime – it ranks #146 in Canada with a very low Crime Safety Index of 56. The cost of living is higher than the prairies, but not nearly as high as the west coast and Toronto – a family of four estimated monthly costs are 4,344.31C$ without rent, and rent in Ottawa is, on average, 50.15% higher than in Regina. So I could expect to pay an extra $800 per month for a similar quality of life.
Ottawa, being the home of Parliament Hill, is a government town, and as such, is clean, well-maintained, and has an abundance of historic buildings. It’s fairly liberal, with approximately 20-30% of the vote being conservative. It’s not particularly vegan-friendly, with 10 options per 100,000 people.
Driving in Ottawa isn’t that bad – it’s not as congested as Toronto or Vancouver. The walkability score is overall very low, at 45, as is the transit score at 50. The bike score is just slightly above Toronto’s at 64.
By all accounts, Ottawa is a beautiful city.
“Blessed by geography, the city borders the Ottawa River, and is bisected by the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal, one of only eight UNESCO world heritage sites in Canada. Ottawa has 20 acres of parklands for every 1,000 residents, compared to only 8 acres of green space for every 1,000 Toronto residents, and a miniscule 3 acres for every 1,000 Montréalais. And that’s not counting Gatineau Park that encompasses 361 square kilometres (139 square miles) of rolling hills and pristine lakes, and extends close to the centre of Gatineau, Quebec, just a few minutes’ drive from Parliament Hill.“
To bring things back down to Earth, though, Ottawa has regular parts of the city too, as well as parts that aren’t attractive at all. Since Ottawa is very small for a city, the “ordinary can often be right beside the attractive,” says a Redditor.
Ottawa is dedicated to maintaining a “clean, green and litter-free city.” Mercer rated Ottawa Canada’s second-cleanest city, and the third-cleanest city worldwide. Forbes ranked Ottawa fourth out of 300 worldwide cities.
In addition to being well-maintained and clean, the air quality is also mid-range on my list. Canada generally has clean air compared to other countries, and Ottawa doesn’t do too bad here.
Interestingly, Ottawa is in an earthquake zone, though damaging quakes are rare. For long-term livability, Mercer ranked Ottawa the third-best city to live in the Americas, just behind Vancouver and Toronto, and 19th in the world overall. Ottawa scores strongly in most categories, especially for amenities, weath, economy, commuting and health.
In general, it’s considered more friendly than Vancouver, but perhaps less warm and inviting than prairie cities.
Education is top-notch in Ottawa, and the city has the highest concentration of scientists, engineers and PhDs in Canada. In two of the last four years, Ottawa’s university has made it into the world top 200 ranking, and is ranked seventh among Canadian universities. Primary education receives a “B” ranking in Ontario.
Nightlife, though? As I mentioned earlier, Ottawa is considered boring – a sleepy family city. It seems the city was designed with families in mind, and 25% of the population is a child.
The airport at least has direct flights across Canada, and to New York – no direct flight back home to Regina, though. It notably lacks direct flights to European destinations, and it’s smaller than the Calgary airport. Fortunately, it’s a close-ish drive to Toronto, Montreal and New York, so the city itself is less isolated.
Ottawa is, unfortunately, one of the least Michael-friendly places on the list simply because it’s a truly bilingual city. As such, if you don’t speak French, you’ll have trouble getting a teaching position.
Moving on to the province of Quebec, Montreal is the second-biggest city in Canada, with 4 million people in the metro area. It’s geographically between Ottawa (previous) and Quebec City (upcoming), and is a primarily French-speaking city, though many people there do speak English as well. It’s the second-largest primarily French-speaking major city in the world, after Paris. Montreal is known for being an artistic and cultural hub in Canada, home to many artists and creatives.
The weather in Montreal is slightly warmer than Ottawa in the summer, and it can get quite humid, with cold, snowy, windy, icy weather in winter. It’s slightly milder than Regina, but the winter weather is worse in that it’s wetter and there is less sunshine. Climate is not Montreal’s strong suit.
In the metro area, 66% of the population is Caucasian. Based on anecdotal accounts, there is more micro-aggressive racism here compared to Vancouver or Toronto.
The crime rate is among the lower ones on my list, with a CSI of 75 and being the 99th-worst Canada.
One of the best things about Quebec generally is the low cost of living. Montreal is actually a little cheaper than Regina for everything excluding rent, where rent is around 17% higher than Regina – really, one of the most affordable cities in the country. Montreal has the lowest rental costs of any major Canadian city – many people have moved from Toronto to Montreal for cheaper rent. One downside, though, is that Quebec also has some of the highest tax rates in the country. There is 16% provincial income tax up to $41k income, with a federal rate of 15%. Sales tax is also high, with a baseline 5% tax with 10% provincial sales tax added to it.
Quebec is not as liberal as, say, Ontario, but it’s much more liberal than the prairies. Montreal has the second-most vegan restaurants in Canada, with 21 options per 100,000 people – it’s highly vegan-friendly.
In Montreal, with 1.8 cars per person, there is a lot of traffic, and it’s not a great city to drive in. According to a Redditor,
“Local parking is scarce and often restricted, and further to this, it is very obvious that the city fines aggressively as a means of raising capital. Additionally, the parking signs are often confusing. Also, Quebec’s infrastructure is based on the European road standard, not the North American road standard. This means highway merging lanes are shorter, lanes are narrower, and in general, there is a different road “feel” (this is the root cause of the maligned “Montreal driver”).”
That said, Quebec’s average traffic fatality rate was 4.9 people per 100,000 population, which is 2nd-best in the country.
The city itself has a walkability score of 65, a transit score of 67 (worse than Toronto), and a bike score of 72 (better than Toronto). In 2013, Copenhagenize rated Montreal the best city in North America for cycling. The bike-lane network is excellent, and the separated lanes make you feel safe. Coming from Toronto, a city with a terrible bike network, this is a very attractive feature for an avid cyclist.
Is Montreal beautiful? There are plenty of old buildings, old architecture, an interesting downtown, and some cobblestone. Montreal rates as one of the world’s most livable cities, and was named “Canada’s Cultural Capital” by Monocle Magazine and a UNESCO “City of Design”.
However, Montreal has the worst trash disposal in Canada (more akin to New York), with a “Just chuck it out the front door” philosophy which is rather unpleasant in the summer months. Does anyone want to smell rotting dirty diapers on a summer stroll?
Montreal also performs moderately in the Green City Index, being 19th on a list of Canadian and American cities. Despite being the most bicycle-friendly city in the country, Montreal has high energy and water consumption per capita, and isn’t spending enough on environmental initiatives. Montreal has less park space than green Ottawa, and even Toronto.
For air pollution, Montreal has an average of 7.1 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre, which gives it some of the worst air quality in Canada (but still within the WHO’s recommended limits). One reason is the high number of wood-burning stoves—the city has 50,000 domestic wood-burning appliances, though new rules have forced homeowners to replace or stop using them.
Montreal might not be a great bet in the long-run. It has many problems with infrastructure and sometimes sketchy politics. With climate change, there will be more heat waves and air pollution, not to mention the proliferation of Lyme disease in eastern areas. As with Toronto, floods and winter storms will be a problem as well.
In 2021, Montreal slipped down the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Livability Index, dropping 19 spots to #40 out of 140 cities listed – this is in large part due to Covid outbreaks and restrictions.
Perhaps most interestingly is that Montreal can have earthquakes (who knew?), and not many old buildings are earthquake-proof. After Vancouver, Montreal is the 2nd-most vulnerable to earthquakes, next to Vancouver (note that this is only counting major cities; Victoria is a small centre). A risk modeling firm, AIR Worldwide, estimated there is between a five and 15-per cent chance the St. Lawrence and Gatineau valleys will, in the next 50 years, experience an earthquake as large as the one that rocked Haiti in 2010, a 7.2 on the Richter scale.
The Lonely Planet travel guide puts Montreal in 2nd place in its “10 happiest places in the World” list.
According to a Redditor,
“It’s a bit of a slower pace than some of the other major cities and there is a diverse community here. There are a lot of talented people, so you’re kind of kept on your toes, but you don’t have to constantly scrape for work as hard as, say, New York or Toronto or L.A.”
“the citizenry is much more laid-back than elsewhere in Canada. You go to a grocery store and shoot a few jokes with the people in line. It’s a joie de vivre that you don’t get anywhere else.”
Montreal has the lowest tuition in the country, and $7 per day daycare. It has the highest concentration of post-secondary students in North America, with nearly 4.5 students for every hundred residents. Unless you’re going to private school, though, English public school is harder to get into. McGill University is ranked third-best in Canada and 44th globally.
Montreal highlights its arts and culture scene as a key feature. The city is known for its many art galleries, street festivals, and other world-class events.
It’s moderately family-friendly, with 23% of the population being children.
The Montreal airport is huge, with a wide variety of national and international destinations – probably just as good as Toronto.
Finally, Montreal’s language laws require employees working with the public to be able to speak French competently, but most employers look to hire people who can speak both French and English to serve a broader public. This is bad news for non-French-speaking Michael looking to get a job.
Moving further east, and still in Quebec, we reach Quebec City, relatively populous at 530,000 people. The only reason this city is on my list is because its beauty intrigued me – otherwise, I probably wouldn’t even consider living somewhere that’s primarily French-speaking when I’m not fluent. Quebec City is the capital of Quebec, and the old part of the city was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.
The weather is “humid continental”, with 4 distinct seasons; similar in many ways to Montreal, though cooler overall. It loses points for being less sunny and more wet, while also still being basically as cold as Regina.
Quebec City is very white, with 90% of the population being Caucasian – it is, in fact, the whitest city on my list.
The cost of living is among the most attractive features of Quebec City. Family of four estimated monthly costs are 3,812.33C$ without rent, so it’s 4.22% less expensive than Regina. Rent in Quebec City is, on average, 19.68% lower than in Regina, meaning it has the lowest rent on my list in the country. I quickly calculated that, if I lived there, I’d save $8k per year just in rent and living expenses, assuming I changed nothing about my lifestyle. Meanwhile, I’d spend much more on the same things in Toronto – around $25k/year more. How can these massive price fluctuations not impact my immediate quality of life?
Quebec City is one of the safest cities on the list – it ranks #158 in Canada overall, with a CSI of 51.
There is a very large Bloc voting basis here, but it’s still quite a liberal place to live. It isn’t particularly vegan-friendly – about on-par with Regina.
Since it’s a smaller city, I’d wager it’s quite drivable, and since Quebec has the 2nd-lowest traffic fatality rate in the country, it’s fairly safe too. The city isn’t particularly walkable with a score of 45, and the transit score of 47 is rather dismal. It’s decent for biking, though, with a score of 59.
As for beauty? The old part of the city is a UNESCO heritage site,after all, and it’s the reason I put this city on my list in the first place. It’s the only place in the country which feels like “Europe in Canada”.
Dubbed the most sustainable city in Canada by the Corporate Knights Forum, Quebec wins big points for clean water, good waste management, and bike paths aplenty. Unfortunately, Quebec City has an average of 8.2 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre of air pollution, which is in Canada’s top 3 worst, along with Regina.
Like Montreal, Quebec City is considered friendly – if you know the language. If you don’t know French, expect challenges. According to a Redditor,
“I have found people in Quebec City and other areas of Quebec I have visited …are very friendly, very polite, super nice and personable.”
But it’s no Montreal, where anglophones can get along just fine. If you live in Quebec City, it’s expected that you speak French.
The quality of education in Quebec is fairly good, but options would be limited as an English-speaker, and my daughter would likely need to relocate for post-secondary education.
Quebec City’s culture and nightlife is nothing like the big cities, but it seems a little better than Regina (which, granted, isn’t a high bar).
It has a better gardening zone than Regina, and it would be possible to have a house with a yard or a garden here, unlike Toronto or Vancouver.
As for the airport, there are 24 places that Quebec City has direct flights to, including Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York, Paris, London, and a few southern locations. Regina is notably absent.
Quebec City is dead-last on the Michael-friendly criteria, since he’d basically need to learn and be fluent in French to have a job there.
Finally, we reach the East coast of Canada with Halifax, capital of Nova Scotia, population 448,000 – similar in size to Victoria and Quebec City. Halifax is known for good beer, a lively music scene, seafood, and home base to “Canada Nice”.
The weather isn’t bad. The average high in January is 0, much milder than Regina, and the average high in July is 23, cooler than Regina. Halifax is relatively snowy and rainy, and in many ways equivalent to Montreal, except a little milder, and not quite as warm. According to a Redditor,
“We tend to have a good nine months of decent weather, a short spring, often rainy and cool with the odd warm day thrown in, sunny and warm summers, a beautiful fall and snowy, traditional winters, which often start around December through to mid March. And wind. We have LOTS of windy days.”
Like Quebec City, Halifax is pretty white, with Caucasians making up about 89% of the population.
The crime rate is okay – 116th on Canada’s list, with a CSI of 67.
A family of four estimated monthly costs are 4,345.36C$ without rent, so it’s 7.58% more expensive than Regina. Rent in Halifax is, on average, 23.55% higher than in Regina. One thing to note is that, since Halifax is fairly remote, it’s more difficult to ship goods there, and inflation and costs of goods like groceries can be outrageously expensive. It’s also important to note that Nova Scotians pay the highest income tax in the country.
Nova Scotia, especially outside of the city, is quite conservative, though the city itself has a low conservative vote. For the size, it has an abundance of vegan options – 5 fully-vegan restaurants and 35 options per 100k people.
When considering Halifax’s drivability, it’s useful to consider that it’s about as far east as east goes – it would be difficult to, say, road trip to Montreal or New York, or anywhere else, for that matter. Nova Scotia’s average traffic fatality rate was 7.1 people per 100,000 population, mid-range for the country.
Halifax’s walkability score is 63, with a transit score of 65. Though there are only buses for transit, the fact that it’s a small city makes it somewhat easier to navigate both on foot or bus. It’s not a bike-friendly city, with a score of 45.
Being a coastal city, it scores points for beauty, and nature hikes abound nearby. The air quality is decent, with a PM of 5, 5th place on one particular list.
According to the 2019 Canada’s Changing Climate Report, written by scientists from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Natural Resources Canada, the impacts of climate change on Atlantic Canada will be diverse. And regardless of whether emissions drop or increase, that 20-cm rise is expected to happen within the next 20 to 30 years. I’ll interpret “diverse” to mean “difficult”.
Halifax is considered a very friendly city. Says a Redditor,
“People generally like to think of Canadians as some of the most genuine and friendliest people you will meet, and nowhere is this more true than in Halifax. You really do get such a strong sense of community living here. I’ve noticed that when I talk to people wherever I am in Halifax, whether it’s in a coffee shop, waiting at the bank or crossing the road, it’s not just some robotic interaction, but instead there is true interest in wanting to get to know one another.”
The quality of education in Halifax earns a “C”, which makes it better than the prairies and equivalent to Quebec.
Since Halifax is small, it doesn’t have the culture and nightlife of big cities, but it does have a good music scene and a ton of bars – though most of the nightlife centers around the University. It’s a good place to enjoy a craft beer at a local pub, with some high-quality restaurants to enjoy as well.
Only 22% of the population of Halifax are children, but it looks to be a great place to raise them. There are good schools, it’s mostly affordable, there are plenty of public spaces, nearby camping, and a nice new library, among other things.
Halifax’s airport has 33 non-stop flights, including to Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, and sometimes to New York and other international flights (mainly in the summer).
Halifax is moderately Michael-friendly. One Redditor says,
“It’s very very hard to get a teaching job here.” Another suggests, “there is certainly demand for teachers. We are without subs (supply) on a near daily basis. Don’t limit your job search to strictly Halifax as there are a few adjacent boards that have schools within a short drive of HRCE.”
Finally, we’ll finish with my partner’s hometown and our American point of reference – New York City, population 8.8 million. What could I tell you about New York that you don’t already know, from countless portrayals in entertainment and media? It’s a big, diverse, gutsy, and bold city. Plenty of creatives live there, but it’s also a hub of consumerism. Pedestrians rule the roads, but traffic is often nightmarish. Excellent food is everywhere, at all hours. No one could get bored in New York.
And honestly, the weather is great. Hot in the summer, with an average high of 29C, but with the downside of being very humid as well. That’s made up for by an average January high of 4C. New York is also very sunny, which is a benefit in my books.
The Caucasian population of New York is 47%, which is basically the same as Toronto. However, New York loses a point on diversity for being in America and thus more divided on race in general.
My family will never believe me on this, but New York is a very safe city. There are 2030 crimes per 100k people – by comparison, Toronto has 2915 crimes per 100k people, and is considered a safe Canadian city. Violent crime in New York is 573 per 100k, and Toronto’s is 748 per 100k. Overall, it’s among the safest cities on our list.
The cost of living, as you might expect, is atrocious. A family of four estimated monthly costs are 6,284.10C$ without rent, which is about $2000 more than Regina, and virtually anywhere else in Canada. Rent in New York is, on average, 276.13% higher than in Regina, an obscene leap far beyond even the priciness of Vancouver.
To put this into perspective, for my current quality of life, I’d be paying $7000 more per month, both on rent and on general living expenses. My monthly expenses would work out to around $13,000 total, basically double what it is currently. That works out to $84,000 extra spent per year, compared to what I’m spending in Regina.
Of course, I wouldn’t expect to live in a nice townhome in Manhattan, so in reality I’d probably only be paying an extra $5000 per month, or $60,000 per year. Only.
New York is known for being fairly liberal, but with a 38% republican vote, it’s not nearly as liberal as most Canadian cities. It is, however, extremely vegan-friendly, being #2 on HappyCow’s list of most vegan-friendly cities in the world.
No one considers New York particularly drivable; you have to pay fees at the bridge, and there are gridlocks all the time. But it makes up for that with the top walkability score of 88.3, and very high-quality public transit with a mark of 84.3. It’s even fairly bikeable, coming in at #8 in the US/Canada with a mark of 70.
Why do people consider New York so beautiful? New York is featured in all of the travel lists for beauty, but I suspect this is just because New York is a big name. “Sure, visit New York, it’s beautiful.” In my opinion, of all the places I’ve been, it’s one of the least beautiful. It’s grimy, gray, grim, with a lot of trash everywhere and endless gum embedded on the sidewalks. Then there’s the “schmutz”:
“Ever wonder why Manhattan’s snow turns black? The answer is the city’s special brand of filth: a mix that includes diesel exhaust (mostly from trucks and buses) and ground-up rubber, particles released when tires roll over uneven surfaces. Keeping the streets in better shape would keep the rubber on the road, where it belongs.”
There is also a ton of shade from the high-rises, making it difficult to enjoy the copious sun. I guess there is Central Park, but there’s very little greenery outside of it. New York has the least amount of green space in USA.
Surprisingly, New York has very good air quality. Since at least 2017, New York air quality has consistently fallen within the WHO’s recommended target (2017, 2018, and 2019 averaged 6.8, 7, and 7 μg/m3 respectively). New York’s air quality index (AQI) has remained less than 50, or “good,” for the last few years.
Crime is getting a little worse in New York, and it’s not a great place to be during a pandemic. It’s also hard to be upwardly mobile (ie I will never own a home there unless it’s deep in a suburb). But it will always be a top world-class city that people want to live in.
The New York community is interesting. On the one hand, New Yorkers are notorious for being obnoxious and rude, in the same way that people from Regina are thought to be hillbillies. On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more passionate bunch of people in favor of their city. New Yorker pride is a real thing.
Education is a bit of a nightmare – nearby Jersey fares slightly better. Expect lottery systems to get into schools, expensive post-secondary education, and mediocre quality for many public schools.
Of course New York has the most culture and nightlife out of anywhere on this list, far outpacing even Toronto. Where else can you walk a block in any direction at 2am and find noodles, or a show, or whatever else your restless heart desires? That said, after a while, Manhattan just feels like a big shopping mall, with sprinkles of culture amidst overwhelming amounts of retail establishments.
On the family friendliness front, it’s neutral, with 24% of the population under the age of 18. Note that in my Canadian tallies of children, I calculated for younger than age 12, not 18. That puts New York roughly on par with the West Coast.
Gardening would be a distant dream – not a chance in hell I’d have a yard there unless I become a millionaire.
New York has 3 major airports, and it’s incredibly easy to travel anywhere in the world. It’s a hassle to get to the airports, but travel to and from New York is about as easy as it gets.
Though I haven’t considered healthcare in any of the Canadian criteria, it’s worth including in New York’s tally, since even mediocre health insurance would be a sizeable cost of living there, easily adding at least an extra $5k per year in extra expenses.
Is New York more or less Michael-friendly than Quebec locations where he’d need to know French to get by? It’s a tough call. I have to imagine that the competition for teachers in New York is incredibly high unless you get out in the boonies. Would it be harder to learn French, or to get a teaching job in New York? They’re different challenges, but the degree of the challenge is similar.
Categories of consideration
Before we get into the final tally of each city and make our list of best and worst places to live, it’s important to discuss the 21 categories (22 if you include healthcare) I used as criteria. We’ll look at how each city fares within each category so we can compare them against each other and declare winners and losers.
I’ve weighed each category differently – some are much more important to me than others. How things are weighed and ranked will be a final point of discussion.
Weather is a highly-rated criteria to me – perhaps not the most important (certain places with terrible weather have fabulous culture), but given that I’ve lived in what amounts to a frozen wasteland half of each year for the better part of my life, it’s pretty important to me.
Victoria easily and handily takes the cake for weather. Though it doesn’t get particularly warm, it’s sunny for the west coast and barely gets cold. It’s the mildest on the list, and activities can be enjoyed year-round – even golf, if you’re into that. Calgary and New York tie for second place; Calgary, for being very sunny, and New York, for being very warm and also sunny (it loses points for humidity). Noticing a theme here? Sun is important to me. On the prairies, it can be -40C, but the sunshine is what keeps you smiling. Gray, wet winters like those you find in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal kill my spirit. Still, though gray and wet Quebec City and Montreal tied for second-last on my list, the worst weather of all was found in Regina. It might be sunny here, but it’s fucking cold.
Why does diversity matter to me? Diversity is everything. I never want to live in an echo chamber, surrounded by those like me – whether it be by race, orientation, or politics. The more diverse a place, the more tolerant and open a place. The more tolerant and open a place, the more creative a place – because people can, as they say, let their freak flag fly.
Racial diversity, which is what I consider in this category, is important for so many reasons. I want my daughter to grow up around people from many cultures and backgrounds. Another important factor is that my partner is not white, so I would hate to increase his chances of experiencing discrimination.
The winner for diversity is Toronto – more than half the population is non-Caucasian and the ethnic mix itself is more diverse than Vancouver’s. New York is also highly diverse, but loses points for being in America, which is less tolerant overall. Quebec City and Halifax fare the worst, since they’re they whitest. Whether it’s an unfair reputation or not, Quebec and Nova Scotia also have anecdotally higher amounts of racism compared to other Canadian provinces. It’s a tough call, since certain provinces – Saskatchewan is one – are quite racist toward Indigenous peoples, but are fairly diverse and accepting of other races.
Crime is a strange metric to evaluate. On the one hand, you have cold, hard facts. The data suggests that the safest city on my list is actually New York City (tied with Ottawa and Quebec City). But instinct seems to rebel against those facts. New York? Safer than small cities like Regina? There is, it’s true, a lot more crime in New York. A lot more gun violence in particular. But statistics don’t lie – on a per capita basis, Regina is actually the most dangerous city on the list. It ranks 24th-worst in Canada overall, with a CSI of 132, nearly triple that of the safest city on the list, Quebec City.
That said, most of the crime in Regina is highly localized to a few communities, and if you’re not involved with a gang or a shady drug dealer, you’ll probably do fine. My particular neighborhood has virtually no crime at all.
But – BUT – having lived here for years, I have experienced my share of issues, from rogue cab drivers to harassment from sketchballs. And I’m not alone – I can’t think of a local friend who hasn’t experienced the same. Is this true of every city? I wouldn’t dream of being downtown in Regina at night alone.
Meanwhile, I felt very safe in Toronto and often used public transit on my own at night with no issue. Walking around downtown in the evening was fine – plenty of other people did it too. There were certain neighborhoods to avoid, sure, but it was easy to do so there. It’s interesting that Toronto, a city many people from smaller places consider “dangerous”, actually felt quite a bit safer to me than Regina. And it’s not just a feeling – statistics back that up.
4. Cost of Living
Cost of living is perhaps one of the most important criterion on this list, if not the most important. What else could impact your life so dramatically as your ability to afford things, or not? To live in a shoebox apartment, or not? To work long hours, or prioritize climbing the ladder, or not?
I’ve lived in one of the most expensive places on this list (Toronto) as well as one of the cheapest (Regina). In Regina, most dual-income households can afford a house, even though prices have been rising a lot in the last couple of years. In Toronto, unless I can afford a mortgage on a $900k house (which, for the record, would be a fairly run-down house), it’s condo life forever. That said, there was one factor that mattered more to me, ultimately, than having a house (or not). One thing that mattered even more than having space. That thing? Walkability. We’ll talk about walkability more soon, but this is a big reason I loved living in Toronto. Sure, I was in my 20s, and was therefore more tolerant of a tiny apartment than I would be now in my 30s, but I could walk (and transit) everywhere, and I did. When I consider my overall happiness levels throughout my life, having a house didn’t make me happier than being able to walk to the coffee shop, or the grocery store, or a handful of other places.
So cost of living is important, but it isn’t everything. I don’t need a house to be happy, even though I often convince myself that I do. It’s the dream, right? Space is great, sure. I love having an office in my current place, completely separate from my bedroom and the living area. Having a dining room would be nice. But that still doesn’t trump the benefit of being nearby to dozens of amenities. It would have to be a really nice home to convince me otherwise.
However, there’s a limit. The cost of living is astronomical in New York, such that, to have the same quality of life I currently enjoy, I would spend $85,000 more per year. I might as well get a second full-time job. I’d need around another $40,000 per year to enjoy Vancouver, and around $35,000 in Toronto. Is the difference worth it?
Put another way – since the cost of living in Regina is lower, such that I would lose the equivalent of $40k in Vancouver per year – would that $40k be better invested in something else? If I had to earn an extra $40k in Vancouver to survive, or sacrifice my standard of living to reduce the cost, would that money be better spent? What about working less? What about investing in my music career, or having more time available to experiment with writing, such as what I’m doing right now?
What about pandemics? Living in Regina during a pandemic has mostly been a blessing. Our population is so spread out, and I don’t live in a tiny apartment. When working from home, one benefits enormously from a home office, or at least something more substantial than 450 square feet of total living space, especially if one is unable to work from cowork spaces or coffee shops.
So the most expensive city on my list to live in, by a long shot, is New York, with a distant second of Vancouver, which is handily the most expensive city in Canada and among the most expensive cities in the world. The cheapest city is Quebec City, though it balances out similarly to Regina when you factor in taxes. Calgary gets an honorable mention here, because, though it’s a little pricier than Regina, people can still afford homes there and they have incredibly low tax rates.
I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, sure. But do I want to live in the land of conservatives, always feeling like an outsider? There’s perhaps a creative benefit of that:
“Socrates occupied that precarious position that all geniuses do – perched between insider and outsider. far enough outside the mainstream to see the world through fresh eyes, yet close enough so that those fresh insights resonated with others.”– Eric Weiner, The Geography of Genius
Alberta and Saskatchewan are brimming with conservative-minded farmers, and even the city-dwellers lean heavily conservative. This has long been a source of strife for me. But ultimately, it isn’t that important.
Why? Well, having grown up in ultra-conservative Regina, I can say that I certainly don’t agree with much of the local politics. But I have many friends with similar political leanings to myself. If half the city is conservative, that means the other half isn’t. There are still plenty of “my people” to be found.
The most liberal city on my list is Victoria, in no small part because of the green party seat found in the area. Calgary, land of oil and beef, is the least liberal, with Regina trailing closely behind. How much would it effect my quality of life to live in a place with so many, and I say this affectionately, hippies? Compared to living in a place with climate change deniers? I don’t know, I really don’t know.
I’ve been vegan for over a decade, so the veganness of a place is a factor – but not a very important one. There are two reasons for this. First, I know how to cook (I went to culinary school, after all), so I’m not dependent on local restaurants to feed me. Second, vegan options are becoming widespread, even within the last few years, and this trend will only continue. Even the least vegan-friendly place on my list, Regina, still has plenty of options. Vegan friendliness is a novelty, and something I can enjoy when I travel, but it isn’t a necessity. Though I do miss grabbing a greasy Hogtown brunch in Toronto after a night of drinking.
New York and Toronto, being the giant cities that they are, are the most vegan-friendly places on my list, and among the most vegan-friendly cities in the world.
7. Car friendliness
It seems unusual to consider the car-friendliness of a city, because I’m not a hardcore driver. Or maybe I am? Maybe I just figure I’m not hardcore because I’m not sporting an F-150 with a custom license plate and aggressive bumper stickers. but the reality is that I do drive frequently. I hit the highways regularly to transit my daughter to her dad’s place, or to visit my family, or even to take a road trip here and there. And I drive daily to get my kid to preschool and do regular life errands.
Why do I do all this driving? Because I live in Regina, a city designed for cars. I didn’t get my driver’s license until age 21, five years after I was legally able to, and those five years were filled with shoddy public transit, and frequent favors from car-endowed friends and family. You can survive in Regina without a car, but you really have to work hard at it.
When I think about drivability, I think about two things – is it a huge pain in the ass to drive in and around this city? And, is my daughter more, or less, safe, on these roads?
Vancouver and New York probably cause the biggest pains in asses on this list – New York for the bridge fees and gridlock, and Vancouver for the crazy drivers and poorly-marked lanes that are nearly impossible to navigate in the rain.
But the place I’m most at risk of getting into a lethal car accident is, surprisingly, Saskatchewan, making Regina one of the most dangerous places in the country to be a driver in – despite needing a car to survive.
The safest places to drive, where I’m least-likely to get into a lethal accident, is Ottawa, and Ontario generally.
And that takes us to the ever-important criteria of walkability. It’s no coincidence that the places I’ve enjoyed living the most were also the most walkable.
I’ve moved many times within my own city, and the current walkability of my neighborhood is a whopping 5/100. It’s basically as un-walkable as it gets. If I want anything – groceries, coffee, restaurants – I have to drive. It’s a short drive, but a drive nonetheless.
My old condo in Regina, a three-minute walk from a few restaurants and my favorite coffee shop, close to the University, earned a better walk score: 34. The year I lived there was a good year.
Going further back in time, I had a dump of an apartment right on a main transit line, back when the only way I got anywhere was a bus (or the kindness of a friend). My bus route would drop me off right beside a grocery store, and I’d often pick food up on the walk across the street to my (cricket-infested) apartment. I’m not saying life was great then, and I certainly had very little money, but with a walk score of 76, I was highly independent in that neighborhood and was able to get by fine without a car. This in Regina, Saskatchewan, one of the least overall walkable places on my list.
Living for a short stint in Northern California was a similar story. I went to culinary school in a tiny town, but that tiny town had a walk score of 90 (“A Walker’s Paradise”). I recall misty September mornings walking along the ocean on my way to school. I remember waking up to the view of the sea. I remember the restaurants, amenities, and the farmer’s market, all of which were within easy reach.
Then, the many hurdles I faced in Austin, Texas when I didn’t have a car (this was pre-segways Austin). My neighborhood had a walk score of 43, and I remember the struggle of doing my own independent shopping without a car. I would take a bus past my house, to the local box store, and then lug my totes of food all the way back to the bus stop in the heat of the sun, and wait for the return bus ride, which only came twice an hour. The whole effort would take an extra couple of hours out of my day. Then there were the times I needed to get some ingredient from the health food store, a good 20-minute walk from my school bus stop. Lugging that grocery bag the 20-minute hike back to the bus stop was always a sweat-inducing effort. Now that grocery delivery is widespread, perhaps the burden of my non-walkable neighborhood would’ve been eased somewhat.
It surprises me that I used to live like this; it seems such a struggle, that life without a car. I can’t imagine getting everywhere I need to get on a bus anymore. Especially in cities like Austin and Regina where the transit system is, to put it mildly, inconvenient.
One of the most walkable places I ever lived was in small-town Saskatchewan. This was a town you needed a car in, there’s no doubt. But at the same time, you could get from one end of town to the other, on foot, in less than an hour. Our house was situated a five-minute walk from the grocery store, the bank, the coffee shop, and virtually any other store in town. I ran errands on foot almost every day, and Michael and I were fine sharing a single car.
This proves that walkability isn’t just the domain of big world-class cities. Sure, Toronto is walkable. So is New York. But I guarantee there are more than a few neighborhoods in Toronto that are deeply inconvenient if you don’t have a car, where every amenity is a transit ride away, further than the foot. And your quality of life in a small, generally unwalkable town can be deeply improved just by living close to the center. I maintain that one reason I enjoyed living there so long, to the befuddlement of my friends, is because it was walkable. I spent many, many hours walking that town – long, hour-plus strolls through the tree-lined residential streets with my podcasts, books and music. It’s a convenience that I don’t enjoy anymore, and I’m worse for it.
Of all cities on my list, it should come as no surprise that New York has the best walk score of the bunch, with Vancouver leading the Canadian pack. The worst walk scores are a three-way tie between Regina, Ottawa and Quebec City. But if I had to keep living in Regina, I could dramatically increase my enjoyment of the city simply by finding a more walkable neighborhood.
9. Public Transit
The days of my reliance on public transit might be over now that I’ve upgraded to car life, now that I can’t imagine going back. Or is it so definitive? If I lived in a city like Toronto again, could I forego a car?
I certainly wouldn’t forego my car in Regina, even though there’s a bus stop right across the street from my house and I see people use it frequently. I’ve toyed with the idea of catching a ride somewhere with my daughter, who has never taken a city bus but admires them from the window, just to have that experience with her. But, I reason, it’s Covid, and it’s safer to travel by car in the midst of a pandemic. Maybe another day.
If I were to forego a car, the city to do it in would be New York, no doubt about it. New York is a double-whammy of traffic-infested streets and high-quality transit routes, with ample subway lines and supplemental bus routes. Toronto is the only Canadian city to come close, though having taken transit in both cities, Toronto’s subway network isn’t nearly as dense. Toronto has a couple of subway lines on the main drags, and that’s it. Granted, streetcars make things much easier than buses.
Regina fares worst for public transit, which makes sense given that it’s also the smallest city on the list. What small city has excellent public transit?
10. Bike Friendliness
Let’s be clear – I only included this category because I felt I should, not because I do any actual biking. Maybe I will one day. I leave the future open to a change of heart where I buy a bike and retire the car forever. Or something.
Victoria is the champion of this category. It’s a small city with ample biking paths. Halifax fares worst, I suppose due to a lack of biking paths or clearly marked bike lanes. How am I to know? This is all information I’ve read, and nothing I’ve experienced first-hand. Moving on.
When I was reading the book This is Where You Belong, an argument was made for the importance of a city’s beauty in overall wellbeing. Seeing beautiful things on the daily, when we’re out for our walks – be it nice buildings, nice trees, art murals – makes us happy. How simple and elegant!
Beauty, alas, is a hard topic to research. “What is the most beautiful city” typed in Google search came up with a lot of generic lists proclaiming the beauty of New York, which – I’m sorry – but no. New York might be a world-class city, but it isn’t a beautiful city. Even aside from the “schmutz”, it’s a concrete jungle except for often-crowded Central Park. There is trash on the streets. Sure, some of the buildings are nice. But it’s far from the most beautiful city I’ve walked around in, even though I really do enjoy New York.
The winner here is one I haven’t personally validated, but I would love to someday: Quebec City. The capital of Quebec is a UNESCO heritage site, and is a taste of old Europe within Canada, something very novel and rare. When I’ve wandered Europe in the past, I’ve fantasized about living in such beautiful places, places that were designed for people and not for cars. What would life be like, I muse, to wander my daily errands on cobblestone streets? Perhaps I’ll make another “Top 10” list of places to live one day, and I’ll expand the reach of that list to be global. But in the meantime, there’s Quebec City, a place that I’ve been thoroughly convinced I must visit.
Victoria and Vancouver both get high marks for beauty as well, a lot of which has to do with scenery and greenery. West coast locations are green year-round, an ambience that is hard for me to imagine, seeing as the trees are bare here half the year. And, as expected, coming in last place in the beauty department is none other than Regina. Am I too hard on Regina simply because I’ve grown up here? Maybe, and I’d love a good argument to prove me wrong.
12. Green Space
A close cousin, perhaps even sibling, to beauty, is the amount of green space in a city. Trees make us happy and calm. We’re healthier when we’re around greenery. New York is dismal when it comes to green space (unless you fan out far into the suburbs), but Victoria is called “The Garden City”, with year-round greenery and hiking trails a short drive from town.
13. Air Quality
Air quality is an interesting metric to study, because it’s often what you don’t expect. Regina is a small city of 200,000 people, so the air quality is probably better than ever-populous New York City, right? Wrong. Regina has some of the worst PM rates in Canada, and New York does very well. Just as bad as Regina is also-small Quebec City, which still has a lot of wood-burning appliances. But let’s be clear; air quality in Canada is still pretty clean air overall, and Canada has the 10th-lowest air pollution levels in the world. Canada’s PM2.5 is 7.3, within the WHO’s under-10 limit.
Victoria wins on air quality by a mile, but Vancouver and Calgary aren’t far behind.
14. Long-Term Livability
Long-term livability is an amorphous category I had a hard time pinning down, and it involved some crystal ball-gazing. Questions I asked for this category were,
“What might this city look like in 20-30 years?”
“How might climate change impact this city?”
“Will this city grow, or shrivel, economically?”
“Are there any natural disasters or pests to worry about?”
The first three questions are basically guesses, stabs in the dark with my decided lack of expertise.
The fourth is more tangible. Victoria and Vancouver, for example, are at risk of a massive earthquake/tsunami in the next 100 years. It’s not so much a matter of if there’s an earthquake, it’s a matter of when.
Victoria’s infrastructure is not set up for a disaster – many buildings haven’t been retrofitted – and Vancouver and Victoria alike would see terrible amounts of flooding, with some parts perhaps moving permanently underwater.
It’s for this reason that Victoria and Vancouver are bottom-of-the-list for long-term livability.
Then there’s Lyme disease, which is scary, but virtually unheard of in Alberta and Saskatchewan. That could change as climate change brings warmer weather, and bring the pests that thrive in warmer weather with it.
If I were a betting person, I would bet on Calgary in the long-term. Why? Well, it is something of a risky bet, seeing as the oil industry fuels Calgary’s economy, and we all know where the oil industry is going in the next thirty years. Huge economic losses are entirely possible. But if these industries transition to clean energy, Calgary could become a hub of innovation in the country. There is something of a green movement starting there; I suspect it might gather steam.
Calgary is also still relatively cheap for its population size of around a million people. People who live in overcrowded and expensive cities like Toronto consider it attractive – it’s affordable, there are plenty of jobs, and the mountains are an hour’s drive away – and it has high growth and immigration rates when compared to the rest of the country.
The worst of climate change will happen elsewhere. Calgary will get more droughts and floods like anywhere else on the prairies, and smoke from wildfires in the summer will surely be a problem. But overall I think it will continue to be an attractive option for years, and it seems like a good place to invest in real estate.
15. Community Spirit
There are two things to consider when it comes to community spirit:
1) Do people love living here?
2) Do I have a close support network here?
For example, New York has excellent community spirit overall – you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who cares more about where they live than a New Yorker. Regina? Not so much. Usually, admitting you live in Regina is with some degree of shame, met with some degree of pity.
But Regina ranks high for #2 – I know many people here. I have roots here. That counts for much, and is one of the most important considerations on this entire list. It’s very difficult to move somewhere, even somewhere seemingly idyllic, if you’re moving away from everyone you know. It’s very difficult to start all over.
Calgary and Regina rank highest on this metric, because I have roots in both of these places – deeper roots in Regina, but Calgary ties for being an overall friendly city that people aren’t ashamed to admit they’re from. Halifax also scores highly.
Vancouver ranks the worst – though there’s no shame in living in Vancouver, it’s a transient population that doesn’t seem to have a strong identity in the way that a place like New York has. It’s somewhat without culture, a personality, even though there is a lot happening there.
What is the quality of primary, secondary, and post-secondary education in a city? Is it easy to access, or are schools overfilled, or lottery-based? This is very important to me because I have a young child. I don’t want her to hate her school for years the way I did.
The quality of Saskatchewan’s education is among the lowest in the country, earning a “D” overall. One benefit of primary school in Regina, though, is that it would be possible to get her in a local school that isn’t overfilled, a school that she can walk to. More possible than, say, in Vancouver.
In this, it’s worth considering post-secondary options as well. Will she need to move away to get a university education should she desire one? What is the quality of that education if she stays?
It seems the best place to get an education in Canada is Ottawa, which has the highest concentration of PhD’s in the country. Over half the population of Ottawa is university-educated, higher than anywhere else in Canada. It’s also a family-friendly city with an abundance of good schools.
17. Cuture and Nightlife
How important, really, is nightlife? I think it’s one of those things, like fancy handbags or shoes, that I assume I’ll appreciate much more than I actually do when I have it. When I lived in Toronto, I thought I’d be enjoying its culture and nightlife all the time. And in some sense, I did – I frequented many an excellent restaurant, went to the symphony and some local shows, enjoyed VegFest, and more. But it wasn’t a common part of my experience living there. I like the idea of going out and doing things; in reality, I don’t do it very often.
Unsurprisingly, Regina ranks worst for culture and nightlife. There are a few bars, a few venues for local music, a few things to do. There is a diverse palette of restaurants, and the situation has improved drastically in the last 10 years. If I’m being honest, I haven’t much suffered for the lack of nightlife here – except perhaps when I was a young musician looking to play lots of shows. Walkability and affordability makes much bigger impacts on my quality of life than does the nightlife options.
There’s actually a benefit in not having stuff to do all the time. It means spending more time doing things that really matter to me – being creative, having long discussions, reading – and bonus points for long winters that coop me up, which has been both a curse and also the main creative gateway in my life. What else is one to do on a January evening, but write a song, or a story?
The clear winner here of culture and nightlife, of course, is New York City.
18. Family Friendliness
Despite having a young daughter, the family friendliness of a city isn’t a particularly important criteria for me. I’m not looking to have any more kids, and single children are quite portable.
Ottawa is a city designed for families, and is filled with them. Regina and Calgary also have oodles of kids. Vancouver has the least amount of children on my list, and suburbs such as Burnaby are much better bets when it comes to education, kid-friendly activities and infrastructure.
So, I like to garden. I’ve been doing it on and off throughout my adulthood, and currently enjoy using my parent’s acreage space for it. I also like the idea of gardening in a place where the growing season is higher than zone 3, which is rather limited. The last frost dates are at the end of May and beginning of September, it has been known to snow in July, and growing things in this small timeline is a challenge. On the other hand, greenery abounds on Vancouver Island all year long with the admirable zone 8, where many, many things grow and thrive.
But would I ever be able to grow anything in Victoria? I certainly wouldn’t in New York, Toronto or Vancouver, unless I lived deep in a suburb, and even then, I’d expect to be much wealthier before being able to afford a home, or land, where such a thing was possible.
So in a strange twist of fate, even though Regina is the coldest place to garden on my list, it’s the only place on my list where I could expect to garden with regularity. Unless my weath dramatically increases, that is.
20. Airport Quality
How easily can my partner travel to visit his family in New York? And, if I don’t live in Regina, how easily can I fly back and see my family?
Additionally, how easy is travel to other cities or countries? Am I more likely to travel to Europe (which would favor an Eastern city), or to Australia/Southeast Asia (which would favor a Western city)?
All big cities on my list get airport points by default, particularly New York, which is a hub for basically anywhere in the world. Calgary features direct flights to both Regina and New York, as does Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
Victoria is the worst place on the list to travel from, since it’s far on the west coast and it’s on an island. I’d need a connection to get almost anywhere, which would be a big inconvenience. Even Halifax on the far east coast has direct flights to New York (but not Regina).
The final criteria (aside from healthcare, which is similar across the board except for the dismal score of New York) is how Michael-friendly the place is. This is very important, because I can’t just move wherever I want in a vacuum. I have to consider the financial and career-related needs of others.
Regina is, of course, the most Michael-friendly place on my list. He already teaches in Saskatchewan, and it’s close to all of his friends and family. He would not take a career hit to teach in Regina, and he’d probably be able to buy a house there.
Not far behind, though, is Calgary – which has similar metrics – it isn’t quite as easy to teach there, and he doesn’t have local family, and it isn’t quite as cheap – but he would be able to make it work. Family is a road trip away, and he could still probably buy a house if he wanted.
As for the worst place to live for Michael? It’s a toss-up between Quebec City and New York City. For the former, he’d need to learn French and become fluent, and for the latter, he’d need to immigrate and somehow get cleared to not only work in the US, but also work in a place where it’s difficult for even New York citizens to get a job.
Weighing the categories
As mentioned, not each of the 21 categories are weighed equally. For example, cost of living is a more important consideration to me than bikability.
The absolutely most important points for me, worth 2.5x above baseline, are weather and cost of living. Both effect my day-to-day in profound ways. 2x above baseline is walkability and Michael-friendliness, the next most important bits of criteria. Below that by a little is education.
Just slightly above baseline (1.25x) is beauty, green space, safety and community spirit. Considered baseline concerns are drivability, long-term livability, and airport quality.
Below-baseline considerations, or ones I don’t consider terribly important, are air quality (Canada overall is very good), diversity (most places in Canada – even Regina! – are reasonably diverse and friendly), veganness (I’m savvy enough that I could be vegan basically anywhere), and culture/nightlife (which I would probably seldom enjoy even if I had proper access to it, and can be enjoyed when I travel).
Even less important, 0.5x below baseline, was liberalness (I don’t need an echo-chamber), family-friendliness (I only have one child), gardening (I can be at peace with gardening many years from now, if not now), and public transit. And my least-considered criteria at all is – you guessed it – bikability.
Winners and Losers
After going through each city on my list, and each bit of criteria in turn, it’s time to discuss the overall winners, and the losers too. None of the winners are big cities, which I found interesting given that I could see myself living in a larger European centre one day. Copenhagen, say, is the stuff of fantasies.
Top marks, with 179.95 points out of a possible 240, with a percentage rating of 75%, goes to Calgary, Alberta. Of all places. Calgary is a new city, and isn’t adorned with old and beautiful architecture the way other favorite cities might be (see: my desire to live in an old European city). But the weather is decent for Canada, it’s still pretty affordable, it’s friendly and close enough to my hometown, Michael could work there, and it’s near the mountains with plenty of access to green space. Sure, Calgary is in the most conservative province in the country, but how is that much different than living in Saskatchewan most of my life? It’s not so hard to “find my people”, and dissenting views are okay too.
In second place, with 176.5 points out of 240, at 74% and just trailing behind Calgary, is Victoria, BC. Victoria is two-thirds smaller than Calgary, but what it doesn’t have in big-city culture and amenities (if Calgary can be said to have those) it makes up for in great weather, green space and beauty. Victoria is a wonderful place for left-leaning vegan hippies, it’s green year-round, and it’s full of old buildings. The Pacific Ocean is always close, but the downside of being on an island is the isolation. It’s hard to drive anywhere (a ferry with a car is expensive), and there aren’t a lot of direct flights – you’d almost always need to connect in Vancouver, making travel a hassle. Not to mention the Big One – the (small) risk of life being entirely upended at a moment’s notice due to an earthquake and/or tsunami.
In third place, with 174.2 points, at 73%, was another surprise – Halifax, Nova Scotia. Another city well under a million people, and, like Victoria, also on an island. Except in this case the island is on the colder Atlantic side. Interestingly, Halifax didn’t get top marks in any single criteria, but it got pretty good marks in most. The weather is wintery, but not nearly as cold as the prairies. The crime and veganness are mid-range. The cost of living is high – not quite as high as Victoria, though. It’s pretty green, the air is pretty good, it’s reasonably attractive, and it’s got a decent scene for musicians.
Now it’s time to discuss the worst of the bunch, which was Quebec City (158.8, 66%), Regina (152.9, 64%), and bottom-of-the-barrel New York City (151.3, 63%). Quebec City’s biggest flaw is its lack of diversity, and the difficulty of living there as a non-French-speaking person. Michael would never get a job there, and integration would be very challenging. Regina has a lot of problems – a lack of overall beauty, walkability, extreme cold, high crime, liberalness, and air quality – but at least I have friends and family here. New York received worst marks because, though it’s vibrant, diverse, and fun, it’s also dirty (except the air), non-green (except for one rectangle downtown), absurdly expensive, and, you know, healthcare. Not to mention the challenges of non-Americans attempting to live there.
Middle-road choices, from better to worse, were Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver. The order does make sense, especially because I loved living in Toronto those two years when I did. But it’s expensive and the winters suck, and it’s difficult to get a job there as a teacher, which is why it didn’t score in the top three.
With this fairly subjective data now in hand, what’s a person to do next? Drop everything and move to Calgary?
If I’m being honest, I’m a little disappointed by the results. Not because they led me to a city I don’t care for – Calgary is fine enough, and I aim to visit soon to scope it out seriously – but because none of the cities ranked particularly high. I was hoping for a stand-out winner, a place to shine like a star above all the rest, a clear “hell yeah” location. But none of these were “hell yeahs”. They were all “solidly okay”. Calgary was the top-scoring place but only had a mark of 75%.
If living in a great – not just okay – city really matters to me, is it worth looking outside of my own country, outside of what is simply convenient? Because yes, as a Canadian, it is rather convenient to live in Canada. But what if Canada doesn’t have options that would make me truly happy? And more importantly, should I allow a place to have such a strong influence on my happiness, am I really so fickle? Shouldn’t I be able to be happy anywhere? Wouldn’t that be a much more worthwhile pursuit?
The next easiest country to immigrate to would be the United States. In part because my boyfriend is American, and because it would be easier to get a teaching job there compared to other places in the world. But here’s the thing – I have no interest in living in the United States.
I get living in New York. It’s a great city, and my partner would be near his family. But to live in the States just for the hell of it? Even the best American cities would fall short of the Canadian ones on my list. The United States’ democracy and journalistic freedoms, among many other problems, are not very good for a rich country. Canada fares much better in these metrics. Why would I move somewhere with so many guns, where Roe v Wade might get overturned, where 75 million people are Trumpers, where political polarization is high and democracy is at risk?
Considering my results, I’m torn between expanding the scope of my search to include the globe, and just letting the results lie where they lie. A good deal of work lies ahead with an expanded scope, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t curious. Is there a place on this planet that would get a mark above 80% for me? And even if there was, how would I manage to relocate? It’s not just my life, after all.
20,000 words, and I finish with more questions than answers. But that’s not entirely true; I learned much about my own country, and my own preferences, along the way. I’ve become curious about certain Canadian cities, and plan on expanding on this data by visiting the places I haven’t been to, or haven’t been to in a while, to see how they feel.
I encourage you to check out my spreadsheet where all of the criterion are listed in detail. Feel free to use it for your own purposes, your own place exploration. The decision of where to live is often made willy-nilly, but just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s best. People get married willy-nilly too (not naming names, of course), making lifelong commitments without really considering what it means to do so, and then suffering the consequences. I don’t think it’s so different with a city. I believe the love you have for the place you live can be every bit as real and nuanced as the love you experience for a partner.
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