To advance and promote the discipline and professional practice of epidemiology in Ontario public health units
Please click here to visit our new website




2C Population Density

Description | Specific Indicators | Ontario Public Health Standards (OPHS) Corresponding Health Indicator(s) from Statistics Canada and CIHI Corresponding Indicator(s) from Other Sources | Data Sources | Analysis Check List | Method of Calculation | Basic Categories | Indicator Comments | Definitions | Cross-References to Other Indicators | Cited References | Other References | Changes Made | Acknowledgements



  • Number of residents per square kilometre of land area

Specific Indicators

  • Population density

    Ontario Public Health Standards (OPHS)

    The Ontario Public Health Standards (OPHS) establish requirements for the fundamental public health programs and services carried out by boards of health, which include assessment and surveillance, health promotion and policy development, disease and injury prevention, and health protection. The OPHS consist of one Foundational Standard and 13 Program Standards that articulate broad societal goals that result from the activities undertaken by boards of health and many others, including community partners, non-governmental organizations, and governmental bodies. These results have been expressed in terms of two levels of outcomes: societal outcomes and board of health outcomes. Societal outcomes entail changes in health status, organizations, systems, norms, policies, environments, and practices and result from the work of many sectors of society, including boards of health, for the improvement of the overall health of the population. Board of health outcomes are the results of endeavours by boards of health and often focus on changes in awareness, knowledge, attitudes, skills, practices, environments, and policies. Boards of health are accountable for these outcomes. The standards also outline the requirements that boards of health must implement to achieve the stated results.

    Outcomes Related to this Indicator

    • Board of Health Outcome (Chronic Disease Prevention): There is increased awareness among community partners about the factors associated with chronic diseases that are required to inform program planning and policy development, including the following: the importance of creating healthy environments.

    Health Promotion and Policy Development Requirement Related to this Indicator

    • The board of health shall work with municipalities to support healthy public policies and the creation or enhancement of supportive environments in recreational settings and the built environment...

    Assessment and Surveillance Requirements Reltaed to this Indicator

    • Board of Health Outcome (Foundational Standard): The board of health shall conduct surveillance, including the ongoing collection, collation, analysis, and periodic reporting of population health indicators, as required by the Health Protection and Promotion Act and in accordance with the Population Health Assessment and Surveillance Protocol, 2008 (or as current, which includes population health data and information pertaining to physical environmental factors). 

Corresponding Health Indicator(s) from Statistics Canada and CIHI

  • Population density

Click on the indicator "Population density" under Community and health system characteristics, Community.

Corresponding Indicator(s) from Other Sources

        ·      None

Data Sources

Numerator: Population Estimates
Original source: Statistics Canada
Distributed by: Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care: IntelliHEALTH ONTARIO
Suggested citation
(see Data Citation Notes): Estimates [years], Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, IntelliHEALTH ONTARIO, Date Extracted: [date].

Denominator: Land Area (square kilometre)
Original source: Statistics Canada
Distributed by: Statistics Canada
Suggested citation (see Data Citation Notes): Community Profiles [year], Census [year], Statistics Canada, Date Extracted: [date]

Analysis Check List

  • For IntelliHEALTH:
    • Use Population Estimates County Municip from the 02 Populations folder
    • Select # People measure.
    • Select Cyear time period.
    • Select appropriate population information (County, PHU, Municipality)

Method of Calculation

Population Density:

Population Estimate
Land Area (square kilometres)

Basic Categories

  • Geographic areas: public health unit, county, municipality, census tract, dissemination area
Indicator Comments
  • Number of ‘residents’ is used rather than ‘people’ as it is a standard definition of Statistic Canada.
  • Other data sources exist that provide ‘land area’ (denominator) such as DMTI Spatial, and MPAC Property Assessments. However, these data sources require a nominal fee.
  • Census tract (CT) and census dissemination area (DA) level data are available upon request from Statistics Canada.
  • The land area unit of ‘per hectare’ is widely used by urban planners. When presenting results to planning groups, conversion from ‘per square km’ to ‘per hectare’ may be required for the ease of communication. However, the users should recognize that because a hectare is one hundredth of a squared km, the conversion assumes that all these subdivided areas of one hectare have the same population density, which is rarely true in reality. For public health practice, the use of ‘per square km’ is strongly recommended.
  • One hectare is a unit of area equal to 10,000 square metres; also equivalent to 2.471 acres.
  • One square kilometre (1km2) is equal to 100 hectares (ha).
  • The population density indicator will be used to determine if an area is urban or rural. However, in some cases this may not be appropriate. For example, in calculating population density for a census tract area that has an airport, the estimated population density would be quite small. Hence, it would not be appropriate to classify it as rural.
  • This indicator is an indicator for ‘gross’ density rather than ‘net’ density. Gross density includes the use of the entire land area in the calculation, where as net density excludes certain land uses in the area (such as bodies of water). Gross density is used more commonly as a measure of walkability as people walk in a total environment.2,7,8
  • When estimating land area as the denominator of population density, one is highly recommended to make use of census digital cartographic file, rather than census digital boundary file.  The difference between digital cartographic file and digital boundary file is that the former takes into account of natural features such as waters. A a result, it depicts more accurately the land areas that are inhabited.
  • As densities are measured across higher levels of land area (municipality versus census tract), densities generally decrease as more non-residential land is included in the base land calculation.2
  • In a small number of DAs (or enumeration areas in previous Census), DA data are suppressed by Statistics Canada to protect privacy because of small population counts in the DA. Thus, the population count (as well as the associated demographic attributes) may not necessarily reflect true values.
  •  In comparison to DAs, CT boundaries are relatively constant. However, some CTs may be divided into smaller areas over time to reflect an increase in population. For example, the census tract of 535.7 (in Toronto) was considered as one CT in 1981 census, but it became two CTs in 1986 census (535.7.001 and 535.7.002). As a result, the calculation of population density should reflect these changes.3
  • “Typically, higher densities of people mean higher densities of destinations.  More destinations lead to a higher likelihood that one’s destination of choice – or at least a satisfactory destination – will be within walking or cycling distance”. 2, 4
  • If dissemination area (DA) level geography is used for land use area, it is important to ensure that DA boundaries are accurate in reflecting the actual parcel of land. If the DA does not accurately reflect the actual parcel of land, it will not be appropriate to use this level of geography for measuring population density, to which census tracts should be used instead.3
  • There may be a critical threshold before density has any impact on active transportation.  One study suggests that “synergistic effects start to occur at 13 residents per acre – transit becomes more viable, driving becomes more expensive, and there are more destinations within walking and cycling distance.4
  • Density may serve as a proxy indicator for level of transit service or demographic characteristics or ease of car use; ultimately, density may not have a significant independent effect.2,4
  • Due to conflicting evidence between density, and travel behaviour and patterns,  increasing density alone should not be the sole factor aimed at increasing physical activity and/or mitigating the rise in obesity.2,4,5
  • Although, many studies have found a strong positive correlation between density and the decision to walk, cycle or take transit, other studies have found conflicting evidence. For example, some studies found that when residential and retail density was high, there was an increase in the percentage of people walking to work or shopping. However, other studies did not find this correlation.4,5
  • Potential uses of population density indicator are:
    • Design of household surveys, for example, when designing a stratified cluster survey, stratification by population density and with probability of selection proportional to population is often used.
    • Emergency planning, for example, population density is widely used in the emergency planning for potential disasters such as nuclear reactor accidents or in the estimation of emergency care demand across regions.
    • Environmental exposure assessment, for example, population density is often used as an independent variable in the models to predict spatial variability of air pollutants.


  • Urban area: Area with a population of at least 1,000 and no fewer than 400 people per square kilometre.6
  • Rural area: All territories outside urban areas is classified as rural.6

Cross-References to Other Indicators

Cited Reference(s)

  1. De Plessis, V, Beshiri, R, Bollman, RD, Clemenson, H. (2002). Definitions of rural. Agriculture and Rural Working Paper Series, Working Paper No. 61. Statistics Canada, Agriculture Division. Available online at:
  2. Forsyth, A., Oakes, J.M., Schmitz, K.H., & Hearst, M. (2007). Does Residential Density Increase Walking and Other Physical Activity? Urban Studies, 44(4), 679-697.
  3. Hess, P., Sorensen, A., & Parizeau, K. (2007). Urban Density in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Research Paper 209, Centre for Urban and Community Studies. University of Toronto.
  4. Curran, A. (2005). Taking the pulse of active transportation: Measuring the built environment for healthy communities. School of Planning, Dalhousie University (available online at
  5. Su, Q. (2009). Travel demand in the US urban areas: A system dynamic panel data approach. Transportation Research Part A, 44, 110-117.
  6. Statistics Canada. 2006 Census Dictionary. Ottawa, ON: Statistics Canada, 2006. Catalogue no. 92-566-XWE. URL:
  7. Pendola R, Gen S. BMI, auto use, and the urban environment in San Francisco. Health Place 2007;13: 551– 6.
  8. B.E. Saelens, J.F. Sallis and L.D. Frank, Environmental correlates of walking and cycling: findings from the transportation, urban design, and planning literatures, Annals of Behavioral Medicine 25 (2003), pp. 80–91

Other Reference(s)

  • Association of Public Health Epidemiologists in Ontario (APHEO) [homepage on the Internet]. Toronto: APHEO; c2011. The built environment resources. [cited 2012 Nov 21]. Available from:
Changes Made


Formal Review or Ad Hoc?

Changes made by


Created July 2010Formal Review  
November 21, 2012Ad Hoc Natalie Greenidge, Public Health Ontario
  •  Updated the 'Ontario Public Health Standards' and 'Other References' sections


Lead Authors Jaime Chow, York Region Public Health
Donna Howard, Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care
Jennifer Skinner, Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit
Contributing Authors 
ReviewersKim Bergeron, PhD Candidate, Queen's University
Hong Chen, Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (OAHPP)
Peter Gozdyra, Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES)

Treasurer/Secretary | Admin | Members Login