Satellite Cities – Something to watch for

Many talented workers, young and old, are looking for ways to enrich their lives and balance career and family. Some find life in bigger cities inspiring, enriching, fun, and worth whatever housing or commuting sacrifices are necessary.

Other people are looking for a different mix. They want some of the cultural and entertainment opportunities big cities offer — concerts, theatre, sporting events, etc. But don’t necessarily want to live side-by-side with 2 to 8 million other people.

For these individuals, what I’m calling satellite cities may be the answer. That is, small cities that are about 30 – 60 minutes drive beyond the last spots of sprawl from the bigger city. Satellite cities offer the atmosphere of the smaller city — downtown, work, school and friends are all in close proximity — and some of the benefits of the larger city such as driving into down for a concert or the big game.

For a city to be a satellite and not a suburb, it needs to have it’s own history and character as well as the majority of the population living and working in the area (and not the bigger city). That is, it needs to be relatively self-contained in terms of employment and residences. Population wise, I’m thinking that satellite cities as having about 150,000 – 300,000 people, +/-. They also could be part of a satelitte region of 2-3 such cities in close proximity, as with Guelph (see photo), Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo Ontario that serve as a satellite region to Toronto (one of North America’s largest cities).

Some satellite cities have siginifcant universities and may even be the university town of 50-100 years ago, now all grown up with a diversifed industrial and employment base. In some cases the university may offer a platform on which to support different economic clusters.

In Canada, besides the Guelph-Cambridge-Kitchener — Waterloo satellite, there are others to watch. Kingston Ontario; the townships southeast of Montreal; Red Deer and Lethbridge Alberta; and perhaps Squamish BC although the latter’s employment base is not keeping pace with residents who frequently commute to Vancouver or Whistler to work.

For the US, I’ll have to think about it. Everett might have been a satellite of Seattle, but the bigger city seems to have caught it and there is no break. At one time Ft. Worth offered a nice satellite to Dallas, but again infill development has largely merged the two together. A similar situation seems to exist for Phoenix or Los Angeles — at one time there were nice satellite cities, but they;ve become suburbs. Send me your suggestions of great US satellite cities to watch for as the new sites of subtle, “under the radar” economic development.

I have more ideas on this topic that I’ll post soon.


  1. kmsiever says:

    For the record, Lethbridge his at minimum two hours away from Calgary (2.5–3 if you obey the speed limit). In addition, Lethbridge has all the cultural/entertainment opportunities you listed.

  2. Mr. D'Onofrio says:

    Satellite cities are too far away from the major city to make it convenient to live in the satellite city. For example, Toronto’s traffic is such that I do not consider Guelph to be a satellite city. Do not be fooled by distances on a map.

  3. Wendy Waters says:

    KMsiever, Thanks for the info on Lethbridge. Lethbridge probably a little far to be a Satellite, but as Calgary grows it will become increasingly attractive for people who want a once-a-month or once-every-two-months city visit.

    Mr. D’onofrio,
    You’re right, Toronto traffic is awful – among the worst I’ve ever driven in.

    I was in Guelph last week, which inspired the blog. It took me 45 minutes (including getting lost leaving Guelph) to get to south Mississauga from there (Mississauga is a large suburb west of Toronto, where the Pearson airport is, for readers unfamiliar with Toronto). Downtown Toronto would be another 45 – 60 minutes +, depending upon traffic (and in worse traffic than reaching Mississauga).

    No, you wouldn’t want to drive this every day, but once a month, maybe, if you needed Toronto amenities occasionally.

    By satellite I don’t mean suburb. It’s too far for that. I mean a self-contained small city that’s close enough to a big city for occasional visits (ie 6-12 times per year) to take advantage of the amenities. Or, a satellite is a city close enough for occasional day-long business trips.

    And an advantage of living in Guelph is that you don’t have to face that ugly Toronto traffic on a daily basis — only when you really need something in Toronto.

    Many satellite cities I suspect will blossom both from some younger professionals looking for something other than traffic congestion and from retiring baby boomers who are fed up with it as well (but for whatever reason don’t want to move too far from the big city).

  4. kmsiever says:

    Given that Calgary can only grow so far south because of the reserve, I am doubtful its growth will ever be attractive enough for Lethbridge residents to visit regularly except beyond perhaps a visit to the zoo or Calaway Park. Especially considering Lethbridge’s growth patterns and attraction of amenities and services as well.

    I have to say this is an exciting blog. I have always been attracted to urban issues and this seems like a blog that can fill my fix. Looking forward to reading it more.

  5. john trenouth says:

    Calgary is an interesting example. Cochrane, Priddis, Bear’s Paw, and Airdrie are all small satellite towns. However as Calgary bloats it will start to annex these sallelites making them suburbs. What happens to a sallelie when it becomes a suburb I wonder.

  6. Wendy Waters says:


    My thought is that a true satellite city will never become a true suburb. If it has a self-contained economy and its own historic town center, then it will always be a satellite –even though a few people may use it as a suburb.

    Airdrie and some of the other small towns soon to be swallowed by Calgary perhaps don’t have the “gravity” to be true satellites or to remain as such. But they might turn out to be more interesting and multi-faceted suburbs because of their history.

  7. Wendy Waters says:


    Thanks for the complement and the information on Lethbridge. I haven’t been there, but from what I’ve read about the city and its people, it intrigues me.

    You may be right that it won’t become a strong satellite to a growing Calgary. Perhaps that question will only be answered in the coming years as Calgary and Lethbridge both grow.

  8. john trenouth says:

    I used to live in Dallas, and noticed how the mid cities (the cities between Dallas and Fort Worth) fit your description–not quite satallites, not quite suburbs.

  9. Wendy Waters says:

    Ahh…the Metroplex. I remember that place. Yeah, there are a lot of hard-to-categorize small cities in there.

    Arlington, for example – is it a suburb of Ft. Worth, a satellite of Dallas, or what?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Interesting observation and I do agree with you here. Your comments about Guelph and the tri-cities of Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge are spot on (I live in Cambridge). In fact, there are a lot of people living here who have previously lived in the Greater Toronto Area. There are a growing number of immigrants who skip Toronto and come directly here as well. While the tri-cities (K-W-C) actually are a pretty large satellite metropolitan of Toronto with 500,000 or so people, they still offer a less busy atmosphere and a lower cost of living. On top of that, Waterloo and Guelph have excellent universities and you can find downtown areas that have quite a cosmopolitan flair as well as mature neighborhoods with their own unique character.

    In regards to satellite cities either becoming suburbs or them not becoming integrated with the larger city in terms of commuting patterns, I’d have to disagree. The whole idea of a suburb is car-oriented development that sprawls out from an urbanized core. Satellite cities already have their own urbanized cores. While they may eventually blend together and make it difficult to distiguish where one’s suburbs begin and the other one’s end, the smaller city will never be a true suburb of the larger city in that sense of the word. For example, I still think of Hamilton and Oshawa as satellite cities of Toronto, not suburbs.

    Commuting wise, I do believe satellite cites can become more integrated with the commuting patterns of the larger city. This does exist to some extent out in KW-Cambridge and Guelph. While relatively distant from downtown TO, there are people who make the commute, including my mother. While none of these places will ever become full-out bedroom communities to the urban area that exists of Toronto now, but they may very well become a lot more integrated with its future western suburbs as they grow and the employment follows, within closer commuting distance. However, since large satellite cities also have their own employment bases, you will likely see commuting increase in both directions. I don’t think that makes it a suburb though.

  11. Wendy Waters says:


    Thanks for your observations. I visited your region last week once again.

    I like your characterization of satellite cities having their own downtowns, so they never become true suburbs. Satellite cities have that historic soul, independent of the larger centre.

    And, I would agree that Hamilton is more a satelite than a suburb to Toronto — because it has its own independent history.

    I have yet to feel that sense of independent history in Mississauga.


  12. Charles Rostkowski says:

    Ogden, Utah is a good example of a satellite. Salt Lake is the big city with 1.2m in the SLC metro area. But Ogden, though only 40 minutes away from Downtown SLC, has its distinct history and culture (the transcontinental rr met here in 1869) and is developing a reputation as a high adventure recreation center(the 2002 Olympic downhill skiing events were held in its backyard at Snowbasin)with several outdoor equipment and ski manufacturers setting up their world or North American headquarters here. It is also reviving its distinct downtown and housing is still affordable (though may not be for much longer). I think this all fits your definition of a true satellite and Ogden is community to watch.

    Hi Charles,
    Thanks for telling me about Ogden. It does sound like it has the basis to be a satellite city, especially given it has its own “authentic” history and reason for existing. That’s a key difference between a suburb (or an ex-urb) and a separate satellite city.


  13. eyes open says:

    Some clarification about Lethbridge.

    Located in the heart of the palliser triangle, it does enjoy warmer weather than most of Alberta, though when you often factor in the wind chill it can be very miserable. The wind is relentless, even after 40 years of living there I never did get used to it, just plain depressing.
    Believe it or not, Henderson lake ‘used-to’ be a great rainbow trout lake.
    Its sad that the surrounding area now boasts some of the most intensified livestock operations in north america,and the once clear bodies of water are replaced with poluted ones, the rain water is tainted with pesticides, the once beautiful down-town is becoming delapitated, and few people question these changes in this region.

    I have very fond memories growing up there, though it makes me sad to see what has happened to the environment in that area in the past 25 years.

    Its unlikely Lethbridge will ever become a satellite to Calgary, yes it does have a interesting history, great university and college and there are some very nice areas within the city, though its very difficult to clean-up the footprint the area has on this region.

  14. Ben Gray says:

    Satellite cities, because of Renata will change. Instead of history it will be their future that is unique. We will change the world with our new Renata Project concept. All our satellite cities will be basically the same and of a limited size. Renata satellite cities will not develop perchance over time, but over a short period of time in an area of need and purpose. All of the environmental features that the future wants and needs.

  15. Interested says:

    Other places in the US that qualify as ‘satellites’ might include Athens, GA,(closest city: Atlanta), State College, PA (closest city: Philadelphia), Allentown, PA (closest area: New Jersey/NY suburbs) Fort Collins, CO (closest city: Denver), Sarasota, FL (closest city: Tampa), Asheville, NC (closest city: Charlotte), Fairfield, CA (closest city: San Fran/Sacramento), Manchester, NH (closest city: Boston), etc.

  16. Frank Murphy says:

    Wendy, consider Nanaimo: potentially an hour, an hour and a half by foot passenger ferry into Vancouver harbour. Previous attempts at establishing a foot passenger ferry have failed but…

    I know Richard Florida has done research as well on the satellite city and I’m not up to speed but -

    What is the advantage to the smaller city. How does it rise above being just a “bedroom community”.

  17. Wendy Waters says:

    Hi Frank,

    Nanaimo is a tricky one because of the necessity of water travel and the inconsistency of transport options (catamaran one month, then gone, etc.)

    An advantage to the smaller city would be business growth and residential demand. Some small businesses need proximity to “the big city” to sell their goods or services, but don’t necessarily need to be there every day. Cheaper office or industrial space in a satellite city is attractive to them.

    If a business can thrive serving a nearby big city, then the can retain and attract staff to the satellite as well.

  18. Thomas Hopkins says:

    Bremerton and Olympia for Seattle, not Tacoma, Everett or Bellevue, which have indeed been snatched up as suburbs.
    In addition to Fairfield, Vacaville, Concord, Walnut Creek, San Rafael, and Santa Rosa all orbit San Francisco.
    Santa Cruz for San Jose.
    Davis for Sacramento.
    Besides Fort Collins, Colorado Springs is close to Denver.
    Tucson for Phoenix.
    Santa Fe for Albuquerque.
    Salem for Portland.
    Providence could also be one for Boston.
    The Inland Empire (Riverside/Ontario/San Bernandino) really aren’t suburbs of LA. I’d call them satellite cities.

  19. Tyler says:

    Guelph is a city in its own right – mostly because it’s a regional centre for many smaller communities to the North of it and also because it’s a University town.

    Growing up near Guelph, I always simply thought of it as a city. It wasn’t until I lived in Toronto that I realized people in big cities only think in terms of “downtown” and “suburbs”. There doesn’t seem to be a place in many people’s minds for small cities like Guelph. Historically Toronto had suburbs like Etobicoke and Scarborough. Mississauga, Brampton, Milton, etc were different cities.

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