Saskatchewan’s urban geography is defined by the size, location and function of its urban areas and by their interaction with each other as an urban system. In 2001, this system comprised thirteen cities, fifty-one towns, two villages, two First Nations reserves, plus the urbanized parts of six rural municipalities. These settlements account for less than 0.2% of the province’s surface area, but house 63.4% (629,036) of its population. Two first-order cities, Saskatoon (196,811) and Regina (178,225), dominate the urban system. Together they account for almost 60% of the urban population and form the cores of two census metropolitan areas that rank 17th and 18th in size within the national urban system. The absence of second-order cities with populations of 50,000 to 150,000, together with numerous towns with fewer than 2,500 persons, indicates a relatively narrowly based urban-industrial economy.
Saskatchewan’s urban system initially developed rapidly. From 1883 to 1904, seventeen communities incorporated as towns, with fifty-seven more by 1913. While forty-four of these are now classified as urban settlements, most Saskatchewan towns (96 of 147) are classified as non-urban settlements—all but two of these (94) having populations of less than 1,000, the threshold by which most urban areas are recognized. Generally, those communities that were first to incorporate as towns now rank among the province’s largest urban centres: for example, Regina, Moose Jaw and Prince Albert incorporated as towns between 1883 and 1885, and as cities between 1903 and 1904. During the 1920s and 1930s the growth of Saskatchewan’s urban population slowed considerably. By the end of World War II less than one-third of the population was urbanized (30.2% in 1951), and although the urbanization rate has now increased to almost two-thirds, it remains lower than in Manitoba (71.9%) and Alberta (80.9%), and in Canada as a whole (79.7%). In the early 1980s Saskatoon eclipsed Regina as Saskatchewan’s largest city, and it continues to grow at a faster rate.
Recently (1996–2001), urbanization has continued with only small rates of population change for all classes of urban area, and with no consistent relationship between class size and growth rate. Nevertheless, data for individual communities show considerable variation. Between 1996 and 2001, only three of thirteen cities and sixteen of fifty-one towns experienced population growth. The most rapidly growing communities are within commuting distance of Saskatoon (Martensville +25.5%, Warman +22.6%, Dalmeny +9.5%) and Regina (Pilot Butte +25.9%, White City +11.7%, Balgonie +9.5%). These communities provide evidence of strong but highly localized counter-urbanization within the urban system. Population decline is most evident in towns with traditional links to agriculture (Kamsack –11.3%, Foam Lake –6.5%, Assiniboia –6.4%, Eston –6.3%, Gull lake –5.8%), or mining (Esterhazy –9.8%, Lanigan –5.8%) and forestry (Hudson Bay –5.3%, Meadow Lake –4.8%). The community of La Ronge (–8.0%) in northern Saskatchewan has also experienced significant population loss.
Most (98.7%) of Saskatchewan’s urban population is found in settlements located south of 54°N. Many of these were established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at regular intervals along rail lines, and were designed to serve as collection and distribution points for their surrounding agricultural hinterlands. Numerous examples exist of towns that competed to attract investment by railway companies. Saskatoon, for example, owes part of its success to it being linked to three transcontinental railways by 1908. Similarly, Moose Jaw and Melville prospered from their selection respectively as divisional points for the Canadian Pacific Railway and Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (later Canadian National Railway). The railways helped establish the business districts of the cities and towns along their routes, and sometimes spurred the development of special purpose zones such as Regina’s Warehouse District. They also contributed to the more general sorting of land uses. Not all of this was beneficial. In Regina and Saskatoon the railways formed physical barriers that helped reinforce class divisions based on ethnic neighbourhoods. As urban development progressed, railway lands often impeded the expansion of central business districts and the circulation of road traffic. In Saskatoon, these problems were partly resolved in the 1960s by the removal of the CNR railyards from the city centre. Today, the railways have much less influence on urban growth and development, but linkage to the provincial and national transportation network is still important. In 2001, 78.7% of Saskatchewan’s urban population resided in cities and towns connected to each other along Highways 1 (38.4%) and 16 (40.3%).
The only parts of the urban system found north of 54°N are the forestry resource town of Meadow Lake (2001: 4,582), the service and administration centre of La Ronge (2,727) and its adjacent First Nations community of Kitsakie (560), plus a small part of the city of Flin Flon (267) which extends across the provincial boundary from Manitoba. All other settlements are classified as non-urban. These include the town of Creighton (1,556) and several First Nations reserves that have populations exceeding 1,000 persons.
All urban areas in Saskatchewan contribute to its industrial space economy. The most diversified economies are found in Regina and Saskatoon. These cities also provide specialized functions that are recognized nationally. Aside from its role as provincial capital, Regina has important functions in financial and insurance services, and in information and cultural industries. In Saskatoon, functional specialization is based on educational services at the University of Saskatchewan and on provision of services to the mining sector. Although neither city has a large secondary industrial sector, manufacturing is relatively more important in Saskatoon. In contrast, Saskatchewan’s small urban areas generally perform a narrow range of services for their immediate hinterlands. Nevertheless, some have developed specialized functions based on one or more industrial sectors. These include manufacturing at Wynyard and Hudson Bay, mining at Esterhazy, oil extraction at Oxbow, transportation services at Kelvington, and educational services at Gravelbourg and La Ronge. A cluster of towns around Regina and Saskatoon, including Pilot Butte, Martensville and Warman, serve largely as dormitory communities for people employed in the two cities. In contrast, the increasing tendency for farm families to live off-farm is reflected in agriculture forming the dominant livelihood of residents in communities such as Eston, Outlook, and Gull Lake.