02/06/2015 09:21 EST | Updated 04/08/2015 05:59 EDT

City planning difficult without long-form census data, says Urban Futures Institute

It's tougher to make the informed decisions about city infrastructure without the data from the long-form census, says Ryan Berlin, an economist and demographer working with the Urban Futures Institute in Vancouver.

The loss of a mandatory long-form census was raised as a critical issue at the Big Cities Summit earlier this week, which was attended by 19 mayors from across Canada including Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

In 2010, the Harper Government decided to scrap the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary National Household Survey.

"The mandatory long-form census is such a rich source of comprehensive information on communities across the country and here in B.C.," said Berlin.

Now that the census is no longer mandatory, response rates have dropped and the data isn't as useful, Berlin says.

According to him, smaller regions in B.C. such as Bowen Island and Oliver suffer the most, because the low response rate in those areas means the data has too small a sample size to be statistically significant.

This is less of an issue for big cities, such as Vancouver and Toronto. However, it's a problem when planners need to focus on specific demographics.

Some people are less likely to complete the census; immigrants may not fill it out because of language barriers, low-income families because they lack the time.

"If it's voluntary, then they're probably not going to do it," said Berlin.

This makes it harder for planners to know how cities are evolving in terms of their ethnic composition and the prevalence of people with low incomes.

"If we don't have information on those things, we can't as efficiently address the challenges associated with them," said Berlin. "We can continue to make good decisions, but maybe not the best decisions."

To listen to the full interview with Ryan Berlin, click on the audio labelled: Planning without a census.