Can Toronto learn from Mississauga?
Today’s Mississauga can be a wonderful laboratory for political candidates across Ontario to learn what to do as well as what to avoid.
Mississauga could have been one of the nicest cities in North America. A little over 30 years ago when it was created by amalgamation, it just had some very attractive villages like Port Credit, Streetsville, Meadowvale, Clarkson and others. With just 200,000 inhabitants, most of the land was farm, with gorgeous creeks, woodlots and the Credit River crossing it and ending in beautiful Lake Ontario.
Three decades later, it has grown totally focused on car mobility and not on creating a people friendly city. It did grow to over 700,000 people, but not because it was great. Actually any municipality in the GTA that provides abundant development permits can grow at that pace. The extended GTA is expected to grow by 50 per cent in the next 22 years.
Most of the population growth has been immigrants and over half of the residents were born in countries other than Canada; 41 per cent of the population are visible minorities. Nevertheless there is not a single visible minority councillor and just one senior staff in the top 40 at the city; another worrisome symptom.
Mayor Hazel McCallion has been called “the queen of sprawl.” The city is not walkable or bike-able and the transit system is mediocre. The city centre has grown guided by a “law of the jungle,” each developer doing whatever they wanted. After all, the first city centre plan was “donated” by the developers of Square One who obviously were more interested in getting a successful shopping centre than a suitable people place.
It does not have any college and its only university is a U of T campus. It has built hundreds of kilometres of sidewalks and roads, as well as dozens of schools, parks, community centres, public libraries, but not one that would generate the envy of all communities in Canada. The public realm has not been a priority.
On the positive side, Mississauga seems to have done some things right. It has no debt and re-elects its mayor with more than 90 per cent of the vote. It has been hitting the “bull’s-eye” -- unfortunately it was the wrong target.But proving that only rivers have no reverse, Mississauga seems to be making a 180-degree turnaround. To McCallion’s credit, she has had the courage to admit that if she had known 30 years ago what she knows today, the city would be very different.
Miracles do happen. In the last three years Mississauga has created a Strategic Plan with massive public consultation.
- A campus of Sheridan College is being built in the heart of the city centre.
- Plans are underway to produce a major road diet on Burnhamthorpe, a six-lane arterial in the city centre, which will be turned into four lanes plus transit.
- A Bus Rapid Transit system is under construction parallel to Hwy. 403 and designs for a Light Rail are on the way along Hurontario from Lake Ontario to Brampton.
- A major square has been built connecting City Hall to the Central Library, which came out of a Placemaking process where “the community was the expert” and told the city staff what they wanted.
- There is a new cycling plan and elected officials, staff and community members are pushing to have it all implementing in less than 10 years.
- A major change is the resurgence of enthusiastic, knowledgeable and visionary community groups that are partnering with the City to “push and support” good initiatives; an example of these groups are the ones on the waterfront, especially in Port Credit and Lakeview.
Yes, much of these are just plans, but many projects are already under construction.
Mississauga might become an example to many communities in Ontario that even if they grew giving developers all they wanted and creating cities more friendly to cars than to people, it is never too late to turn around.
Obviously the city will never be as marvellous as if it had had this vision 30 years ago when it had the opportunity to do it right the first time; for example, to develop a magnificent grid of greenways and people friendly neighbourhoods with complete streets.
This is another lesson for the municipalities that are building the communities for the additional 3.7 million people that will live in the extended GTHA; they do not have to do what Mississauga did and then turn around. The new communities can be people friendly from day one.
Despite some criticism, McCallion is smart, hard-working and committed to her city. For the past few years she has had an equally smart City Manager who has put in place a very good team, especially around the project Creating the City for the 21st Century. They are demonstrating that if given some room to manoeuvre, they make things happen.Wouldn’t it be great if McCallion used her boundless energy and capacity to get things done and over the next four years accelerates the pace of change so that in addition to doing things right, her legacy would be to have done the right things?
Interesting challenge and a wonderful opportunity. Let’s hope they succeed, as it could have major positive implications not just for Mississauga but for the future of urban Ontario.
About Gil Penalosa