Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mississauga's Coming Tribulations

"Mississauga isn't a real city, like us." That's how I would rib a friend of mine who lived in that city, but I can't say that I didn't at least partially believe in the truth of the statement. Mississauga is Toronto's immediate western neighbor, is the sixth-largest city in Canada, and is bigger than places like Milwaukee and Cleveland - but if you're not from around here, you've probably never heard of it. That's how Mississauga rolls. It is considerably less dense than Toronto, and as it was mostly farmland fifty years ago, it is dominated by the post-war suburban model of development.

Since 1978, Mississauga has been under the rule of "Hurricane" Hazel McCallion, who had better be some kind of robot or Highlander because if she ever dies, the city is going to spiral into chaos because no one will know what to do. Under her authority, Mississauga has remained free of debt, which is frequently bandied about in Mississauga vs. Toronto flame wars as evidence of Mississauga's superiority.

Personally, I ask, what use is it having no debt if you have to build a place like Mississauga in order to achieve it? The reason I ribbed my Mississaugan friend the way I did is because Mississauga does not feel like a city - it feels like Barrie, with five hundred thousand more people crammed in. It's a massive suburb that has sprawled and sprawled until it can sprawl no more.

Which, incidentally, is the problem. Yesterday the Toronto Star published an opinion piece by Christopher Hume, "High time for change in Mississauga," criticizing the bureaucratic inertia produced by Mayor McCallion's continued electoral victories as well as the city's unpreparedness to face the future.

"...it could serve as a poster community of how not to build a city," Hume wrote, and I agree with him. Mississauga is the immediate postwar ideal writ large - long streets and wide streets crisscrossing, built to allow cars to speed from subdivision to sprawling subdivision - though, granted, this is not a poison limited to Mississauga - and so on. His commenters weren't all nodding their heads, though. There are quite a few in the article's comment thread spewing venom about how high-density development is bad because "people are not bees," and that people "want a backyard for their families" and "like driving their own car and not [being] herded onto buses like sheep or cattle heading into the slaughter house."

Public transit has always, always been vilified by proponents of suburban development. After all, it makes it possible for people to live in places other than sprawling subdivisions.

The real problem is not Mississauga. Mississauga is just an expression of the ideas, the concepts, the drives which are the problem. It is possible, extremely possible, for people to have space of their own in the city. My apartment is space enough for me, and I'm no bee. The problem is a general unwillingness to recognize that we can't have everything we want. Modern models of development are attractive because their true cost isn't reflected on the price tag of a house. When people buy houses in suburban developments like those that comprise most of Mississauga, they think of owning a space that's theirs and theirs alone, not the dependency they're forcing themselves into. In my own opinion, raising a child in the suburbs does that child no favors.

Barring some revolutionary bolt from the blue, it seems to me that we're going to have to radically reorient our society in the 21st century if we want to come out stronger on the other end of it. Mississauga, to me, is reflective of 20th century attitudes that refuse to die. The greatest challenge we're going to face is not a technological one, but a psychological one. An unwillingness to think, to consider the consequences of one's actions, is hardly a virtue.


  1. Nice piece Andrew, glad to stumble across your writings.
    The debt history deserves more ink - long range projects can be well served and constructed with debt if the payback makes sense. Paying for services or avoiding a tax hike is just ...

  2. It's easy to have no debt when you're a city composed primarily of large tracts of low-density housing from which you can extract property tax revenue, and can piggyback on services provided by the metropolis next door.

    Thanks for the comment!