Prevailing for humanity in the face of economic stresses can offer promise for future community building.
Words by John Stillich
Mississauga, like all other cities in the Toronto area, has an Official Plan that governs how land is to be used as the city grows and develops. Other plans, such as for transportation and environmental protection, also have lasting effects on the future of the city. As with all things, they change over time as circumstances change. All sorts of futures can be imagined, but there are some clues about what we will be facing. Perhaps one future will be like this…
It’s springtime in the year 2031, and Lee heads off on his morning trip to work at the Meadowvale Hospital. The sun feels warm already, and the day is on its way to a forecasted 25 degrees. He looks back at his former two-car garage, renovated last year into an apartment that he rents to a young tenant. He glances left to what was his front lawn, now a field of strawberry plants waiting to bloom. His walk to the transit stop is short, as is his wait for the bus, which comes every 5 minutes and takes Lee to his express bus connection.
In a quiet mood this morning, Lee reflects on how things have changed over the last 20 years. The Toronto region is still growing rapidly. But despite the pressures for cities to sprawl across the rural landscape, the decade-old land use controls over the urbanization of rural areas in the region remain effective. 80% of the Toronto region’s growth is now being accommodated within existing built-up areas. Mississauga’s population is now 900,000.
Regional farmland preservation became necessary as global populations and energy prices continued to increase. Farming in the Toronto region flourished as the cost of importing fruits and vegetables from distant sources increased. Overall, growing food has become more energy efficient and more labour-intensive. Organically-produced foods are now competitively priced and a mainstay in grocery stores but overall, food costs take twice the share of Lee’s income than it did ten years ago. Many Mississauga homeowners grow vegetables and fruits in their backyards or on apartment balconies and are cutting back on meat consumption as a way to save money.
The ongoing energy crunch has changed many aspects of daily life. Global supplies of oil began to fall short of demand in 2013, and prices skyrocketed. The price of gasoline blew past $2.50 per litre. Fortunately, the years of wild economic fluctuations that those shocks caused have now calmed but the cost of energy from all non-renewable sources continues to increase.
Lee’s family gave up its plans to buy a suburban home at the edge of Toronto and instead bought a home in Mississauga, much closer to work for both him and his wife Sharon. But Lee thought, life is good here in the city. The house is energy-efficient and affordable, the supermarket, pharmacy and other shops are very close by, the kids can walk to school, the neighbours are friendly, there are lots of recreational opportunities, and there’s no problem getting around this city.
From the bus window, Lee notices the latest conversion of another shopping plaza into a high density mixed use centre. Newer buildings housing office and retail activities are required to be at least three storeys tall, and most new buildings include residences on the upper floors. A smart thing to do, Lee thought. High-rise or medium-rise residential condominiums on top of stores, restaurants or offices provide a baseline of customers and clients. Parking lots are shrinking in these conversions and elsewhere, and where not replaced by buildings, they are often turned into mini-parks, with trees, fountains, public art and quiet places to relax.
Lee’s express bus operates on an exclusive lane shared with local buses and taxis. Peel Transit now operates over 2,000 buses and three light rail lines, triple the number of vehicles that operated way back in 2012. Fares have not increased in 15 years, and PT is used by most people. GO Transit operates electric-powered all-day service on all of its rail lines. Even though Mississauga’s population has continued to grow, the overall number of kilometres traveled by cars has declined, in step with firm targets set by the city’s transportation plans long ago.
Almost all major roads in Mississauga have bicycle-only lanes safely separated from motor vehicle traffic. These days, most cars and buses and many trucks, are electric-powered – which is a cheaper and a much less polluting alternative to gasoline engines. For Lee and Sharon, owning a car became a waste of money a few years ago and they decided to live without one. Now that they walk so much more, they’ve found that their connection to their neighbours and the neighbourhood has become stronger.
Lee’s bus passes over the railroad tracks but the tracks are almost invisible, hidden below a continuous array of photovoltaic panels that supply Mississauga with electric power. The 400-series transportation corridors are getting to be much the same, with the added feature of wind turbines every hundred metres or so. On either side of the tracks are industrial activities which, as with local food production, have been given new life as economic globalization waned. These lands, once inefficiently used and zoned by the city as employment-only areas, have diversified and filled in. Strict pollution laws and popular demand have enabled some residential towers to be built next to or above some industrial buildings, providing workers with homes close to their jobs.
Increases in the efficient use of land were not only the result of controls on the conversion of rural lands. The Ontario government recognized years ago that property taxation based on market value was part of the impetus for suburban sprawl and phased in a property tax system based on the number of square metres of land and the ratio of floor space to land area, varied somewhat by type of use. One result was that demand for residential housing shifted from single family homes to more and better attached homes and apartments. Multi-storey construction of industrial, commercial and other non-residential buildings became more economically viable and covered more of the property. Lee’s family, which lives in a detached home, pays a few hundred dollars more in property taxes than before the transition. Fortunately, the tenant and not owning a car more than made up for the difference.
After work, Lee and Sharon will meet at a friend’s house for dinner. Their friend lives in a new home that was built in row house fashion between what used to be two single family homes. There are now whole residential streets that have added homes on what were front lawns. As a matter of public policy, no new single family homes have been built in Mississauga in the last dozen years, reflecting demographic changes and the need to use land economically. Half of Mississauga’s residents live in apartment-style buildings. Old-fashioned corner stores now dot the residential landscape, enabling more people to walk to buy groceries and medicines, get a haircut and access other services. The corner café has replaced many drive-through restaurant chains, bringing life and neighbourliness to communities that once routinely relied on car trips to the mall for the most basic errands.
As energy issues came to the fore and the damaging effects of climate destabilization became more apparent, energy efficiency and renewable energy production in the city became recognized as a way for Mississauga to reduce the severe economic drain of energy imports, and to become more self reliant. Ground-source heating and cooling systems are now the norm for newer buildings. Even water systems have changed. Most buildings now have rain harvesting systems that supply water for gardening and as greywater, reducing pressure on the city’s treatment and pumping facilities. Apartment units are individually metered and charged for both electricity and water use – something that reduced per capita consumption by more than a third. Almost half of building rooftops are covered with new photovoltaic panels that are several times more efficient than they were two decades ago.
Other buildings have green roofs that not only provide insulation but add accessible open space for relaxation. And, despite the growing population in Mississauga, other outdoor spaces – in the form of natural heritage lands, schoolyards and city parks — offer plenty of opportunities for recreation.
Lee arrives at the hospital’s transit stop, and walks past the high-rise tower where many hospital employees live. He greets Isabelle, a co-worker, who has just returned from a few weeks vacation. She spent her time locally, at the theatre and exploring the city’s restaurants, visiting the Mississauga Animal Sanctuary, and even got into the spirit of the NHL’s Mississauga Maulers playoff run. Lee and Isabelle agree that the city has a lot more to offer now than a decade or two ago, when Toronto was the place to go for entertainment. There’s also a great waterpark, and the fabulous IceSkatePark, an outdoor skating heaven that has put Mississauga on the map as an international winter destination.
Lee settles into his office at the hospital and, viewing the landscape outside his window, sees a bigger picture. Twenty years ago, in 2011, we were still living in the 20th century, almost oblivious to the dramatic rush of global events that were beginning to unsettle our comfort zones. But eventually City Council saw the tsunami coming straight at us and threw off the shackles of timidity to move Mississauga aggressively forward towards sustainable urban development. And when the kicking and screaming was over, even the naysayers realized they were better off.