Feature

Suburbia’s Last Stand

Ontario wants to force its car-dependent masses into denser neighbourhoods

by
• 6,074 words

Anyone brave enough to dive into the summer waters of Lake Ontario from the north shore will find two surprises. Below the surface of dancing algae, the diver will hit a crystal wall of water—the thermocline—cold enough to take a person’s breath away. Plunging deeper, through temperatures as low as 4°C, our diver will find loose brown slabs strewn over the lake bottom—the broken and scattered ruins of Dundas shale, a vestige of the Devonian age. This sedimentary rock was formed more than 300 million years ago when vast salt seas flooded the area and compressed the silt of millennia into a fine-grained stone. It underlies much of southern Ontario, but on the north shore of the lake the shale was exposed to the unyielding foment of currents and storm waves and could be crudely salvaged by pioneer settlers. Ideal for house foundations, the smooth Dundas shale was relatively easy to obtain, work with, and lay down—a commodity. Wading into the water with long-handled hooks, two men would drag out a “toise” of shale in a day and a half and then sell it for four silver dollars.

By 1850 Port Credit, in what is now the City of Mississauga, had become home to a fleet of shallow-draft schooners, called stone-hookers, that carried crews out to rip out stone from the shallows. In violation of the Queen’s regulations against undermining the shoreline, stone-hooking persisted well into the twentieth century, when the invention of two new commodities—Portland cement and the motor car—replaced the craft after the Great War.

You can see the original stone-hooked Dundas shale today, if you know where to look. There is a pioneer farmhouse still standing on Lakeshore Road West in Oakville, Ontario. It was built in 1853, and the owner must have been a colonial gentleman, for the foundation of his extensive high porch and the fine Victorian Gothic house itself were built of this handsome and durable stone. Perhaps that is why the old house stayed put, solid and secure as the decades came and went. Until now.

As part of “Memoirs,” a one-hectare site featuring thirteen houses built around an elaborately landscaped oval parkette, the original farmhouse will be uprooted—hand-quarried pioneer flagstones and all—and moved a hundred metres south to frame one side of an iron-gated entrance. There, in presumably its final resting place, it will face its replicated twin, erected to match it symmetrically on the other side of the common drive. Real and fake, side by side.

The developer of Memoirs is Michael Moldenhauer, thirty-nine, president of Moldenhauer Group, and today he is wearing an understated, hand-finished charcoal pinstriped suit. His stylish glasses sit unused on the boardroom table; his hair is perfect. He is uncannily sharp for this early-morning interview, despite the fact that in less than two hours he will be presenting a paper to the Ontario government on its new Growth Management Plan, an initiative that could determine the future of every brick, pipe, and pylon in the province for decades to come.

By the Ontario government’s own conservative estimates, over the next thirty years four million new immigrants will arrive in the province, with the vast majority settling in the Greater Golden Horseshoe region. The issue is not whether the province needs them—with demanding baby boomers retiring and pension funds flattening out, aggressive immigration is required to keep the economy churning and the taxes rolling in. The question is where to put them—where and how to absorb them.

In February 2005, Ontario’s Greenbelt Act received royal assent. Over a vast penumbra of greenfields, the act immediately froze development in a 1.8-million-acre arc surrounding the Greater Golden Horseshoe region. The protected area is more than double the combined size of the Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine, and the purpose is clear: preserve the natural environment of the region by halting suburban sprawl. Combined with the Places to Grow Act (passed in June 2005), the goal is also to avoid costly new subdivisions (which have pushed farms under and made teeming millions beholden to the automobile) by concentrating growth in twenty-five purposefully “intensified cities.”

“Public Health and Urban Sprawl in Ontario,” a 2005 report by the Environmental Health Committee of the Ontario College of Family Physicians, highlights the obvious—“Sprawling urban developments lead to increased driving, which results in increased vehicle emissions”—but it also chronicles the negative social and health effects of environmental obesity, road rage, injuries from car accidents, homicides by strangers, driver fatigue and mental stress, community loss, social isolation of car-less dependants (women, children, and seniors), and, of course, increased air and water pollution.

Such reports buttress the arguments for containment, but there is more to the social isolation issue. According to another study, “Visible Minority Neighbourhoods in Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver” (Statistics Canada 2004), in 1981, in Canada’s three largest metropolitan areas, there were six ethnic enclaves; by 2001, there were 254. The report defines such visible-minority neighbourhoods as areas in which over 30 percent of the population is from a single visible-minority group or “the probability that a member of a visible minority group will meet only members of the same group in a particular neighbourhood.”

There is obvious comfort in sameness, and culture retention across generations can be reassuring to parents, but the depiction is nonetheless one of parallel societies springing up in discrete patches that, to varying degrees, are choked by their own isolation. Such communities, clustered and segregated by a pulsating motherboard of grid roads, are like tiles in the “multicultural mosaic,” with minimal crossover and chronically frustrated access from one tile to the next.

Two things seem certain: Ontario’s Growth Management Plan represents a massive experiment in social engineering, and people resist being engineered. Those with capital—especially the “high-source” immigrants most desired—come with expectations, principal among them land and a house of their own. Living by his grandfather’s maxim that “a man without land is nobody,” the fictional Duddy Kravitz found Montreal’s Jewish ghetto to be a good place to leave. The allure of the suburbs has long been land, space, and lower taxes. While the city governments of Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto complain about lacking the resources to absorb vast numbers of new and necessary immigrants, it has increasingly been the edge cities, with their promise of a green oasis free from urban blight and dangerous social cross-currents, that have become the chief sponges.

The suburbs have survived, even prospered, in the post-World War II years by constantly growing, and in so doing they have satisfied this national need. But if greenfields will no longer be served up to bulldozers, if they are to be replaced by higher buildings in intensified cities, will the allure be the same? Will vertical boxes attract high-source immigrants? Or will such people continue to demand a yard of their own?

There can be no intensified development without builders, and not all are sanguine about Ontario’s Growth Management Plan. To Charles Stuart, vice president of MarketVision Realty, a research and real estate brokerage firm specializing in core development projects in downtown Toronto, Big Planning smacks of hubris. “Fifteen years ago the City of Toronto was working very hard to save its local traditional industries, like the needle trade,” he says. “It desperately resisted every attempt to rezone these dying industries, as the corporate tax base dried up and the companies moved to Asia. We live in a global economy, not an urban one, and certainly not a provincial one. The whole thing was ridiculous. They did not have the science or the capacity to do a real study on a real city, then or now. Now they claim they can do a whole province!”

In fact, broad discussions between the province, municipalities, and developers are ongoing, and, while the plan is in place, the implementation procedures are not etched in stone. Framed in the colourful palette of the “greenbelt,” “brownfields,” “purple intensification areas,” and the “white zone,” it is a hothouse debate attempting to settle on targets, dates, and process. And on core issues there is disquiet. In “Pull Don’t Push” (April 2005), the Greater Toronto Home Builders’ Association “Response to Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan,” developers maintain that the Ontario government “must accept solutions that will allow people to choose where they want to live, and not imply that they know best how people should live.” The gthba brief offers conditional support and pointed critique. “The recent surge in downtown condominium development in Toronto is not driven by smart growth policy. It is driven by the market,” suggesting that intensification must occur naturally, not by government fiat. In its press release, gthba president Julie Di Lorenzo adds: “Based on our experience, a ‘push’ approach to regulation does not succeed in the long term.”

Di Lorenzo offers other cautionary notes. Behind the comforting language from Ontario’s planners about their intention “to manage growth; support economic development; reinvest in public infrastructure; and protect our natural environment,” Di Lorenzo worries that the infrastructure cash on the barrelhead (for roads, public transit, water, sewer pipes, etc.) will not be there, that “local opposition to intensification is a fact of life,” and that the “not-in-my-backyard syndrome cannot be ignored.” Most of the cities slated for intensification are, in truth, mature Ontario towns (Cambridge, St. Catharines, Barrie, and Oakville, among others) that only pretend to be cities—like little metrovilles.

According to Donna Hinde, whose downtown Toronto firm is advising smaller towns on the coming impact of intensification, “We have to tell our municipal clients where to put 12,000 units in a low-density, sprawling neighbourhood like Mississauga. In an older community where everyone knows their neighbours they are not used to change, and this is a huge change itself, never mind the design ideas that might follow the density shift.” Peter Natyshak, vice president of sales and marketing for the Moldenhauer Group, says that in Oakville there is a powerful “group of ratepayers that don’t want buildings over four storeys.”

The gthba, Natyshak, Hinde, and others are hedging their bets. The province is facing a planning conundrum, and it seems politically incorrect to overly criticize attempted solutions. Still, the gthba may “support the objectives of the Growth Plan,” but Moldenhauer points out that he already spends fully two-thirds of his time on “council meetings, focus groups, ratepayers association meetings, regional and municipal hearings,” and he worries that the new regulatory regime will be costly and will further delay development. Moldenhauer argues that much of what you pay for in a new house today is not apparent—it’s in an invisible mountain of reports and files, a paper shadowlife that grows bigger with every political initiative.

The gthba wants a few “sticks” to bring localities into line, and a few “carrots” in the form of direct incentives to municipalities and home builders. As it stands, many developers believe that if the choice presented by the Growth Management Plan is to intensify or lose out on the infrastructure and development sweepstakes, smaller municipalities will pass. With a moratorium on building in the greenbelt, and development of white-zone areas (between the greenbelt and purple intensification zones) now dependent on municipalities meeting intensification targets set by the province—targets which many say they cannot or will not reach—some developers are wondering where they will build.

For the larger cities like Toronto and Mississauga, the situation is quite different: they must keep growing to sustain their tax bases. But Mississauga’s debonair director of policy planning, John Calvert, echoes the point made about the surge of condominium development in Toronto. Mississauga, he says, has long recognized that it must intensify, and it has few places to go but up—“bluefields” you might call them. ( If you’re running out of greenfields, those dwindling parcels of well-drained farmland, you simply make more—out of thin air.) Calvert says that his city has long had “the power to amend itself ” by issuing building permits and rezoning land. He details how Mississauga recently “pre-zoned” its City Centre lands, openly copying a Toronto initiative called the King Street Plan. One of Ontario’s most successful developers, Danny Salvatore of Fernbrook Homes, would concur. Fernbrook is currently constructing a clutch of five shiny residential towers in Mississauga’s City Centre, a project that broke ground well before the Greenbelt Act.

And then there is the money. Despite a robust national economy and Ottawa buying in with initiatives like the Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund to support public transit and water quality projects, “have-not” Ontario is running deficits and its battle to solve the “fiscal imbalance” with Ottawa is foundering. It remains the only province without a formal immigration deal with the federal government, and it is still largely beholden to the automobile industry for primary growth and the profitability of many tertiary industries. From one side of Queen’s Park come marketing programs designed to lure the automobile industry to “Ontario the Good” (where, among other benefits, the health of auto workers will be secured). And from the other side, the environment and urban-planning side, come the protestations: we must concentrate growth, and the twin evils are sprawl and cars.

Meanwhile, developers are saying that new developments need infrastructure guarantees—that, on the service side, intensified expansion must be virtually risk-free. For them, even though intensification should be cheaper than continued horizontal growth, the infrastructure pot of gold still seems small and tenuous.

Only Alberta—deliciously rich in the world’s most cherished commodity, oil, and with ballooning surpluses—seems positioned for the kind of growth so optimistically forecast for Ontario. (And, indeed, the sprawl into the bald prairie around Calgary and Edmonton continues unabated.) Premier Ralph Klein’s view on sharing Alberta’s wealth through increased transfer payments seems to be: if other Canadians want a piece of us, they can move here. And they might.

Nonetheless, there may be method to the Ontario government’s madness. If the automobile created vast horizontal suburbia, Canadians’ love-hate relationship with cars might spell its end. According to automobile-industry watchers, Americans own just over one car per eligible driver, while in Canada less than three-quarters of licensed drivers own cars. Morever, Canadians are less enamoured by big power and comfort on four wheels, preferring compact vehicles. But with oil tilting toward $100 a barrel, even the most compact cars still run expensive. The car-less society may be blue-skying, but we may be more primed for intensification and verticality than ever before.

If you called Michael Moldenhauer a “big developer,” he would laugh, even though he currently has twelve projects heading for market in the gta and an asset base approaching $200 million. Moldenhauer does infill (redevelopment) work, specializing in the niche marketing of expensive, customized housing projects that offer prestige location, low maintenance, and high-end amenities for the affluent buyer.

“This week there are eighty-one houses on the market in Oakville alone, listed at over a million each,” explains Peter Natyshak. “An infill project like our Memoirs is aimed at the growing buy-down market. These are senior bankers, investment dealers. The demographic is fifty-plus years old, second property in the Caribbean [or] Muskoka, incomes over two-fifty a year. They are selling their big houses in the two- to three-million-dollar range and looking for smaller homes with milliondollar finishes.”

The buy-down houses Natyshak is selling come with private elevators, wine cellars, and no discernible yards. Memoirs is described in the weighty sales prospectus as an “English Square” composed of a “village common” surrounded by stucco-and-stone houses trimmed with square timbers—“English Country” in our peculiarly Canadian architectural vernacular. “The owners will each pay about $200 a month toward the common maintenance of the English Square,” Natyshak continues. “Taxes will be $12,000 to $15,000 a year, but there’s a universal perception you can’t do anything about taxes. Low commons, on the other hand, are a desirable feature of any development, no matter how affluent the buyers.”

The casual reference to taxes, however, masks an explosive issue. Under the steely stewardship of “Her Honour,” Mayor Hazel McCallion, eighty-four years old and in her tenth term, Mississauga has been built on a brilliant if regionally divisive sales slogan: more house for less money. The other part of the equation (and sales pitch) is that constant growth creates a fresh tax base, allowing the total burden to be spread more thinly. As Calvert says, “Mississauga is debt-free and has millions in reserve funds. Our approach is to encourage job growth. Between 1991 and 2001 there were no property tax increases. Mississauga was booming, with lots of jobs and huge revenues to the city.” And Mississauga is not alone. A hinterland of edge cities surrounding Toronto presents the provincial capital with a strategic dilemma: what is Toronto going to do for a tax base to support its full-service urban programs if Mississauga and others keep sucking up all the loose change?

In the new “giga-city” environment envisioned by the province, Toronto, like its growing neighbours, will have to compete. Each city chosen to intensify under Ontario’s Growth Management Plan is intended to be business-driven, a dense glittery core town walled in by virtual “urban fences.” They have been pre-selected to grow, but, like rival sports teams, the new giga-cities will have to become pro players, competing with each other for provincial funding to meet huge infrastructure needs, for developers’ cash and commitments, and for high-source immigration. They must compete, this field of contestants, and then live or die according to their own struggles. It is like the Athenian League of the fifth century BC—run by Spartans. The plan identifies urban sprawl as the new Persian enemy, and intensification as the weapon to defeat it, but it may create a new chimera all on its own.

Forget the future for a moment, forget planning. What is not anecdotal or speculative is the measurable decline of the current physical infrastructure of our cities, a trend now visible even in fully planned cities like Mississauga. The problem with Big Planning is that a plan runs out of grandiosity after a generation, and begins to crack. Across the province, the comprehensive grid infrastructure created during Ontario’s John Robarts-William Davis boom years of the 1960s and 1970s—the roads, sidewalks, bridges, sewers, and water systems—has reached the end of its natural lifespan. It has all started to crumble. And alongside the infrastructure crumble, outside the gated “English Country” communes, also showing wear and tear are the vast housing projects, some more affluent than others, built out into the endless greenfields of the “905” region around Toronto. Those snapping up Victorian houses in Toronto are told (by realtors and smug neighbours) that the equity of homes built with materials far less resilient than Dundas shale and solid oak diminishes rapidly—and with that crumble goes the whole cookie. Hidden from sales brochures, the suburban “vastland” creaks ever closer to a full-blown reality.

If the plan is for a pre-planned province, then how does Canada’s biggest planned city itself fare, a full generation after the shovels first hit its heavily blueprinted soil? Until the recession of 1989, Mississauga was the fastest-growing municipality in Canada. Between 1976 and 1981, it grew a whopping 26 percent, slowing down in the next five-year term to a still-respectable 18 percent. This is how the growth history is presented in its official publications, in measurable five-year increments.

After thirty years with the city, John Calvert looks back on Mississauga’s Official Plan era as a heady time. “The big issue was between those who supported an urbanized, industrial city and those who wanted to retain the large area of undeveloped farms, environmentalists opposing urbanization. City Council opted for the Official Plan, which the Ontario Municipal Board approved in 1981. Our strategic decision was to become self-sufficient economically, not a bedroom community. To aggressively pursue businesses. We succeeded to where Mississauga is a net importer of jobs—about 55,000 jobs now, in fact.”

But all is not bliss in the land of plenty. Mississauga is now facing a huge repair bill. Municipalities are subject to the world commodities market. And, as Joe Pitushka, Mississauga’s director of engineering and works, says, “We spend $26 million repairing roads every year…and the prices of oil, gas, and concrete are going up.” To manage escalating infrastructure-renewal costs, the solution, the only one available, is to keep growing, to stay on the growth treadmill, and to keep tax revenues flowing. But here is the strategic dilemma faced by Mississauga: hunger for growth will almost always tend toward the cheap. Just as businesses selling products on price alone tend to become bigger box stores or fail, so it is with municipalities.

Absolute Vision, one of five towers in development at the Mississauga City Centre, is the Square Zero of communities, at once the basis and fulfilment of life’s unlimited potential—or so suggests the hyper-chic Fernbrook sales brochure. “The best of everything Mississauga has to offer is a few minutes walk away, including live theatre, cinemas, shopping and speciality boutiques and dining on all levels.” And if this is not enough to tempt the hesitant buyer, Danny Salvatore’s company offers the clincher: as a special promotion Fernbrook gave away a thirty-two-inch lcd TV to the first 150 buyers.

To meet the challenges of post-greenfields intensification, Mississauga employs not just the slogans but also the techniques of a multinational corporation: strategic planning, the continual dissemination of glossy spreadsheets, annual forecasts, reports to “stakeholders,” head-hunting for top managers and technical staff, incentive rewards for successful executives, loss leaders, and the search for new markets. These practices are supported by residents. Like an annual meeting of small shareholders invited to a chicken-salad luncheon and PowerPoint presentation, the electorate has dutifully re-elected McCallion over and over again (albeit with a scant 23-percent voter turnout over the past four elections). Why? Because Her Honour has stuck to that unbeatable plank: low realty taxes and more house for less money. It is a message promoted heavily both at home and away.

With cut-rate realty taxes and advanced managerial techniques comes a competitive stance that hearkens back to the days of the Greek citystates. Asked who the competition is for Mississauga’s share of provincial largesse, Calvert replies without hesitation: “Brampton. Where we were fifteen years ago, they are now—facing extreme growth. We are all competing for funding based on growth from the Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal.”

Brampton? Brampton is one of the twenty-five cities chosen to intensify under Ontario’s Growth Management Plan, and Mississauga seeing it as competition is telling. Parsing Calvert, one senses envy, competition from a neighbouring city-state, and the chase to expand through the technology of hothouse economics—pumped and resource-trickled into bloom—without regard to natural history, social preferences, or residents’ cultural aptitudes.

The chief difference between Toronto and a suburban simulacrum like Mississauga is that the former grew organically around water courses, Indian trails, military sightlines, sawmills, local factories, quarries, farmers’ markets, cheap worker housing—and aristocratic fiefdoms like High Park, the hilly estate of the Howard family, donated to Toronto in 1873. Old Fort York still guards its city, if from under an expressway. Toronto is a jumble, never the same city twice in a day.

After its failure with Regent Park, a low-rise residential complex planned for low-income families—which like many Modernist projects looked so laudable in architectural journals only to become another socially engineered ghetto—the city grew suspicious of Big Planning, and its residents hold to a nagging suspicion that real communities grow out of mix, risk, and garrulous spontaneity. In downtown Toronto recently, I joined a drop-in dinner party at a restaurant late on a Tuesday night. The Ethiopian owner brought smoking roast coffee beans to a raucous table composed of an Iranian architect, a Croatian photographer, a Greek film director, a good old farm-boy insurance broker, a chic Polish paralegal, a Mexican property developer, and a svelte English art gallery director.

A number of discrete ethnic enclaves exist in Mississauga; notable is the Wisla Plaza at Dixie and Burnhamthorpe roads in the city’s southeast. The contrasts with Toronto’s Bloor West Village are instructive. Wisla’s Arkady Café and Restaurant offers up sturdy Polish cooking—tripe soup, breaded veal schnitzel, jaw-breaking chunks of marinated ribs—to an almost strictly Polish clientele who drive for miles in purposeful pursuit of their traditional comfort foods. A similar café in Bloor West Village or Toronto’s Greektown caters to a far more heterogeneous group.

With a wholly planned community like Mississauga, a key aspect of city life goes missing. The most damning thing you can say about the suburbs is that there are never any surprises. Sitting through council meetings, if Toronto’s unruly city government plays to the Athenian demos, Mississauga’s well-oiled machine offers a convincing version of a twenty-first-century Sparta, sticking to strict protocols that put creative miscegenation and the human lust for novelty at the bottom of its mission statement.

Cars do not allow for spontaneity—not when you must make twenty lights for a bowl of potato soup. “An enclave is a ghetto on wheels,” one might say of Mississauga. Wisla Plaza is schematically and therefore culturally isolated in a way residents must mutely ignore. This sense of isolation is so engrained in suburban life, making itself felt at every turn, that it’s like breathing fast and shallow in a broom closet just for the giddiness. Burnhamthorpe Road at this junction is a six-lane artery posted at sixty kilometres; drivers routinely clock eighty. If you miss your turnoff you keep going or risk a rearender—you either know where you are going or forget it. The traffic lights at the Wisla intersection allow pedestrians to cross, but only for a few seconds before the light goes red again. It is impossible to make the six lanes in time, even at a trot. I’ve tried.

If you continue along Burnhamthorpe Road, heading east on foot, you will walk alone, confronted by a stark wall of slipshod wooden fences designed to block passersby from seeing into backyards. The effect is one of sanctioned insularity and collective withdrawal. This is the security of silent sidewalks, the empty promise of fenced-in property.

There is no “dialogue” with the street, no “streetscape.” It’s not a “walk” at all, but a pointless slog—past unseen, furiously barking dogs and the occasional pair of eyes, peering warily from drawn curtains—toward another set of traffic lights looming in the distance. This limited concern with public space has its origin in the city’s tax strategy. Simple math: Mississauga’s lower mill rate demands more assessable properties to top up its coffers, so malls like Square One, the largest in Ontario, serve the same recreational purposes as High Park does in Toronto—but unlike the park, Square One pays its own way. Narrow sidewalks are intentional.

Are planned communities always boring in the end? Toronto is a classic city, rooted in the stubborn dialectic of local enfranchisement, drinking from a well of shared urban experience—and like Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, spontaneously generating hybrid cultures from the daily friction of ethnicities and classes. Knowing itself, Vancouver recently rejected the Trojan Horse of a “green” Wal-Mart box-store. But what does the future want from the Golden Horseshoe? Mississauga, and perhaps the provincial proponents of Big Planning too, are betting the store on the claimed evolutionary advantages of technical utility, commercial expedience, and marketing prowess. The past gets in their way.

In part, it is a matter of aesthetics, of conflicting ideologies as to what constitutes civic life. With its apparently entry-less, Genoese war-fort City Hall, its Quasimodo clock tower and Norman archery slits, its splendid mirrored-glass and brushed-aluminum ranks of towers—all marching off into the western horizon like giant bishops and rooks through endless house grids—Mississauga’s visually aloof and eerily autonomous architecture is the vision realized of a like-minded peer group. They convened in the mid-1970s, absorbed and applied the Modernist canon and civic booster culture of that era, and co-authored their Official Plan. Today, as Mississauga glories in its shiny self-proprietorship, one official publication, “Mississauga: The Evolution of a City,” proudly appropriates the language of contemporary literary criticism:

The challenges of taming the rugged frontier…have been replaced by the challenges of managing the rapid expansion that has taken place since the mid-twentieth century.…Mississauga’s history has been shaped by a collection of stories rather than one single narrative. This history provides a context to understand the present and direction to guide the future.

It all looks very rational until you study the text. Cleaving to the tenets of central planning, Mississauga strikes one as a futuristic city intent on abandoning the claims of local history. Power does not come from the plan, nor from the ability to execute any particular plan. It comes from the covert and self-generating formulation of plans themselves—plans in which the roads and cars and houses and statistical indices of growth are merely the visible parts of a calculus of expert rule. Forget about overleveraged tract housing, bored mall teenagers, and two-hour commutes; the real point of the suburbs is their wholesale accommodation to mass business cycles.

Mississauga feels like a chimera because it is. One senses that if they got the necessary budget, the city’s planners would knock it all down and start again. Despite their apparent similarities, the two über-cultures, City and Plan, could not be more ideologically opposed.

If developers see constrained opportunities in the greenbelt initiative, many see the “white zone” as its hidden Achilles heel. The name comes from the original provincial study maps, which left random areas of uncertainty between the purple intensification zones and the greenbelt. “When you push inward to the city core, you have this transitional area that needs to be defined, from the core to the green belt,” Moldenhauer explains. “No development allowed in the greenbelt? Fine. But this white zone? You can only develop there if the municipality achieves certain intensification targets. And who sets these targets? Not the local users. Not the market either.”

Before, municipalities would plan such developments, but these intensification targets are now set by the province. Redevelopment builders like Moldenhauer specialize in urban core areas, and in the past their infill projects would assist municipalities in achieving their own intensification targets. Today, Moldenhauer simply doesn’t know if white-zone development is in his future.

If the Growth Management Plan aims at halting suburban sprawl by planning more “cities” (i.e., more Torontos, but neater), it has overstepped on the regulatory side. No civic politician, wise to the rough-and-tumble ways of his neighbourhood constituency, would ever suggest ousting the jurisdiction of the courts as these provincial legislators have effectively done. The new act expressly forbids appeals under the Statutory Powers Procedure Act, a traditional remedy for parties wronged by decisions of administrative boards. And to ensure its incontestable legal clout, a no-conflicts provision has been inserted, making the greenbelt law a law unto itself.

So what? If the issue confined itself to a critique of legislative culture, it might be relatively harmless. But the reality on the ground suggests that such schematic rectitude, put into practice, usurps the kinesthetic prowess of the average person at every level—and replaces it with a dogged reliance on street signage, on punctuated activity abstracted from the daily flow of transit downtime.

“No, no! Stay right there!” yells the Mississauga bus driver, shaking her head as a would-be passenger attempts to zigzag across Burnhamthorpe Road’s six lanes of traffic. We’re on Route 26 heading to Square One Mall. “We’ve got instructions to pull away,” she explains. “Not wait for jaywalkers so as not to encourage them.”

“Why, is that a problem here? ” asks one rider, as the jaywalker nearly gets creamed by one car and then another before he hops back to the sidewalk.

“You kidding? That’s our number one pedestrian accident. People running for the bus across traffic, not looking. You should hear the sound when they get hit by a car.”

“You heard it before? ” “Three times, you can’t mistake it.”

It’s Dawn of the Dead out here; a parody of suburban life, minus the life-hungry zombies bursting through mall windows like entranced shoppers. Still awaiting satirical treatment: Big Planning’s enormous potential for dividing up ethnicities, classes, age groups, and political affinities, and subjecting them to the dwarfing effects of isolation and containment.

If Mississauga’s planned horizontal past and envisioned vertical future is any indication, the Grow th Management Plan may simply generate a wave of vertical islands, isolating and confining residents to service-thin corridors across the Greater Golden Horseshoe region instead of lively smaller Torontos. According to a current trend, these new polities could demand allegiance to badges of collective identity: Following patterns of chain-link migration, wherein immigrants sponsor family and friends after arrival, Mississauga already contains such growing ethnic box settlements as the Polish area in the southeast, the Sikhs of Malton, and a Chinese enclave on Dundas Street. Such zones bear scant resemblance to the cherished mosaic of liberal multiculturalism, whereas authentic Chinatowns draw custom from everywhere. Where is the cross-cultural dialogue, the lateral transmission? If ethnic parents inevitably choose suburbia for its cardependent freedom of association, it also offers the opportunity to raise their children free from the taint of other cultures.

And the children? “We still hang out together, all my high school friends,” says Melissa, twenty-four, who works in a computer store and grew up in Lorne Park, Mississauga’s upper-middle class neighbourhood. “We go to downtown clubs on weekends.” What city kid would make such a claim, speaking in the collective, and putting a positive spin on a quarter-century of experiential stasis? For suburban kids, Toronto is another mall, only bigger than Square One. Big Planning inevitably engages the future: what does it care for local affinities, for Dundas shale, for unorganized, sporadic, spontaneous life and development? Today, Mississauga’s Planning Department has about 200 staff members; only one is an environmental planner. The encompassing Region of Peel has eleven environmental planners—that is, men and women who guide the relationships of a community’s growth to the natural landscape. Mississauga has left the era of ground-based housing far behind. It does not need environmental planners; it needs experts in matching urban growth to the world business environment.

And it has one.

In February 2005, Hazel McCallion, accompanied by key staff and local businesspeople, co-led a trade delegation to that other rising world power, India. Last year, for Team Mississauga, it was Hong Kong. Postmodern means beyond landscape.

What about art and imagination, about radicalism and innovation in design, and their future prospects under Ontario’s Growth Management Plan? Why are so many contemporary buildings so conventional? Why does new housing repeat the tired clichés of Edwardian townhouses, Georgian villas, and art deco penthouses? Why do condominiums look like low-cal wedding cakes? Where is the promised future?

Will intensification foster competition among the new giga-cities in erecting visionary edifices, like the cathedral towns of medieval Europe, or just raw competition itself? “It’s a huge opportunity,” says Donna Hinde, who was raised in Mississauga and now lives in Toronto. “There are no options to curtailing urban sprawl. We must do it. My own family lives downtown, so we put up with urban stress. Yet we can walk down the street, see a museum, enjoy a glass of wine in a café, walk home at midnight. There are no services, nothing to trade off for, living in a condo tower in the suburbs. You get all the stresses of urban living, without the amenities.”

The other vision is perhaps best described in the sales pitch for Fernbrook’s Absolute Vision: buyers watching free lcd TVs in a vertical mall. Savvy developers like Danny Salvatore know what people want—and what they can afford. Their business has always been in knowing the difference.

“What do you have to pay to live fifty storeys up? ” the visitor asks Jessica, a Fernbrook sales rep.

“The view premium is $500 per floor, straight up to the penthouses.”

“And what do you see from the top floor? ”

“There’s nothing up there,” she replies breezily. “Nothing but sky.”