Mississauga Leaves the Suburbs

As Ontario’s population surges, urban planner Ed Sajecki explains how one of Toronto’s biggest neighbours is growing up and going from suburban to urban

The internationally renowned Absolute/Marilyn Monroe Towers stand out with its organic, twisting shape at the edge of a thriving office district in the downtown. Photo by Adiseshan Shankar

The numbers are staggering. Experts with the province’s Ministry of Finance say Ontario’s population will increase by more than 30 percent by 2041. Greater Toronto will grow by 3 million people to reach 9 million citizens. Suburban towns like Mississauga will increase by 10–13 percent. As it does, the City of Mississauga finds itself at a crossroads. Forty years ago it was a newly amalgamated city of five small towns, each with a unique identity. Now, it is a major city housing 750,000 Mississaugans and is considered one of the most diverse cities in the world with residents speaking more than 130 languages.

As a result, the city is shedding its reputation as one of Canada’s best suburbs and stepping into its future as a developed urban centre. Leaders like Ed Sajecki, commissioner of planning and building, have seen signs of growth on the horizon for years. Sajecki, who’s logged over three decades in city planning—including positions as Ontario’s assistant deputy minister of planning and development and as commissioner for several cities in Toronto—travels the world to learn and implement the best “smart growth” practices.

Sajecki loved LEGO at an early age, making city planning a natural career choice

In his role as assistant deputy minister, Sajecki led Ontario’s initiatives around smart growth, Brownfields legislation, and Canada-Ontario affordable housing agreements. He received an Ontario Environmental Commissioner award for his work in protecting the Oak Ridges Moraine. This led to the creation of the largest greenbelt protection plan in North America. He became commissioner of planning and building for Mississauga in 2003, advising its City Council to ensure the city is well positioned to handle the continuing influx of new residents.

As a veteran industry expert, a three-term board member of the Canadian Urban Institute, and as a member of several other city-building advisory boards and committees, Sajecki knows that although growth is good, it presents several real challenges. He spends his vacations traveling the world doing pro bono work to learn from the best of the best and to volunteer in rebuilding postwar countries. He’s examined rail systems in The Netherlands, advised environmental specialists and planners in China, aided capacity building teams in Ukraine after the Orange Revolution, provided strategic planning advice in Vietnam, Slovakia and Jamaica, participated with the Institute of Public Administration of Canada at international conferences in Nigeria, the Philippines and Indonesia, and studied local government in Japan.

In Ontario, most of the expected growth won’t occur in Toronto—it will happen in places like Mississauga which is already the region’s biggest city outside of Toronto. Two-thirds of the region’s population and jobs are going to be beyond Toronto. The region will grow to 9 million—3 million within Toronto and 6 million outside. “Figuring out our suburbs is perhaps our greatest challenge,” Sajecki says. “Here in Mississauga, it’s nothing short of remarkable what we’ve been able to achieve already. When people come here from around the world they see a dynamic city that is evolving into a significant urban place.”

Over the last 30 years, Mississauga has been one of the fastest growing cities in Canada to become the country’s sixth-largest “When I came here in 2003, the first goal across Greater Toronto was to get sprawl under control. City Council’s land-use planning policies needed to align with the new growth plan of the Province of Ontario,” Sajecki says. “We were running out of land for greenfield development and pivoted the strategy to grow up, not out.” Sajecki, who credits a large and talented team of dedicated workers, outlined an infill development plan to give Mississauga a higher density to support other key strategic objectives: Move (transit), Connect (community spaces), Belong (complete neighbourhoods), Prosper (innovative businesses), and Green (sustainability).

To some longtime ‘Saugans, the plan felt jarring. “We had to be realistic and say that Mississauga would no longer be automobile oriented, and that we were moving towards transit and smart growth principles,” Sajecki explains. “There was simply no other realistic choice.” While this plan met some opposition, Sajecki and his teams have worked to communicate often and maintain transparency through town hall meetings, social media and other methods. They’ve also taken the time to focus on quality urban design to ensure changes are compatible with each neighbourhood.

Sajecki actively advocates for thoughtful planning so that open spaces and transit lines are not randomly developed just for the sake of progress. Instead, transit lines that anchor the plan and inform where other developments should happen are carefully designed. “By pinpointing the best location for each amenity, we identify stable residential areas targeted for development and take some of the worry away from our citizens,” he says. “There’s not rampant development everywhere. There is a controlled, careful, and clear plan in place.”

This plan is supported by the mayor, City Council, and Sajecki’s colleagues—all who collaborate to realize Mississauga’s future. Since growth often creates gridlock, the plan’s success will rise or fall with transit infrastructure. And Sajecki’s colleagues are hard at work installing a rapid transit infrastructure. In 2014, they opened an East-West rapid-transit bus line. Recently, the city received approval and funding for a $1.6 billion light rail system to connect Mississauga northwards to nearby Brampton. The system will cover 22 kilometres and tie numerous commuter rail locations in various parts of the city to build a network across the region. Other major features include waterfront development, a vibrant arts scene, an extensive system of more than 500 parks, and infill development in the downtown with mixed use residential and commercial high rises.

Recently named one of the most connected cities in the western hemisphere, Mississauga is home to  4,200 technology and 350 life science companies, as well as the Canadian head offices of 65 Fortune 500 companies. If Mississauga can continue its rapid ascent, the entire region, province, and nation stand to benefit. With 440,000 jobs, the city is the region’s second-largest employment hub, representing large economic opportunities for Canadians. Although the efforts of Sajecki and his counterparts in Ontario are being noticed, he remains humble, citing a great team of people—the mayor, council, residents, city manager, and staff—working for a common purpose. But one thing’s for certain—Sajecki’s past efforts around Ontario are bearing fruit, and Mississauga is just beginning to blossom.