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The hollowing out of once-bustling neighbourhoods – like the Ontario city’s Cooksville community – makes it harder to run nearby businesses, fill schools or justify money for local civic priorities

Mylvaganam Kathirgamanathan, a retired general surgeon, lives in the Cooksville neighbourhood of Mississauga. He says he hasn't seen his neighbours since they left for Florida in October and wishes there were more of a sense of community in his neighbourhood.Photography by Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Mississauga was the only major city in Canada to shrink in the last census, a decline that is being blamed on the pandemic but reflects years-long population drops in dozens of its neighbourhoods.

Two-thirds of Mississauga census tracts shrank over the past five years, even as the city pushed intense development into its central area. While that high-rise district gives the appearance of a booming city, less visible is the hollowing out of neighbourhoods, which makes it harder to run nearby businesses, fill schools or justify money for local civic priorities.

This is not unique to Mississauga. Many of Canada’s biggest cities are dotted with neighbourhoods that steadily lose people. It’s a growing urban challenge that struggles for attention amid overall population growth and stock media images of crane-dotted skylines.

These are not blighted neighbourhoods. Their populations are shrinking because of deliberate municipal policies. For decades, city planners have pushed most density to a handful of spots in order to shield established areas from development pressure.

That’s what happened in Mississauga. For many years, the city embraced sprawl and only recently started to allow serious density. But most of the city remains single-family homes, which have gradually emptied out as children moved away and new owners had smaller families.

VANCOUVER

Arbutus Ridge

-5.2%

South of E 41st Ave. on Victoria Dr.

-5.5%

CALGARY

Hillhurst

-6.2%

Cliff Bungalow

-6.9%

WINNIPEG

Linden Woods

-5.9%

Tuxedo and

South Tuxedo

-7.3%

Whyte Ridge

-7.3%

TORONTO

The Annex/Seaton Village/

Dovercourt

-5.6%

High Park

-8.2%

The Danforth

-5.2%

Note: Maps are not to scale.

MURAT YÜKSELIR AND MAHIMA SINGH / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PEEL PUBLIC SCHOOL BOARD; STATISTICS CANADA

VANCOUVER

Arbutus Ridge

-5.2%

South of E 41st Ave. on Victoria Dr.

-5.5%

CALGARY

Hillhurst

-6.2%

Cliff Bungalow

-6.9%

WINNIPEG

Linden Woods

-5.9%

Tuxedo and

South Tuxedo

-7.3%

Whyte Ridge

-7.3%

TORONTO

The Annex/Seaton Village/

Dovercourt

-5.6%

High Park

-8.2%

The Danforth

-5.2%

Note: Maps are not to scale.

MURAT YÜKSELIR AND MAHIMA SINGH / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PEEL PUBLIC SCHOOL BOARD; STATISTICS CANADA

VANCOUVER

CALGARY

Hillhurst

-6.2%

Arbutus Ridge

-5.2%

South of

E 41st Ave.

on Victoria Dr.

-5.5%

Cliff Bungalow

-6.9%

WINNIPEG

TORONTO

Linden Woods

-5.9%

The Danforth

-5.2%

The Annex/

Seaton Village/

Dovercourt

-5.6%

Tuxedo and

South Tuxedo

-7.3%

Whyte Ridge

-7.3%

High Park

-8.2%

Note: Maps are not to scale.

MURAT YÜKSELIR AND MAHIMA SINGH / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PEEL PUBLIC SCHOOL BOARD; STATISTICS CANADA

Mississauga’s neighbourhood loss shows up most starkly in two census tracts.

One, made up largely of an old-style suburban neighbourhood of roomy houses on leafy streets, in the Cooksville area, is down 16.2 per cent over the past decade.

Another, farther to the north, near Eglinton Avenue and Highway 403, is a newer and more compact subdivision dominated by homes with garages on the front. Its population is down 14.3 per cent in a decade.

The low-rise part of the Cooksville census tract presented as eerily empty during a visit. Pedestrians initially appeared outnumbered by garbage crews. Locals were friendly, but there were very few of them. No one was using the neighbourhood park, where a prominent sign urges people to report alcohol consumption, off-leash dogs or suspicious behaviour.

Population loss can go unnoticed in a place that was deliberately designed to be quiet. Roads here are either cul-de-sacs or designed to stop through traffic. Large lots mean there have always been few people per hectare, even in the context of a low-density city.

Bill Bailey, who has lived in a house there for 49 years, was surprised to hear about the local population loss, saying he felt he’d seen an increase of young families. “You can’t find properties like this any more,” he said.

But he also said that, in his time, he’s had seven or eight neighbours cycle through next door. And the retired banker, who called himself a semi-widower, with his wife in long-term care, pointed to the properties of a few widows living nearby.

Another indication of the aging local population appears in enrolment trends at nearby schools. This census tract is in the catchment area for four schools, three of which have fewer students than 10 years ago. The overall student body at the four schools, which draw from more than just this particular census tract, is down 5.9 per cent in the past decade, according to the Peel District School Board (PDSB).

Although the population has declined here at a higher rate than anywhere else in the city, smaller losses across Mississauga have undermined enrolment at numerous schools.

As far back as 2017, a PDSB report urging the shutdown of a secondary school warned that some board facilities were seeing such shrinking student bodies that it was threatening the quality of education.


SHRINKING NEIGHBOURHOODS

Between the 2016 and 2021 censuses, some neighbourhoods across Canada’s big cities shrunk while others saw growth. In Mississauga, the few small pockets that saw huge growth were not enough to counter the general decline in population, making it the only big city in the country to shrink in the 2021 census.

Change in population, by census tract, 2016 to 2021

-1 to 1

(stable)

-10%

or more

-5 to -10

-1 to -5

+10%

or more

1 to 5

5 to 10

MISSISSAUGA

Around Eglinton Ave. E

and Hwy 403

-9.3%

Around Mississauga

Hospital in Cooksville

-6.5%

MURAT YÜKSELIR AND MAHIMA SINGH / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PEEL PUBLIC SCHOOL BOARD; STATISTICS CANADA

SHRINKING NEIGHBOURHOODS

Between the 2016 and 2021 censuses, some neighbourhoods across Canada’s big cities shrunk while others saw growth. In Mississauga, the few small pockets that saw huge growth were not enough to counter the general decline in population, making it the only big city in the country to shrink in the 2021 census.

Change in population, by census tract, 2016 to 2021

-10%

or more

+10%

or more

-5 to -10

-1 to -5

-1 to 1

(stable)

1 to 5

5 to 10

MISSISSAUGA

Around Eglinton Ave. E

and Hwy 403

-9.3%

Around Mississauga

Hospital in Cooksville

-6.5%

MURAT YÜKSELIR AND MAHIMA SINGH / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PEEL PUBLIC SCHOOL BOARD; STATISTICS CANADA

SHRINKING NEIGHBOURHOODS

Between the 2016 and 2021 censuses, some neighbourhoods across Canada’s big cities shrunk while others saw growth. In Mississauga, the few small pockets that saw huge growth were not enough to counter the general decline in population, making it the only big city in the country to shrink in the 2021 census.

Change in population, by census tract, 2016 to 2021

-10%

or more

+10%

or more

-5 to -10

-1 to -5

-1 to 1

(stable)

1 to 5

5 to 10

MISSISSAUGA

Around Eglinton Ave. E

and Hwy 403

-9.3%

Around Mississauga

Hospital in Cooksville

-6.5%

MURAT YÜKSELIR AND MAHIMA SINGH / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PEEL PUBLIC SCHOOL BOARD; STATISTICS CANADA

Enrolment at the four catchment area schools is down 5.9 per cent in the last decade, which is an indicator of the aging local population.

It’s one sign that Mississauga is a maturing suburb – families grow up and their children move out – with the added pressure of rising real estate prices pushing many young people from the city. And the loss of residents is a headache beyond the local school board.

“For maintenance [of local infrastructure], you’re paying more per capita, and it starts to get kind of impractical,” said Karen Chapple, director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

“Many of [these neighbourhoods] developed 40 to 50 years ago, where they’re just kind of needing reinvestment in them now. And it starts to not make sense to reinvest and revitalize all the infrastructure if you have declining population. So then that leads to declining quality of life in the area and then kind of a downward spiral for the neighbourhood.”

But in many established neighbourhoods across Canada, enough residents fight change – under the banner of protecting local character – that adding the density that could help the population rebound remains politically toxic.

Protecting these areas from density hasn’t stopped them evolving, though. Year by year, the number of people in the street declines.

This is happening even though Canada has the fewest housing units per capita among G7 countries and the fact that higher levels of government agitate for more construction. In this year’s federal budget, Ottawa said the country needs to double its annual output of housing units.

And if population loss goes too far, it can create a sense of solitude, even isolation.

“It’s unhealthy on a neighbourhood level,” said urbanist and writer Charles Montgomery, author of The Happy City.

“If you walk around some of these neighbourhoods on Vancouver’s west side, you do not see people any more. I’ve talked to folks who’ve lived in these neighbourhoods for generations – they tell me they feel lonely. They used to see kids on the streets.”

Large homes, many new builds, on spacious lots near roads with sparse pedestrian and car traffic, characterize much of the Cooksville neighbourhood in Mississauga.


Mississauga’s head of planning defends the policy of continuing to concentrate most of the city’s growth in certain areas, while acknowledging that his predecessors may have done a bit too good of a job protecting the low-density parts of the city.

“In hindsight, could we have allowed a little bit more gentle intensification? Yes, probably,” said Andrew Whittemore, though he also argued that the house neighbourhoods “offer a lot, and that’s why people like Mississauga.”

“Those neighbourhoods do get infill. It’s just primarily concentrated on the main arterials that run through those communities. So they are experiencing it too, and trust me, each of those neighbourhoods have a lot to say when we’re infilling along their corridors. It’s not – they’re not kind of getting off scot-free here.”

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said that at the core of the issue in her city is aging people who are effectively “overhoused” but unwilling to move or unable to find a suitable new home.

“Empty-nesters haven’t moved on yet to more appropriate accommodation, allowing growing families to move in,” she said.

“It’s an affordability issue for everyone. You know, we see that the seniors don’t necessarily want to downsize because they look around and see that the price of housing is so dear right now that there isn’t anything affordable within their reach.”

Mississauga has been trying to broaden beyond its history as a city of almost entirely suburban detached homes. Planners are starting to embrace – or at least become more open to – what is sometimes called “gentle density.” This refers to strictly limited intensification such as triplexes and granny suites that can add people without changing the look of a neighbourhood.

Subdivisions built in recent years are also more dense than that census tract in Cooksville. Properties are narrower and smaller homes are more common. Ms. Crombie said that when adjacent properties in a house neighbourhood go on the market, the buildings are often replaced by a row of townhomes.

The low-rise part of the Cooksville census tract presented as eerily empty on a recent visit.

Mississauga had no choice but to change its approach. The city is currently developing its last piece of untouched land. A place that has for decades been defined by constant sprawl has run up against its natural limits. And without a steady stream of new neighbourhoods, depopulation threatens to become worse.

Jason Bevan, the city’s planning strategies director, explained that there is a correlation between the age of a neighbourhood and its demographics. Newer developments tend to have younger residents and more family households, which gradually become empty-nesters. While a next generation of families eventually comes in to replace them, the numbers typically don’t rebound completely.

“It tends to never quite reach the peak of a population that a neighbourhood would have when the dwelling units are kind of within 10 years old,” he said.


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