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Hazel McCallion says her one regret through 36 years of leading Mississauga was not promoting public transit more strongly.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

They used to call Hazel McCallion the Queen of Sprawl. She certainly deserved the crown. Her Mississauga has sprawled every which way since she was elected mayor in 1978, turning the sleepy countryside of villages and farm fields into a suburban community of subdivisions, shopping malls and business parks.

That pattern of development is under attack now, and with good reason. The sprawling car-dependent suburbs that surround so many North American cities are expensive to service and maintain, hard on the environment and even a threat to the health and fitness of their inhabitants, who often sit for too long behind the steering wheel.

Mississauga sprawled faster and farther than most. When Ms. McCallion and her husband bought a house in 1951 on Britannia Road in Streetsville, now part of Mississauga, it was paved with dirt. Today it is a broad, busy suburban boulevard. Mississauga's population has roughly tripled on her long watch to nearly three quarters of a million.

As the unchallenged boss of the municipality for 36 years, she can't avoid responsibility for the way her city grew. But in an interview to promote her new memoir, Hurricane Hazel: A Life with Purpose, published as she prepares to hand the reins to her just-elected successor, Bonnie Crombie, she makes two points about sprawl.

First, she didn't invent it. It happened because of market demand. People were looking for spacious, reasonably priced single-family houses where they could raise their families. Developers simply "built what people wanted." Mississauga was a bedroom community for Toronto and commuters were in search of a nice home to retreat to at the end of the work day.

Toronto, she argues, developed in the same way decades earlier. Rosedale and Forest Hill were tracts of single-family houses built outside the core – the urban sprawl of their day. Mississauga just did it faster.

The money that flowed in from all that sprawl helped pay for nice roads, parks, recreation centres and hockey arenas, not to mention a grand new city hall and central library. Mississauga imposed lot levies on developers, reasoning that they should pay part of the cost of the infrastructure and amenities required by the booming municipality. That helped her keep taxes low and avoid borrowing money. Scores of businesses flocked to Mississauga, which also benefited from being next to major highway connections, Pearson airport and, of course, Toronto itself.

Second, says Ms. McCallion, 93, she woke up to the downsides of sprawl and worked to make Mississauga change. "In the late 1990s," she writes in her book, "a notion came to me as I looked around at our gridlocked roads and highways in the Greater Toronto Area: we've got to grow differently."

She set up a task force on sprawl and gridlock. She chaired a provincial panel on "smart growth." She started lobbying for better public transit.

Mississauga, she said, did not think hard enough about transportation. "My biggest mea culpa has to be public transit," she writes. The city and its residents typically opposed any high-density development as out of step with their way of life. That makes it hard to design an efficient transit network, with people so spread around and often far from obvious transit corridors.

But Mississauga is trying. Its central core has shot up in recent years with high-rises like the curvy "Marilyn Monroe" condominium towers. Planners expect the downtown population to double by 2031, reaching up to 80,000.

The city has a plan to make its streets more inviting to pedestrians. It is opening a bus-rapid transit system to carry people through its downtown. Ms. McCallion has pushed hard for a light-rail line, too.

She speaks of smart growth with the zeal of a convert. "Gridlock is growing every day," she told me this week in her publisher's office. "We've got to do much more than we're doing now to curb it from growing any worse."

Too little, too late? You could say so. Mayors and other political leaders, including Ms. McCallion, should have acted much earlier and more forcefully to mould suburban growth to more sensible and sustainable patterns. It was just so easy to let it rip and watch the money roll in, and so hard to sell residents on the merits of density. The easiest way to get an angry crowd to a public meeting, she says, is to propose a high-rise building in the suburbs.

But today, at least, most suburban communities are trying to change, modernize and urbanize to match the times. To her credit, The Queen of Sprawl joined that big rethink and put her formidable energy behind it.

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