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Mississauga reborn: How a revitalized downtown may elevate an overlooked city - a slideshow & essay

If city life were a three-bedroom apartment, then civic squares would certainly be the living room. And if you've got yourself a living room, you might as well dress it up: throw in a buffet table and some comfy couches, mount some artwork and leave a few instruments lying around. Invite the extended family and all your friends. Talk politics, watch movies, and get some exercise. Bring the dog. Fall in love.

Historically, Mississauga's living room has been under-furnished, as has much of the apartment. Square One has been the area's biggest draw, and the resulting lifestyle has been one of shopping mall insularity and fossil fuel revelry. Meanwhile, Toronto looms large on the eastern horizon, and the idea of Mississauga having an inherent identity hasn't really taken off much.

"I think, with the previous planning paradigm, the vision was always to have the core of the city -- it's just taken a really long time to get here," says Randy Jamieson, senior project manager with Mississauga. "The mall itself drives a lot of usership, but it's really developed as a regional shopping centre, so the character of it is very internal. The plan is really to make it a much more vibrant street-oriented area and try and bring the mall or aspects of the mall and future commercial development right out to the street edge."

These new ideas are enshrined in the city's Downtown21 Master Plan. The process began in 2007 with a massive community engagement exercise, and the city commissioned a battery of top-tier consultants -- people like Ken Greenberg and the folks at the Canadian Urban Institute -- to help deliver goals inspired by Smart Growth and other forms of new urbanism.

Enter projects like Amacon's Parkside Village, a full-scale, mixed-use community planned for the core. A new campus for the Sheridan College of Technology and Advanced Learning is in the works, and there's a slew of public asset re-imaginings, including the Central Library. Driving all this are goals for job creation, public art, densification, green space, and walkability.

This all makes for very fine furniture indeed, but the living room still needs tending. Up to now, Mississauga's Civic Square has been underperforming, not least because it's bisected by a major street and beset by issues of continuity and accessibility. Consequently, it just hasn't been able to centralize the city's identity in the way stakeholders would like.

"What we're trying to do is create that," Jamieson says. "We're trying to bring in our own residents into our core area and make them realize that this is an incredible place first of all, but there's incredible programming and events going on here that you should participate in. You don't have to drive down the road all the time. It's trying to establish an identity, or help to confirm that identity to people in Mississauga."

And so the city leveraged the federal government's Infrastructure Stimulus Fund to roll out a $40 million rethink called Celebration Square. The project began in 2009 and is set to wrap up in May 2011, with the summer's public programming scheduled for a Canada Day kick-off.

The new square is rippling with features. A summer water display will convert to a skating rink in the winter time. There'll be a big, green lawn for all the city's lazy loungers. A media wall will screen family-friendly movies. An amphitheatre and outdoor stage will play host to a wide range of musical acts, from rock to jazz, opera to breakdance. And the two squares, separated for so long by the glass and metal grind of downtown traffic, will come together in a matrimony of high design once City Centre Drive is reborn as a pedestrian district that can easily be closed to cars for special programming.

"Part of what we're doing in Celebration Square is giving people a place to go and things to do directly in the core," says Jamieson, adding that the future will be close to 100,000 residents within two kilometres of the square. "As well, we're building a number of other parks in the core area as green space and flexible use spaces."

New York's Bryant Park was a huge inspiration in conceiving Celebration Square, and Jamieson's team worked closely with New York City's Project for Public Spaces, an organization with international place building expertise. Celebration Square is not meant just for residents of Mississauga; planners think it will grow to have regional presence as well, an inspiration already reflected in the numerous multicultural events planned for the summer.

Nobody is brazen about it, but the message here is clear: Mississauga is no longer satisfied with its identity as a Toronto satellite. It wants to be a peer.

"In the long term," says Jamieson, "I would think so. The space that we have is huge. It's directly comparable to Nathan Phillips Square, and it's much larger than Dundas Square. We have digital media boards built into the stage. It's a huge space, and we'll be set up to hold some pretty major events."

Paul Carlucci is a freelance writer working in the GTA.

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