December 8, 2011

Burnaby: Small Town in a Big City

Located between Vancouver and New Westminster, the city has changed from rural buffer zone to urban community


Boundary Road is the name of the multi-lane north/south thoroughfare that, as its name suggests, presents a physical demarcation between Vancouver and Burnaby.

When Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan was growing up in East Vancouver, he recalls a time when “the world ended at the Joyce transit loop, because that’s where the city of Vancouver streetcars ended their trip.” Nearby Boundary Road was well-named back then. However, Burnaby 50 years ago was also the “suburb of happy homes,” full of large lots, plenty of green space, and two-car garages. Now, as Corrigan freely admits, times have changed dramatically. Due to rapidly improving transportation infrastructure, highrise urban development, and a culturally diverse population that has come here from all parts of the globe, the ‘boundary’ is one of name only. In a somewhat ironic twist, the very headquarters of Metro Vancouver — formerly called the Greater Vancouver Regional District — is located in Burnaby. Surprisingly, Burnaby is only slightly smaller in physical size compared to its western neighbour, though Vancouver boasts almost three times its sibling’s population.

(Clockwise from top): The Simon Fraser University campus in Burnaby. Metropolis at Metrotown Shopping Mall. The festival lawn at Deer Lake in front of the Shadbolt Centre.

Whether driving or taking the SkyTrain across Burnaby’s almost 100 square kilometres of territory, it’s hard to imagine that this highly urbanized municipality was once a rural buffer between the larger community of Vancouver to the west and New Westminster to the east. The city is one of the most geographically diverse parts of the GVRD. The steady current of the Fraser River forms its southern boundary, with the forest-covered slopes of Burnaby Mountain — home to Simon Fraser University — to the north. Burnaby Mountain drops sharply into the long, fiord-like arm of Burrard Inlet, with the burgeoning suburb of Coquitlam farther east.

Corrigan has lived in Burnaby since articling as a law student in 1977 and has been involved in Burnaby civic politics for over two decades. He’s been a city councillor (Burnaby was only granted city status in 1992), was the chair of TransLink for three years, and has been in the mayor’s chair since 2002 and was just re-elected for another term last weekend. There are several aspects that make Burnaby an attractive city, according to Corrigan. “The first is, quite obviously, its location. As Metro Vancouver has expanded outward to the east and to the south, Burnaby has become the geographic centre of the region.” Developers and Burnaby urban planners worked early on to establish town centres in four separate quadrants of the city. In fact, these town centres were driven primarily by shopping malls in Brentwood, Edmonds, Lougheed, and, most importantly, Metrotown. The idea was that each of these town centres would be surrounded by residential areas and easily accessible via transit; most notably the Expo and Millennium Line skytrains operated by TransLink, the regional transportation authority.

Burnaby has 41 elementary schools and eight secondary schools with a total enrolment of 24,000 students. The city also has two post-secondary institutions, Simon Fraser University and British Columbia Institute of Technology.

A bit of social engineering has gone hand in hand with these town centres as well. Corrigan says, “What you see in Burnaby is a city where there is a variety of housing options in each community and where no single neighbourhood is significantly more affluent than another. All of the schools, for instance, have students from a wide range of ethnic and economic backgrounds … Burnaby does not have anything comparable to Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. In lower-income areas like the Edmonds area close to the New Westminster border, a new recreation centre, fire hall, library, and community services will be set up to attract more developers and offer a greater range of housing options. Corrigan points to two major demographic shifts that have taken place since his time in office.

TransLink’s Millennium line runs above the Lougheed Highway.

“Right now, over half the people who call Burnaby home were not born here. They’ve either come here from another country, or another part of the Lower Mainland, or elsewhere in Canada. Over a hundred different languages have been identified here.” The effect of this is to create an incredibly vibrant, tolerant community where a remarkable degree of civility. “Tensions arise in a lot of cities where you have, say, a guest worker class that comes from the same country. No single ethnic or racial group dominates in Burnaby at all. And even among the diverse groups who are here, there are plenty of differences of opinion. “Aside from the first nations, we all came from someplace else, whether it was Norway, Scotland, England, wherever.”

Currently, there’s a lot of interest in Brentwood, “where developers have really jumped in with both feet,” Corrigan says. “It’s really become the linchpin in our city centre concept, and I believe the reason it works is that residents have two choices. If they’re heading for downtown or the Broadway shopping district in Vancouver, they can hop on the Millennium line. If you’re going anywhere else in the Lower Mainland, it’s easy to hop in the car, thanks to its central location.” It’s also worth noting that many of the new highrise condo developments are within walking distance of Brentwood Town Centre, one of the Lower Mainland’s largest and most diverse shopping malls. Alas, if anything, Burnaby has become too popular — if not pricey — for many of the people who live and work there. Part of the traffic problem is that dual-income families obviously put more stress on the highway and transit infrastructure. While east-west connections are good due to SkyTrain and the supporting bus system, north-south travel within Burnaby can still be challenging. “What we find is that we have families where one spouse works in Richmond and the other works in Vancouver. They’ve chosen to live in Burnaby because it’s close to both communities, but it does put more cars n the road.”

Despite Burnaby’s rapid growth, Corrigan believes that “it’s still a small town in a big city. The kind of place identified by the people who’ve gone on to become famous, like Michael J. Fox or singer Michael Bublé. Corrigan, a former minor league hockey coach, laughs, “a place that’s still known by the players it has sent to the NHL, like Cliff Ronning and (Burnaby Joe) Sakic. “People who live in Burnaby have a high degree of engagement with their community,” he says. “Hundreds of people participate on city committees to make Burnaby a great place to live.”

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