May 7, 2011

Burnaby – Small Town in a Big City

The residents speak 65 different languages and the city is experiencing phenomenal growth, yet Burnaby has managed to produce a vibrant, tolerant community with ‘a remarkable degree of civility.’

BY STEVEN THRENDYLE

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.” Burnaby might have been in another country, for all most Vancouverites knew.As promotional material of the 1960s described it, Burnaby was also the “suburb of happy homes,” full of large lots, plenty of green space, and two-car garages.

Due to rapidly improving transportation infrastructure, highrise urban development, and a culturally diverse population that has immigrated to Burnaby from all parts of the globe, the “boundary” with Vancouver is in name only. Indeed, 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.

The city is one of the most geographically diverse parts of the GVRD. The steady current of the Fraser River laps along its southern boundary, while to the north, the forest-covered slopes of Burnaby Mountain are home to Simon Fraser University. The back half of Burnaby Mountain drops sharply into the long, fiord-like arm of Burrard Inlet, while the burgeoning suburb of Coquitlam is just to the east. Wherever one goes in Burnaby, there’s sure to be a park nearby; an astounding 25 per cent of the land-mass is preserved as parkland.

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. Although we rank number three provincially in terms of poverty statistics, there isn’t anything comparable to the Downtown Eastside.”

In lower-income areas like the Edmonds Town Centre, close to the New Westminster border, a new recreation centre, fire hall, library, and community services are being developed that will attract more developers and offer a wide range of housing options.

Amongst these town centres, however, Metrotown stands alone. This massive retail complex draws residents not just from Burnaby but also from all over the Lower Mainland. And now, it’s become the glittering jewel for the city’s residential development as well. Gleaming highrise towers (and sky-cranes constructing new ones) announce the arrival of something almost akin to an entirely new city. Every major developer in British Columbia – Bosa, Intracorp, Polygon and Concord Pacific – has either procured land and permits or is already selling real estate.

Many purchasers of these glittering residences are not just new to Burnaby, they’re new to Canada, as well. Corrigan says, “Right now, over half the people who call Burnaby home were not born here. Sixty-five different languages are regularly spoken here. Burnaby has evolved into an incredibly vibrant, tolerant community with a remarkable degree of civility. No single ethnic or racial group dominates; and there are plenty of differences of opinion even among the diverse groups who do live here.”

Alas, if anything, Burnaby has become too popular – if not pricey – for many of the sons and daughters of baby boomers who raised their families there. Mayor Corrigan says, “Part of the traffic problem is that dual-income families obviously put more stress on the highway and transit infrastructure because two people are commuting to work. We also have many 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, and that puts more cars on the road.”

Despite Burnaby’s rapid growth, Mayor Corrigan believes that “it’s still a small town in a big city” where residents brag about attending school with actor Michael J. Fox or singer Michael Bublé. Corrigan laughs, and in true Canadian fashion, says, “It’s a place that’s known by the players it has sent to the NHL, like Cliff Ronning and ‘Burnaby Joe’ Sakic.”

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