December 19, 2011

Surrey: Where the Future Lives

B.C.’S second largest city has a plan to balance growth with an improved quality of life

BY STEVEN THRENDYLE

The Future Lives Here. That’s the new marketing tag line for the city of Surrey.

And the statistics bear it out.
Surrey is British Columbia’s second largest city — having surpassed Victoria — and the fastest growing city in the province. Its population (460,000 in 2010) swells with over 10,000 new residents each year. Right now, the greatest challenge is how to manage this explosive population growth while not just retaining, but in improving, the quality of life for its citizens.

Cultural diversity, affordable housing, thousands of acres of parkland and green space, and a wide variety of retail and civic services have attracted homeowners and developers. This burgeoning population has also created plenty of new business opportunities — it’s been voted Best Place to Invest in British Columbia for four years in a row.

Compared to other regions of the Lower Mainland, it’s a young city with over 100,000 children. If current population growth continues, Surrey will surpass Vancouver as B.C.’s largest city.

Surrey’s 3,000-square-kilometre area — larger than Vancouver and Burnaby combined — consists of a complex number of dissimilar neighbourhoods and communities. This massive grab-bag runs the gamut from Crescent Beach on the Strait of Georgia to the rodeo grounds of Cloverdale to the farms and market gardens along the Fraser River to the original Surrey that sprung up across from the  first provincial capital in New Westminster.

A large percentage of Surrey still lies within the agricultural land reserve or is preserved as regional parkland, but there’s little doubt that urban development and real estate are a major driver of Surrey’s economy. Aided by a pro-development mayor, council, and planning department collectively dedicated to cutting red tape and facilitating project status through web-based reporting services, Surrey is attracting major employers who can hire employees from a vast region stretching from Chilliwack into Vancouver. For prospective home purchasers, the major attraction is of course value — families can find spacious houses in Surrey for less than half of comparable detached homes in the city of Vancouver.

Creating cohesion within this community is one of the goals of Build Surrey — an ambitious infrastructure plan that is already radically transforming housing, commerce, recreation, culture, and transportation throughout the region. The focal point is North Surrey (a.k.a. Central City), where the vision is to create the Lower Mainland’s second largest downtown. Very much a work-in-progress, Central City features a state-of-the-art public library, a gleaming new city hall, a multiuse recreation centre, performing arts theatre, a welcoming community plaza, and a covered youth park. Even more jobs and infrastructure will be added by the expansion of Surrey General Hospital, Simon Fraser University (Surrey campus), the Surrey School District, and a new RCMP headquarters. All told, over $5 billion will be spent by various levels of government and land developers in Central City.

Townhouses located in the Fleetwood area of Surrey

But there’s more to Surrey than Central City. Five town centres (Cloverdale, Fleetwood, Guildford, South Surrey and Newton) have been identified for infrastructure improvements to encourage and enhance commercial and residential development. Everything from beautification (flower boxes, heritage signage, street banners) to a new Business Retention and Expansion department (to attract small and medium-sized enterprises, and keep existing ones) is part of the plan.

Future improvements to Cloverdale include a new recreation centre, animal shelter, and additional park/green space. Cloverdale West Village brings a mix of town houses, apartments, and row houses and combines it with new retail space to create an inclusive, pedestrian friendly neighbourhood. In Newton, the New Town Centre will revitalize an existing neighbourhood through enhanced transit, improved recreation and civic facilities, more open spaces, and a vibrant Main Street.

Bisected by the Trans Canada Highway, Fleetwood neighbourhood residents will enjoy even more recreational and parkland facilities over the next six years, including a new ice rink and two gymnasiums. South Surrey is already home to some of the Lower Mainland’s most loved beaches and parks. Residents will soon enjoy the South Surrey Recreation Centre, more parks and a public art program. Guildford residents can already take advantage of the newly Guildford Town Centre commercial/retail space.

Surrey embarked on a ‘visioning’ project called TownShift: From Suburb Into City that invited people with a passion for urban planning to compete in an Internet-based ideas competition that offered over $50,000 in prize money. The winning concepts— and honourable mentions—can be found at www.townshift.com.

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