UBC urban design program reimagines a more sustainable Surrey

A model of the 3 Civic Plaza development in Surrey, next to the library, in the Central City neighbourhood. Photo: City of Surrey.

Imagine a city with better transit, more green spaces and more diversity in housing types. This is the City of Surrey as envisioned by the first students of UBC’s master in urban design (MUD) program at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA). SALA Professor Patrick Condon and adjunct professor Scot Hein led the two MUD studios that explored some of the challenges and opportunities surrounding urban design in B.C.’s second-largest city.

What do you hope to achieve with SALA’s new master’s in urban design?

Condon: Major cities everywhere are searching for solutions to transit, sustainability, housing, jobs and other issues. MUD aims to give those who work in urban planning and design the tools to address these challenges. Our first group of students started in fall 2014 and focused on examining Surrey’s overall landscape. The second group specifically looked at the area surrounding Guildford Town Centre. 

Why Surrey?

Condon: Not only is Surrey a partner in the master’s program—having committed $240,000 in funding over three years—it also has a lot in common with other growing cities. The waves of immigration into Surrey parallel waves of immigration from rural areas into major cities in Asia, Africa and South America. Not unlike those cities, Surrey has to integrate very diverse cultures into one city.

What was the first studio’s principal recommendation?

Condon: That development plans for housing stock and civic infrastructure should reflect the city’s cultural change. Larger families still come to Surrey to raise their kids but the fastest growing groups are single people and childless couples. You also have many baby boomers downsizing as they near retirement.

There are also many immigrant groups with South Asians being the largest, finding a home there. Many of them organize themselves in their buildings and family units in ways that were not common when Surrey’s neighbourhoods were built. They often have multifamily associations, cousins and second cousins living in one building, sharing one kitchen or actually building smaller kitchens in satellite locations within the building. Current policies don’t allow for that.

Cultural change is also happening in the commercial districts occupied mostly by South Asian entrepreneurs. Things are getting built, things are getting sold, and parties are being held—all in the same location. The South Asian community has a way of doing business that blurs the line between manufacturing and retail activities and everything in between.

Development should reflect all these changes. It should promote a diversity of texture–low-rise and medium-rise buildings and neighbourhoods. Density doesn’t always require 30 storeys of glass and steel.

What were the specific recommendations for Guildford?

Hein: The challenge with Guildford was to take something that already existed and infuse it with new energy while preserving its integrity. The students proposed greater links between the mall and the commercial, cultural and green spaces around it, including urban agriculture and community meeting places.

The economics of Guildford are challenging, but the light rail transit proposed by the city should open up the district and keep it economically viable.

With regard to building form, our students proposed going beyond high-rises and toward more diversity. They sought to “liberate” latent equity through more incremental, locally scaled building projects. For example, two adjacent neighbours can get together and combine their land assets to leverage financing while improving their housing quality. Not everything needs to be done by the development industry.

Low-rise and medium-rise development seems to be a common theme.

Condon: It’s not that there was a dislike of condo towers. The question was, what form supports the most entrepreneurial activity for new arrivals and fits in logically and culturally with the existing urban fabric?

A tower can’t be transformed easily in the future, and it’s 30 to 50 per cent more expensive per square foot than any other form. You need sophisticated financial instruments to put it together, so small developers have a hard time participating. And as debates throughout Metro Vancouver show, it’s not something that fits into existing neighbourhoods without a high degree of cultural disruption.

How central is light rail transit to the students’ vision?

Very important. Surrey’s plan to shift from an auto-oriented community to a transit-oriented community is crucial for the region’s sustainability. With street-level stops, light rail can also encourage more businesses, more neighbourliness and more community. And a well-designed light rail system can encourage new residential development in its wake.

Our students also maximized the walkability of new and existing neighbourhoods, to ensure that within the not-too-distant future, more than 50 per cent of all trips would be by transit or bike or on foot. People who walk a lot are healthier and enjoy more social relations with their neighbours.

For photos of SALA students working on the project, visit UBC Public Affairs’ Flickr album.