Like an old house, New West is blessed with ‘good bones’

Leafy Columbia Street.
Leafy Columbia Street. Photo: Briana Tomkinson

Although many think of it as a suburb of Vancouver, New West was born a city – one of the first on this part of the coast. It thrived in a time before automobiles remade the landscape and transformed our streets from social spaces to thoroughfares. It’s one of the reasons New West’s sense of community is so strong. But it also creates friction between people concerned with regional traffic needs and those who advocate for liveability within our community.

While the commercial centre of the Lower Mainland has moved downtown and (to our chagrin) the political centre remains in Victoria, our birthright has gifted us with some of the best elements of old-fashioned city planning. New West’s decline during the peak age of the auto may actually have been a blessing in disguise, allowing our city to escape some of the missteps of suburbs planned in the highway’s glory days.

Driven by both environmental concerns and new research on what makes communities thrive, there is a movement to retrofit auto-centric suburbs to become more walkable and compact. Luckily, like many of our old houses, New West may have its problems, but it is blessed with good bones.

Many parts of New West already fit the ‘new’ model of compact planning, but misguided attempts to accommodate road traffic within community streets have compromised livability in some areas. Just as many of our heritage homes were blemished by ‘modern’ renovations in the ’70s and ’80s, the appeal of many of New Westminster’s original neighbourhoods have been diminished by retrofitting to accommodate road traffic. It’s time to peel back the shag rug and restore the lustre of our streets.

Streets that welcome people are designed differently from those that merely accommodate them. They are usually narrower, with shorter blocks, and move at slower speeds. The best streets are diverse and let people move quickly between various types of zones: from home to work to cafes to shops. In New West you can see this dynamic at work Uptown. The leafy boulevards of Queens Park and the apartment blocks of the Brow are a short – and very pleasant – walk to several parks, the library, grocery stores, cafes, offices, restaurants and the public transit hub at Sixth & Sixth.

The volume of traffic that funnels through New West from car-centric developments in Burnaby, Coquitlam, Surrey and beyond is challenging to accommodate within our small borders. One reason why our commercial districts Downtown, in Sapperton, and on 12th St. and 20th St. struggle is because their identity is confused. They aspire to be thriving commercial streets while also moving road traffic. This identity crisis results in an environment that is not fully satisfactory for anyone.

Streets and roads have very different goals: a street is a destination, and part of a walkable community. A road is intended to move car traffic quickly from one place to another.

In the Downtown, several improvements have been made to try to enhance the streetscape and make it more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians, but attempts to placate the road lobby hold back Columbia Street’s renaissance as a neighbourhood destination. Front Street is clearly a ‘road’ and while it would be great to have unobstructed access to the waterfront, Front is a vital road connection. It looks to me like the City is taking a pragmatic approach to dealing with this problem by providing alternative pedestrian access to the Pier Park and waterfront. This attention to walkability, neighbourhood character and streetscape is needed in all our neighbourhoods.

Investing in our neighbourhoods will pay off in both liveability and economic strength. Recent studies show that cyclists and pedestrians actually outspend drivers at local businesses. While they may spend less per trip (because it’s harder to carry items home), commercial zones that are bike- and people-friendly draw more repeat business.

This consumer loyalty supports community connection as well. As neighbourhood regulars get to know each other, the social connection provides added incentive for customers to return. You can see this dynamic at work at River Market, the Coming Home Cafe, and at many of our local coffee shops as well. As Jeff Speck wrote in The Walkable City, “Creating a higher quality of life is the first step to attracting new residents and jobs. This is why … all the fancy economic development strategies, such as developing a biomedical cluster, an aerospace cluster, or whatever the current economic development ‘flavor of the month’ might be, do not hold a candle to the power of a great walkable urban place.”

Streets were originally places for gossip, commerce and play, not just for moving people and goods. Moving people and goods is important, of course, and provides such a clear economic payoff that our grandfathers and grandmothers willingly made room for the horseless carriages. But when we made room for cars in our cities, we underestimated the impact on public spaces. Planners must have thought that if it was good to move quickly by car from place to place, surely moving more cars more quickly would be even better. But the impact on community and the local economy has been disastrous.

There is no sense of community from within an automobile. From the driver’s vantage point, pedestrians, bicycles, children and other vehicles are too easily abstracted. They are seen as obstructions, not neighbours. It’s easy to forget there are people within each little pod on the road, and impossible to make more than the briefest connection (via honking, hand signals, a brief moment of eye contact) with those you are sharing the road with.

Reclaiming community streets and dedicating routes for road traffic is an essential part of our evolution as we continue to build the ‘new’ New West.

Residents’ Associations

We have written about Residents’ Associations before on Tenth, but I was recently asked if I knew the contact info for the local RA in a particular neighbourhood. We decided to create this list of contact info (including social media). Please feel free to let us know if we missed anything – we’d be really happy to keep it updated!

Connaught Heights Residents’ Association

West End Residents’ Association

Moody Park Residents’ Association

Glenbrook North Residents’ Association

Massey-Victory Heights Residents’ Association

Queensborough Residents’ Association

Quayside Residents’ Association

Brow of the Hill Residents’ Association

Queen’s Park Residents’ Association

Downtown Residents’ Association

McBride-Sapperton Residents’ Association

Neighbourhood Small Grants Comes to New Westminster

The Vancouver Foundation is a fairly well known non profit organization that distributes over $40 million dollars annually to various organizations and communities. They act a bit like a conduit and help those with funding (through estates, endowments, etc) connect with those who need funding. They’ve operated a program called the Neighbourhood Small Grants since 1999, and it is now coming  to New Westminster!

Grants are designed for individuals to apply for and are for small amounts ranging from $50 to $500, with two $1000 grants being handed out in each area. Some ideas for grants would be block parties, a portable canning kitchen, a workshop on model cars, etc. The focus is on bringing communities together. So, what’s your great idea for your neighbourhood?

Applications are due in two waves: June 25 and September 17. Projects must take place in New Westminster and be endorsed by members of two separate households. There are a few other bits of info you should know before you apply, so check out the Neighbourhood Small Grants Program flyer and then fill out the application!

Preaching the gospel of community in New Westminster

Rainbow-spotting in New Westminster's West End. Photo: Briana Tomkinson
Rainbow-spotting in New Westminster’s West End. Photo: Briana Tomkinson

One of the things I love about New Westminster is that there is a very strong sense of community here. At times, local events almost feel like church revival meetings as we all come together to reaffirm our friendship and faith in The Church of New Westminster. We have been saved from the anonymous hell of suburban living, and escaped the perilous prices of downtown. Our congregation is diverse and evangelical, and will enthusiastically preach the gospel of community.

As I was walking through the West End on a recent sunny Sunday I felt again the deep pleasure and conviction that *here* is a good place to live. I felt grateful for the quiet, tree-lined streets, the children riding their bikes, the people walking their dogs and the pack of children I would find back on my block, deep in raucous front-yard play. It got me thinking about the elements of community. What builds community? And why is New West so successful at this, more so than any other city I’ve lived in?

New Westminster was planned in a time when people’s lives were not so independent and anonymous. The smaller city footprint, with its older homes and narrow streets gives us an environment that is more conducive to building community than some newer parts of Metro Vancouver.

Many parts of New Westminster are dominated by older homes. Mine was built at the end of the 1940s and many of the homes on my block are even older. There are a few ways I think older-style homes improve the sense of community:

  • The garages suck. They are inadequately small, tumbledown affairs stuck at the back of most older homes. It’s often more convenient to just park on the street in front and use the garage to store all the random crap that homeowners accumulate. Instead of entering and exiting your home encapsulated in your car, neighbours encounter each other as they go to and from their homes. You know when your neighbours are home or if someone’s home sick when their car is parked out front. I never realized how much this matters until we moved into our home with its dangerously leaning garage and awkward back gate.
  • There are few driveways in front of homes. Related to the first point, but offering a different suite of benefits. No driveways means safer, more walkable streets. When I go walking with my kids in my neighbourhood I can let them run ahead on the sidewalk for long stretches without having to worry that a driver will back in or out without seeing that there’s someone there. No driveways also means greener streets. Instead of a concrete pad and the faceless door of a garage, we see green grass, leafy trees, front stoops and flower beds.
  • Older homes need a lot of maintenance. Not so awesome for your wallet, but home repairs are great conversation-starters with the neighbours. We’ve swapped advice with our neighbours on roofing, landscaping, window replacement, plumbing, drain tile and more. When your house is new and shiny (or at least not falling apart) this stuff isn’t on your radar yet. Interior cosmetic repairs have less neighbourly conversation value: we see the outsides of each other’s homes more than the insides.
  • Porches. Sadly, my home has no front porch, but many of my neighbours do. Porches contribute to a front-yard culture of informal conversation, and add eyes to the street, improving safety.

Pedestrian-friendly streets are another huge factor in building community. When people pass each other face-to-face, each little nod and smile builds familiarity over time. This doesn’t happen when you pass another driver in a car. Several factors impact how pedestrian-friendly a street is:

  • Short blocks. In older cities like New West, blocks are short. For pedestrians, this means that you feel progress when you’re walking – long blocks *feel* long. It also provides more options to vary your route, which makes walking more interesting and allows more ways to avoid walking on busy streets.
  • Small city footprint. It doesn’t take that long to walk or bike from the West End uptown or down the hill to the edge of downtown, from downtown to Queen’s Park, from Glenbrooke to Sapperton. In most parts of the city, it’s only a short walk to get to a business district to buy milk, indulge a craving for sweets, meet a friend for coffee or select fresh vegetables.
  • Frequent, (mostly) reliable public transit. In our wee city we have five SkyTrain stations. For most trips, the wait to catch a bus is 15 minutes or less. Our system is not perfect. There are dead zones in the city that are awkward to access via transit and I know some there have been problems with some community shuttles serving the Quay. Still, it is easier to take the bus or SkyTrain in New West than anywhere else save Vancouver’s downtown core.
  • Green boulevards. Maybe not all our streets are as green as they could be, but New Westminster’s network of beautiful streets covers a huge part of the city. On most walks, sections of ugly streets don’t last long.

Aside from the city’s physical traits, I think there are a few other elements that help connect us:

  • A single high school. Almost all the children who reach their teenage years in New Westminster end up at NWSS. Grads who choose to raise their own families in New West end up with a large network of local friends and acquaintances.
  • Twitter. Holy cow, what a network. Vast groups of New Westies have met and formed new social groups over Twitter. If you’re not there yet, check out the #NewWest hashtag to meet some new friends.
  • NEXT New West. It’s a new group, but is a very powerful way for younger adults to make new social connections in the city and explore new things to see and do. It’s awesome.
  • Kids. Through school PACs, activity programs and organizations like Little League and Scouts, parents get to know each other through their kids. After a few playdates, the parents make friends too.
  • Dogs. Almost as good as kids for helping their ‘parents’ make friends. Particularly in neighbourhoods like the Quay, where most dogs are walked along a single route (such as the Quay boardwalk), dogs can be a great boon to community. You get to know the other dog owners in your neighbourhood over time.

And, of course, you can’t forget the diverse efforts of individual community boosters. There are a ton of them in New West, managing clubs, creating events, volunteering to run festivals, blogging about different aspects of city life, and organizing events to bring people together, from pub crawls to art shows to house parties. New Westminster is lucky to have more than its share of people actively working to make our city a better place to live.

What do you think contributes to New Westminster’s strong sense of community?

From #NewWest to New West (Or: how Twitter inspired me to join my Residents’ Association)

New West Twitterati shared their thoughts about Residents' Associations in response to this week's New West Wednesday post on the topic.
New West Twitterati shared their thoughts about Residents’ Associations in response to this week’s New West Wednesday post on the topic.

Back in 2009, I wrote a guest post on Tenth to the Fraser entitled, “Taking the plunge into community involvement”. I’m hoping at the end of this post I can convince one of you to take the plunge.

It’s a topical subject, with Briana’s recent New West Wednesday’s topic asking about people’s involvement (or not) in their local residents’ associations. Commenters are discussing their experiences and I’d have to say mine’s been overwhelmingly positive, which certainly makes me a bit sad about moving away.

While I’d most recently been living in New Westminster since 2007, it was really in late 2008, and after I joined Twitter that the city started to really become a community to me. A lot of the local digerati were beginning to coalesce around the #NewWest hashtag (it’s been a battle between us and a hiphop sub-genre but I think we’re winning). Connecting with real neighbours through virtual communities prompted me to become more active in my neighbourhood.

I wasn’t really sure what went on but I thought I’d check out a local meeting of the New Westminster Downtown Residents’ Association. While just a renter, it was interesting to learn more about local issues, even if there wasn’t always a direct impact on my life. Some meetings drew bigger crowds than others, usually when people were quite passionate about topics such as the UBE or there was new info about civic projects, but there was always something to learn or be updated on.

One thing that always seemed important to the directors was how to get more people out and informed about where they lived. I made the observation that the group was collecting emails from people registering but not using them to communicate to residents, so they asked if I could help out.

Like many others, I never knew that a simple request would lead to a more formal commitment. I ended up serving as a director for the past two years and in addition to providing some meeting reminders and additional community announcements, I also started a Twitter account to live-tweet the meetings. Seeing the engagement, having people send in questions to remotely ask the speakers, and receiving thank yous from those who couldn’t make meetings, was really rewarding! (Full disclosure: I’m a big geek about information and communication technology and its impact on society.) While some people see local community building and politics as overly partisan, my experiences were lucky enough to simply be about giving something back. Even better, it helped me make friends in a lot of different parts of the community.

I’ve been able to meet various city staff and some of the councillors, business owners — both new and long term — and developers that have been reshaping the city skyline. I’ve met residents from other associations. I’ve had a chance to meet people involved in the Royal City Farmers Market Association. It seems like I knew more people at Shakespeare in the Queen’s Park and the Hyack Festival. I was meeting a lot of other folks passionate about building a strong sense of community, like those involved in N.E.X.T. New West. Attending (and volunteering) gave me a lot more pride in the happenings of the city and interest in the changes. There always seemed like a lot of conflicting ideas on what was best for New Westminster and a tension between the city’s historic past and its future but it has been great to meet so many people that care about their neighbourhood.

All these benefits and it only cost me $5 a year for a family membership and an evening every two months to attend the meetings. I was also able to take part in organizing and running two community block party BBQs that allowed hundreds of local residents to mingle with neighbours. (After last year’s tenth annual event, we decided to take a hiatus this year. It was becoming so successful, that we were outgrowing the group’s capacity to handle in that format. New ideas for next year’s event are welcome.) Unfortunately, it’ll be my last meeting coming up in a few weeks on May 25, 2011 (7pm at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parish Hall – 514 Carnarvon Street), as I’m headed out east for more school.

If you’ve always wanted to check out what goes on at residents’ associations, I’d really encourage you to come out. If it seems like something you’d like to get involved in, you could run for a spot as a director at the AGM in September and/or for any of the digitally savvy out there, the group could use a hand with sending out the occasion email and tweeting meetings. (If you’re not a downtown resident living between Royal and the River, check out the city’s website for your local association.)

It’s been a great time living in New Westminster, getting to know friends and neighbours and watching the city change and grow. (I’ll be glad to can keep up with the going ons in the city through Twitter and Tenth to the Fraser.) Thank you all for making it a wonderful experience!

20th St. to 7/11: Please don’t you be my neighbour

Sometimes I wish New Westminster would block new pizza joints, sports bars and dollar stores from setting up shop in the city. It’s frustrating to see shiny new retail space taken over by these kinds of businesses. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with pizza, beer or Made-In-China junk (ok, maybe that last one), but I think there are already too many of the same. I want New West to have a more varied, and well, ambitious, mix of retailers and restaurants. I want our city to stop being such an economic underachiever and create shopping districts for real shoppers (not just ramen-eating Douglas College students and blue-haired seniors).

[Ed. note – a few commenters have said they were offended at that last comment. I didn’t write it to make fun of seniors and students. I’m well aware that most students eat more than ramen, and that most seniors aren’t afflicted with blue hair! What I tried (and apparently failed) to convey was that too many local businesses, in my opinion, are catering to these stereotypes instead of occupying a distinct niche that appeals to the variety of shoppers I observe here in New West. I don’t just mean that I’d like to see more shops targeting younger and more affluent shoppers (though that would be nice to see too).]

7/11 logo

While my somewhat elitist prejudice is aesthetic and (admittedly) rather passive, Connaught Heights homeowners are actively trying to block a specific business from setting up shop in the sleepy commercial strip on 20th St. just uphill from the SkyTrain The target of their opposition: 7/11.

“This will be a gathering place for street people, prostitutes and drug dealers,” area resident Peter Saran explained to me via email. “It will bring the wrong kind of people into our quiet family orientated community. Not to mention hurt the other local businesses already there and will make the 20th Street traffic situation even worse – if that is possible. There are already numerous 7/11s in New Westminster, but this one will be in a residential neighbourhood.

“We do not oppose business at all but if the city is trying to enhance the area is this the right choice? Not at all! Put in a Starbucks etc… We are not happy and no one cares about the safety of our children.”

Saran says he has talked to various folks at the city, including planners and councillors, but to no avail. I can see why. I mean, should the city really be telling commercial property owners who they can and cannot lease or sell to? There’s sure a slippery slope to fear there. But at the same time, I can see why neighbours would wish to have veto power over what is built in their neighbourhood – especially if they believe a particular business would make the area less safe.

What do you think?

Update: Peter Saran emailed me some comments he wanted me to share with you. Here’s what he has to say upon reading your comments:

Hi Everyone, this is the person that asked Briana to post my concerns on her blog & I thank everyone for their feedback, most of which I agree with. Yes I am the direct neighbor to this project & yes Briana I have spoken to many of my neighbors who do share the same sentiment, as they have approached me. I do have a personal interest, of course I do! I live right beside the project, as would all of you. I am pro business & would welcome one into this space, just not this particular one. I think 7/11 is a fine business in the day, it’s at late night that raises my concerns. My pub shares back streets & alleys with 7/11 & I have seen first hand the affects this business has on its community. We’ve had to call the city to get them to install flood lights around the 7/11 to clean up the drug dealers, street people etc…as our staff were afraid to leave. The city then had to ramp up police enforcement around it to try & take care of the problem, because they wouldn’t deal with it. That is why I had to speak up, not because of being afraid of change, property value or Ozzy- although I thought that was funny:) – Peter

I work closely with the police dept, fire dept & city hall, ask them what happens at 7/11 late night-the stats don’t lie! I have 2 young children & want to protect them, as well as our community. Those of you who know me or my pub-The Rivers Reach- know we are anything but envious non-achievers, we raise thousands of dollars every year for this community & the people & businesses of New Westminster. Last year alone we supported over 200 local causes incl. The Salvation Army, United Way, Justice Institute, Police Dept, Fire Dept, City Hall, Monarch Place, Cops 4 Cancer, the Purpose Society etc… because we care about our community! And Robert if you think these people whom we’ve supported & our customers are bad people then you’re right we invite questionable characters- I think your wrong though, these people are the backbone of this city & the Reach is the exact opposite of a bad influence. I bring these same community first ideals to the West End & will do what is best for my family & the people who live here. My personal opinion is that 7/11 doesn’t do enough to ensure the best interest of the community. Thank-you all for your time & thank-you Briana!! – Peter

I wasn’t expecting quite so many opinions on the matter, but it’s been interesting to see how y’all have responded!