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?

4 Replies to “Preaching the gospel of community in New Westminster”

  1. You are right to note that the design of the neighbourhood decides whether it contributes to building community or creates barriers. I also wonder if the opening or school catchments also creates barriers, when all the kids on your block go to different schools, do they make the same kinds of attachments that we did as kids, when we all walked to the same school together every day?

    Notes on what else builds community:
    1)  I also don’t have a front porch, but I do have a small garden in my front yard. It has spurred more random, impromptu conversations with neighbours than I ever imagined. When you are out on a sunny Sunday digging weeds or harvesting potatoes, people walking by almost invariably stop to talk about their gardening experiences, how this year’s crop is, the weather, whatever. This is how I got to know many of the people on my block.

    2) New West is, in many ways, a small town full of engaged citizens. We can draw 300+ people out on a Tuesday to talk transportation policy. We can hold a fundraiser for a good cause and have 200 people show up with chequebooks, and a business community contribute gifts to make it pay off. When a local is assaulted in a local park, more than 100 people show up to light candles a few days later to “take the park back”. When we go to these community events, more often than not, our Local, Provincial and Federal elected types show up. Sometimes the people of New West rally around a cause I support (stopping the UBE), sometimes they rally around causes I don’t (preserving the waterfront Parkade), but they are always rallying around causes, and building the community they want to see. I wouldn’t want to set up my home in a place where people are disengaged completely from their community.

    3) Tenth to the Fraser (too meta?). You guys continue to provide a great forum for the wide breadth of interests that make up our community

  2. Thanks Briana. I enjoyed reading this New West lovefest of an article.

    Although I don't live in a home but rather an apartment, we have built up a network of 'neighbours' in our building and our area. As our family is growing, our NW community is as well and I'm looking forward to seeing a different side of New West!

  3. Great piece, Briana. I really enjoyed the way you unpacked the mystery of what makes this city work so well. One thing I love about it is the way a person can scribe a tiny little world—where you shop, eat, play, etc.—as a counterbalance to the wider world that seems to have ever-expanding boundaries. I love letting the car sit idle on the weekend, and it's so easy to do here. And — I'm the owner of a slouching West End garage myself! Though I may soon tear it down… and the driveway could be next to go…

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