Old warehouse gets renewed life as a hub for artists and community

A proposal by Urban Academy to build a new school at 100 Braid St. would also provide new community space for the residents of Sapperton.

But Susan Greig says that space already exists.

Since Greig opened her 100 Braid St. art studios and gallery at the old BC Distillery warehouse 18 months ago, she’s seen the small enclave of commercial enterprises in the industrial parcel at the corner of Braid and Rousseau come together to provide all kinds of cultural and recreational opportunities. Continue reading “Old warehouse gets renewed life as a hub for artists and community”

Toilet deserts of New West

The SkyTrain Station at 22nd St in New West is unusual in its isolation from commercial buildings. With no adjacent cafes, restaurants, or stores of any kind, 22nd St is a weird little bubble of activity within a sleepy neighbourhood of single family homes. 

If nature should “call” while you are at 22nd St Station waiting for a train or bus, you are out of luck. The only toilet can only be accessed with the aid of a (typically absent) TransLink station attendant. The nearest business you could ask is a doctor’s office, several blocks up the hill – but even if they might let you use their facility, they are closed evenings and weekends. 

As a fascinating NY Mag article about bathroom culture in North America pointed out, everybody poops, but nobody likes to admit it. One of the side effects is the emergence of public spaces that fail to meet the most basic biological needs of the people who go there. Without an easily accessible public toilet at 22nd St SkyTrain Station, men have taken to using the side of the building as a urinal. Women hold it in better (or perhaps are just sneakier), and parents caught in this toilet desert with a newly toilet trained preschooler are completely out of luck. In other areas, toilet deserts could be created when a bloc of businesses all restrict toilet access to paying customers only, or when the public toilets are closed seasonally or for lengthy periods.

So the big question is, does the City of New Westminster have a duty to ensure reasonable access to public toilets within commercial zones? And if so, how should this be done? Should funding be allocated for creating and maintaining universally accessible public toilets? Should businesses be encouraged (or even required) to allow reasonable access to bathroom facilities upon request? 

Several City committees have been asked by Council to discuss the issue of public access to toilets in New West, including the Access Advisory Committee, the Seniors Advisory Committee and the Committee I sit on, Community and Social Issues. The request reflects concern for seniors with dementia or health problems that require fast access to a toilet, but the issue also affects young children, people who are homeless, and anyone who has ever really had to go RIGHT NOW. 

What do you think? Are toilet deserts an issue in the city? Are there specific places where you see more public urination because of a lack of public access to toilets? What do you think should be done to fix these problems?

What does growing income disparity in Metro Van mean for New West?

I read an interesting article recently from Atlantic Cities about income disparity in Vancouver, based on a research paper produced at the University of Toronto.

The report findings reveal three ‘cities’ within Metro Van. City #1 includes higher-status areas in historically upper-middle-class neighbourhoods, gentrified urban areas and redeveloped zones within areas like New West that are close to parks, views or the waterfront. City #2 includes the traditionally stable middle-class neighbourhoods and City #3 includes neighbourhoods where the average income fell more than 15% relative to the metropolitan area.

While we do have our own issues with income disparity in New West, I found it interesting to see where we stand in contrast to the region. The blue-shaded areas are the areas where household incomes have grown 15-288% more quickly than the metropolitan average between 1970 and 2005. The white areas are neighbourhoods that have seen an increase or decrease under 15%, and the red areas represent income decreases of more than 15% since 1970. If you zoom into the map (which is unfortunately pretty grainy, making details hard to see), New West shows up as largely white & blue, while large sections of nearby Burnaby, Coquitlam and Surrey have seen significant declines in household incomes since the ’70s.

Map showing average changes in household income by neighbourhood in Metro Vancouver between 1970 - 2005
A map showing average changes in household income by neighbourhood in Metro Vancouver between 1970 – 2005

A map illustrating the change in average household incomes between 1970-2005 in the Lower Mainland shows incomes in New West increasing in the Queensborough and the West End neighbourhoods, while remaining flat in Queen’s Park, Downtown/Uptown and other parts of the city. Elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, affluent neighbourhoods seem to have seen incomes increase, while many formerly middle-income neighbourhoods have seen incomes decline.

According to the report, “The three neighbourhood groupings or “Cities” represent a dramatic transition from the old model of concentric social areas with poverty at the urban core and a solid band of middle income districts in the suburbs. Relative to metropolitan changes, significant income gains and losses are occurring in both city and suburban neighbourhoods. There is more inequality with 54 percent of the 2006 CMA population living in tracts that either gained or lost more than 15 percent of their income relative to the metropolitan average over the 35-year period. Equal numbers of people, about 565,000, lived in the gaining and losing tracts.”

So what does this mean for New West? Well, the report illustrates that in the current economic climate, to those who have, more will be given. And to those who do not have, even what they have will be taken away.

I think this illustration shows New West in a favourable position within the Lower Mainland. While the actual income numbers continue to show significant lower income populations here than in many other more affluent parts of the city, it shows that most citizens have either maintained their incomes or increased them – which is significant in an era when so many have seen incomes eroded. Income inequality in surrounding areas appears to be worsening, and that will result in social issues that will impact us all.

There are troubling implications when you look at who is gaining and who is losing. The report says: “City #1 is overwhelmingly the home of the native-born. In contrast there has been a marked increase in immigrants in the remainder of Metro Vancouver, and especially in City #3, which has shifted from a majority native-born in 1971 to an immigrant majority in 2006. City #3 also includes a plurality of visible minorities (61 percent) while City #1 does not (23 percent).” I don’t have enough information to be able to interpret this nugget, but it does raise questions whether opportunities for immigrants are shrinking or if some other factors are at play.

During New West’s renaissance, the City appears to have consciously tried to guard against simply pushing out lower income populations through protecting and supporting local nonprofits, protecting low-income housing and taking the initiative to house the homeless (rather than just complaining about how it’s the job of the Province to take care of that problem). As a result, we are likely to continue housing and caring for a large number of the region’s lower income families. Is that bad? While I think many people automatically think about the most abrasive marginalized people when considering the issue (those who are hardest to empathize with), we do well to remind ourselves that low-income families include seniors, new immigrants, single-parent families and others who have simply been dealt a raw hand. We can’t just pretend these people don’t exist, and we can’t write them all off as having ‘made their own beds’ to lie in.

Juxtaposed with regional trends indicating worsening income inequality, it’s good to remember that many of us in the middle risk sliding into that red zone, whether through corporate downsizing, developing health problems and being unable to work for a time, lack of financial literacy (leading to taking on too much debt – another significant problem), retiring with inadequate savings or any number of other misadventures. We all believe these things won’t happen to us, but the reality is that we’re not so special or so smart that it can’t. Every one of us could make a mistake or fail to spot and address a potential threat that could set our families back economically. Wouldn’t you prefer to live in a city where there was somewhere to turn for help, if the worst should happen?

Sustainability in New West: envisioning our future at Nov. 2 & 3 event

Envision 2032
Envision 2032 is the name of the City of New Westminster’s sustainability framework that will guide City planning. 2032 represents one generation from now – a length of time that is easy for people to imagine when making decisions that affect the future.

This is a guest post by Mark Allison, a Senior Planner with the City of New Westminster who is coordinating the team working on the Envision 2032 process. He has led a number of award-winning sustainability plans in communities around BC and was formerly the Senior Planner and Manager of Advisory Services for the Whistler Centre for Sustainability.

What exactly is sustainability?! The word has been thrown around so much in recent years that it’s been interpreted many ways. We’ve chosen to adapt a well-known 1987 definition created by the United Nations that is broadly accepted around the world:

“Sustainability” is meeting the needs of the present generation in terms of social and cultural needs, the economy and the environment while promoting a high quality of life but without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

New Westminster’s 2012-2014 Strategic Plan created a focus on building a high and sustainable quality of life for its residents and called for the creation of a sustainability framework, or “Sustainability Lens,” to “guide and test all future decisions and initiatives against balanced economic, social/cultural and environmental perspectives.” Envision 2032 is the name that’s been given this sustainability framework and it is intended to become the guiding policy document for the City.

ICSP sustainability lens
New Westminster’s 2012-2014 Strategic Plan created a focus on building a high and sustainable quality of life for its residents and called for the creation of a sustainability framework, or “Sustainability Lens,” to “guide and test all future decisions and initiatives against balanced economic, social/cultural and environmental perspectives.” Envision 2032 is the name that’s been given this sustainability framework and it is intended to become the guiding policy document for the City.

If you’ve been around the City for a while, you may recall that “Envision” was the name of our 1998 Official Community Plan. We thought that the name was still applicable, since sustainability planning is all about visioning the future that you want and then taking the steps you need to get there. The “2032” in Envision 2032 is the year 2032… one generation from now. While we usually think several generations ahead when planning for the future, one generation is what most people can wrap their heads around. It’s roughly the time between a child being born and the time that they become an adult ready for independence. Most people can imagine that length of time, so we thought it would be a good timeframe for the plan.

So why are we doing a sustainability plan now? Well, besides providing a logical, consistent way to move towards our desired future, most would agree that our region and the world are facing some enormous sustainability challenges to address in the social, economic and environmental areas. The idea of “think globally, act locally” is definitely fitting.

Socially, New Westminster is in a unique situation when it comes to age demographic shifts, the so-called “baby boomer tsunami.” Not only are we going to have thousands more school-age children in 20 years, we’re projected to have tens of thousands more seniors living in the community by then. It’s going to be a huge challenge to provide the schools, and the recreation, housing and health care needs of these residents.

Economically, it’s probably safe to say that most people are either concerned or very concerned about whether there will be jobs for them and their children in the future, whether their pensions will be enough to live on or whether they’ll be able to afford to buy their own home. With a global economic meltdown just a few years ago and countries all over the world close to defaulting on their debts, there’s a strong desire for communities to create strong and diversified local economies and employment opportunities.

Finally, while often overshadowed by economic concerns, it’s hard to ignore the looming environmental crises facing the planet. Many scientists, for example, say that we may already be at the tipping point where greenhouse gas concentrations may cause runaway climate change at the same time that demand for fossil fuels seems insatiable with supplies dwindling.

Sustainability encompasses not just environmental concerns, but also social and economic.
Sustainability encompasses not just environmental concerns, but also social and economic.

What can New Westminster do in the face of these challenges? Quite a lot! While communities can’t do everything on their own and local governments get the smallest piece of the government revenue pie (while having to provide most of services that people need day-to-day!), communities are where most sustainability action starts. Communities and local school boards provide the playgrounds, schools and seniors centres. Small, local businesses create the majority of jobs in Canada. Local governments facilitate affordable housing and the way that we design our communities is a major determinant of resource use and whether people will drive or use more sustainable transportation modes… local governments provide the sidewalks, bike paths and transit shelters that encourage walking, cycling or taking the bus.

While creating a long-range plan for everything that’s involved in moving a community of 60,000+ 20 years into a successful and sustainable future can be a daunting task, there’s luckily a number of existing models that we can follow. There are a number of basic steps:

  1. Create an awareness of sustainability in the community… like writing this blog!
  2. Identify all of the policy areas where you can influence sustainability.
  3. Create a vision of what the desired future looks like in each of those areas.
  4. Determine where you are now in each area.
  5. Work together with community partners to create actions that move you from where you are now to where you want to be in the future.
  6. Select key indicators and regularly monitor and report on progress towards the desired future.

Eleven policy areas have been identified, which we think covers most things:

  • Buildings, Sites and Urban Design
  • Individual and Community Well-Being
  • Economy and Employment
  • Energy and Emissions
  • Environment and Natural Areas
  • Heritage and Neighbourhood Character
  • Affordable and Appropriate Housing
  • Land Use and Development
  • Parks, Culture and Recreation
  • Resources, Waste and Infrastructure
  • Transportation and Accessibility

The next step is visioning and creating a concise set of statements that describe the desired future in each of these policy areas. This will be the focus of the Envision 2032 Sustainability Fair events being held at the Inn at the Quay on the evening of Friday, November 2nd and the morning of Saturday, November 3rd:

The first event, on November 2, 7-9:15pm,  is “Let’s Talk Sustainability.” This inspirational evening will introduce the Envision 2032 process and features an exciting lineup of engaging speakers who are leaders in the sustainability field. Doors will open at 6:30 for refreshments and networking.

The following day, November 3 from 9 am – 1 pm we’ll be presenting an interactive workshop, “Envision New Westminster,” where the vision statements that will form the foundation of Envision 2032 will be created. Participants will be able to attend breakout sessions for two different policy areas. Doors will open at 8:30 for refreshments and networking and a light working lunch will be served at noon.

It’s important for anyone wanting to help define the future that the City will be working towards, which will be the foundation of Envision 2032, to attend these events and provide us with your vision.

For more information on the process, to provide feedback and to register for Sustainability Fair events, visit www.envision2032.ca or send us an e-mail at envision2032@newwestcity.ca… and of course you can also follow the process at www.facebook.com/envision2032 and www.twitter.com/envision2032.

We’ll also provide you with regular updates on this site to keep you in the loop!

 

The loud side of civic engagement: Sapperton speaks out on EFry

Sapperton residents posted signs to demonstrate opposition to the Elizabeth Fry Society rezoning application. Photo: Will Tomkinson
Sapperton residents posted signs to demonstrate opposition to the Elizabeth Fry Society rezoning application. Photo: Will Tomkinson

United We Roar

An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that New Westminster is rife with problems and dissent. Each day we hear of another action group bringing attention to an unwanted project or program or another group insisting that the community is in dire need of another service, amenity, policy or facility. So many of our eyes are focussed on glossy presentation boards in public forums, riotous Twitter battles , new blog entries and comments, visceral letters to the editor and reports and editorials in our local paper. Punching well above our weight, local councillors, trustees, resident’s association members and concerned citizens appear in regional and even national media on a regular basis, broadcasting the message that New Westminster is indeed grappling with weighty, weighty matters.

But is this the case? Is our city riven by conflict and acrimony? Torn between policy alternatives? So perpetually impaled on the horns of a dilemma that no amount of consultation, committee meetings or survey results can hope to bridge our collective chasms? No, I suggest that this is not the case. I suggest that, in fact, our community is more cohesive and productive than is usually expected in a plural, urban city. Our public debates are just the evidence of our well developed civic polity.

What we see, daily, exasperatingly, is the result of thousands of New Westminster residents expressing their opinions on topics that they plainly care about and about which they have obviously done some research. While some Residents’ Associations are an outspoken organ of public opinion and others languish in irrelevancy, what is true across the Royal City is that citizens, whether united in groups or standing up as individuals, care about what happens in their town and are prepared to express their opinions and act on their beliefs. What we hear and see, however, resembles constant strife as the victories and blessings of our town are not so vocally celebrated.

The residents of the great and dynamic community of Queensborough are unlikely to fill a blog post with thanks for an expanded community centre, additional police resources and some of the best playgrounds and schools in the city. Understandably, you will hear more about Queensborough as a forgotten or neglected neighbourhood with bridge traffic, poor pedestrian mobility and threatened by flooding and rapacious land developers.

West End and Connaught residents could be boasting about an inspired rebuild of the Grimston Park playground, the muscular housing and renovation boom or the significant upgrade of the civic plumbing (yawn). No, locals in this neighbourhood instead mention the complete lack of civic facilities in this third of the city, traffic on 20th St and where exactly their kids are supposed to go to school when Tweeds goes to the K-5 model.

Over in Kelvin and Uptown, do residents praise local improvements to Moody Park and the replacement of the Kiwanis pool? Do they thank City Hall for standing up against bad landlords and for the maintenance of rental housing inventory? No, but this is no surprise. Citizens here are more likely to bring up the speed of traffic next to the park, unruly behavior during the day in the commercial area near 6th 6th and in the evenings, in Moody Park. Businesses here bring up the unending road and sewer work and the absence of attention paid to the uptown merchants.

Ahh, Queens Park; a neighborhood apart. Or is it? Do they not also have their triumphs and trials? Other neighbourhoods may point out (quickly, to a fault) that this is a neighbourhood of posh homes, boasting excellent city landscaping, the best elementary school in the region, a collection of parks – one of which is so splendid, so truly regal that its very name, QUEEN’S Park evokes the image of the great and dour Empress Victoria lording over the rest of the city, scepter in hand. But let’s all be honest, in addition to having to put up with the endless insufferable comments about how cosseted QP is (it’s not) , residents of this small section of the city have to be on constant guard against the unending and creative ways city and other levels of government remove money from their upper-middle-class wallets.

Glenbrook, a neighbourhood so awesome it needed the Real Estate community to develop a name for it, shares with Massey-Victory Heights the benefit of being filled with family-friendly tree-lined streets, larger lots and good schools (some of them quite new), but what of the increasing traffic burden of McBride, 8th and 10th? Will condos and townhouses encroach? Canada Games Pool: really – is that the best we can do for a pool?

Downtown, Fraserview and Quayside, you can comment below. The article is already too long.

The Little Neighbourhood that Could, or Could it?

I think you get the picture: from an informed and engaged population, you get a chorus, a cacophony of grasping, needing, pleading outrage. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You may have noticed that in this list of neighbourhoods, I have not yet mentioned Sapperton. Sure the same pattern exists here as in other zones but recently, Sapperton’s reality shows us a new aspect of the relationship between neighbourhoods and the City, and illustrates the limits of a cohesive, informed and engaged group of citizens.

Along with the rest of our city, Sapperton is enjoying a rebirth of sorts. Improvement to the East Columbia St. commercial district is noticeable and retail turnover seems to have slowed. Townhouses and towers have added new vitality to commerce and the streetscape. The Brewery District has sprung to life with some great potential and the best large-format grocery store in the city (IMHO). The local small elementary school has been rescued, (for good this time) and is nestled against a well-tended park with an updated playground. Walk the leafy streets and you will see neighbours chatting on the sidewalks in front of neat, even, manicured single family homes on small lots, practically high-fiving one another at how tidy and livable their neighbourhoods have become. And yet when these same people unanimously presented an informed and reasoned defence of their neighbourhood, they failed to receive the consideration, let alone the support of their City and City Council.

Now sure, I am often told that I often view city affairs with ‘rose coloured glasses’ and I have often disagreed with those who seem to manufacture outrage where none is warranted, but in this instance, I see a clear instance where the needs, wishes and welfare of New Westminster have been set aside; where a united stance has not been enough and the spirit of compromise and engagement has been met with a deaf ear. I this instance, I am speaking about the recent approval by council to amend the Official Community Plan (OCP) for the sole purpose of (possibly) rezoning one residential lot to allow the Elizabeth Fry Society (EFry) to construct a facility as an institution, allowing them to expand their services to at-risk women and families in the Lower Mainland.

In other neighbourhoods, recent programs and proposals in New West have also stirred the ever-vigilant population to action. When the West End’s only park was slated to be replaced with an elementary school, the community responded and the park was saved. When TransLink threatened to build the United Boulevard Extension, removing a whole block of homes and adding to the traffic misery of New Westminsterites, city and Council, almost with one voice, said hell no! Now it’s a similar story with the Pattullo Bridge: the city is against a six-lane option, and Council seems to be in the same corner. But if a united voice is an important factor to stop an unpopular or ill-advised program in these cases, why is it ignored in the case of EFry?

Certainly one argument has been that the “social good” EFry delivers in the lives of women in the region shows both a societal and humanitarian benefit greater than the objections brought against the expansion. But surely this argument was also used in the above three examples also: Grimston school, UBE and the six-lane crossing. In these cases a united, engaged constituency trumped the argument of “social good” when applied to the region. more accurately, the community put one set of “social goods” against another and won (in two cases, one is still pending).

A second argument posed by the residents is that their community, and New Westminster as a city, already has a significant number of social housing assets in the city, many specifically used as women’s shelters, women and children assisted living and so on. With so many of these facilities within this small city, this has become a distinctive feature. For all of our revitalization, renovation, and development, it has been said to me that the nature of New Westminster’s relationship with outreach and services makes it the halfway-house of the Lower Mainland: the redemptive, rehabilitative space between Surrey and Burnaby (metaphorically). Still, we are a generous city, willing to shoulder some of the burden shuffled off by our neighbours.

Sapperton residents particularly, during delegations to council prior to the OCP vote, cited the fact that their community is ringed by these services and facilities, many of which are not mapped, documented or referred to for the protection of their clients. This fact was brought up not to say that no new facilities should be built, nor that some should be closed, but rather that the saturation of social services counters the argument of NIMBYim. Sapperton, the residents contended, welcomed its supported housing neighbours, but suspending parking, zoning and the OCP for one property on a residential street is a clear and unacceptable threat to their streetscape, especially when other options exist for EFry.

In a nutshell, EFry intends to purchase this lot and house and develop a multistorey administration and services building to support the work this national women’s charity society is known for. Consequently, areas in the EFry “Blue Building” would be freed for more long-term supported living space. The new building will also house “long-term housing” for women with children (in 375 sq foot suites I am told). For EFry, the rezoning of this low-cost residential lot and repurposing of their parking lot is the best case and cheapest option in a city willing to change zoning and parking regulations to support the EFry program.

Representing Whom?

For the South Sapperton neighbourhood, there are no second chances, no Plan B, no alternative method of resolving their concerns. For EFry though, they seem to have options. On East Columbia, immediately adjacent to the EFry blue building is a poorly utilized commercial lot. Next to that lot is a vacant one. Also, if it is true that the new construction will be for the purposes of administration, the office space being built in the Brewery District would be both close and require less capital outlay. EFry could also, and correct me if I am wrong, simply buy the lot in question and renovate/rebuild within the existing zoning, running residential services or day-care facilities as is done in dozens of houses throughout New Westminster.

Why EFry wishes to pursue their course in the face of workable options and near-unanimous local opposition is a mystery for me. It is possible that they are so convinced of their vision and services that their directorship believes they override the inconvenience of seeking compromise and neighbourliness. From my vantage point, the EFry leadership may view the concerns of a “privileged” property owning middle class invalid in the face of their work, a vocation to which they have devoted their lives and perhaps their credulity. In the same way, the EFry support on council insist that “they know best” and demonstrate a level of paternalism in that, “The people who don’t realize the advantage of having those services available in their community aren’t doing enough research,” as expressed by Councillor Puchmayr, one of three council members in favour of the proposal (vote was 3-1 with one councillor recused and another in the Mayor’s Chair for the evening).

Time after time, our council has stood up for the rights of residents to defend the livability of our neighbourhoods. To close their ears to the overwhelming opposition of Sapperton residents to this project will erode confidence in the integrity of this council as advocates for the citizens of New Westminster. It is the mandate of council to see the bigger picture beyond neighbourhood concerns, but councillors also have a responsibility to hear and respond to the concerns residents have brought forward.

  • What will council do to limit the further impact of this and similar service organizations on the residents in the city, who through no fault of their own, have decided to raise their middle class families in this city?
  • What will be done to ensure that the citizens of Sapperton receive no further negative impact to the parking problem in their neighbourhood from the construction of a new tower and the removal of an existing parking lot?
  • What will council do to explain why the compassionate, reasoned, civil opinions of the locals in Sapperton should be put aside, essentially with no response, in favour of the goals of the EFry Society?
  • Why are the many possible alternatives for EFry, none of which raise the ire or fears of the community, not being considered or advocated by councillors, city staff or the EFry leadership?
  • Why, when popular, near unanimous defence of livability can halt building on parkland, regional transit initiatives or (hopefully) the building of a six-lane Pattullo bridge, can it not even be considered as reason for pause on this subject?
  • And finally, what is it that is motivating council, and possibly staff, to ignore the citizens, ignore the OCP, ignore parking and zoning laws and their own re-election possibilities, to back this proposal when clear alternative exist, even in a city overpopulated by similar facilities. What makes EFry so special?

Perhaps we will learn the answers to these questions in the coming months. Perhaps the program will stall at the rezoning level. Perhaps the people of New West will form a trust and buy the lot themselves and “put their money” where their neighbourhood is. We will see. I welcome civil and on-topic comments in the section below.

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?