Jun. 28, 2023
In the early 1990s, Surrey, British Columbia had a problem: The city had no downtown, no main street, no place to hold a parade. It was a car-dependent suburb of Vancouver, with the usual parking lots, strip malls, and wide roads.
So Surrey set about building a proper downtown. In 1991, it created a new plan that allowed mixed-use towers in the city centre. And in 1994, it opened an elevated, high-frequency transit line straight to downtown Vancouver.
But then a strange thing happened: nothing. In the first 10 years after the SkyTrain opened, only a single tower was ever built.
Many suburbs face a similar problem today. They want to build proper downtowns—with lots of jobs, homes, and vibrant, pedestrian-friendly streets—to improve quality of life, generate tax revenue, boost home values, cut traffic, improve health, and reduce carbon emissions. But research finds that merely changing zoning often attracts little downtown-style development. The trouble is that it is hard to convince developers to build expensive, pedestrian-friendly buildings in places where almost no one walks and nearly everyone drives.
We need a new strategy to transform suburbia. Luckily, Surrey did later figure out a solution, and it offers lessons for how other suburbs can become more vibrant, sustainable places. The City did not rely only on zoning, but changed the qualities of the place, so that developers have reasons to invest there.
Fundamentally, if you want to transform your community, zoning is not enough. You need to create a place people believe in.
The chicken and egg problem
Surrey’s failure to attract growth during the 90s is puzzling. A tower is worth much more than a stripmall. If developers are allowed to build tall towers on cheap land next to transit, why wouldn’t they?
Four years ago I set out to find an answer to this puzzle, and so I started a PhD—now available online. I interviewed dozens of developers, planners, engineers, politicians, and business groups in Surrey and other suburbs to figure out how best to overcome the barriers to change. Surrey offered clear lessons.
There are two “chicken and egg” problems that discouraged developers from building downtown-style projects in Surrey. The first has to do with transportation: When sidewalks are empty and parking lots are full, it is hard to convince developers to erect buildings that face the sidewalk, and not a parking lot. Sidewalks will continue to remain empty, however, until developers replace parking lots with buildings that face the sidewalk. As a result, little changes.
The second problem has to do with land value. Attractive, mixed-use buildings cost more to build than stripmalls and parking lots. Developers therefore need to make units smaller, or charge a bit more, to cover the costs, but few tenants will accept these trade-offs if the building is surrounded by stripmalls and parking lots. Developers usually prefer to continue building cheaper stripmalls, if there is a risk no one will pay to live in a building next to a parking lot.
Redeveloping suburbs can therefore seem impossible. But Surrey found a solution.
Introducing: The “one great block” strategy
In 2005, a reformer named Dianna Watts was elected Surrey’s Mayor. She was tired of the stagnation, and she came up with a simple but brilliant strategy to overcome it. If she couldn’t create an entire downtown at once, she could at least transform one city block.
So she and her staff chose a single block next to a transit station, and in 2010, they outlined a plan to invest in it like crazy. Over the course of the next 10 years, they took this drab street…
And built a new City Hall.
They took this empty crabgrass…
And built a new library.
They took this parking lot…
And built a massive, mixed-use office and hotel tower (partnering with a developer).
Between these buildings, they created a public plaza and a new pedestrian-friendly city street.
The location was also strategic because it was a mere block away from a new campus for Simon Fraser University—the only other building that had been erected in the previous decade.
All of these investments were located in Surrey City Centre, a tiny area within the red box on the map below, next to the SkyTrain station (in blue) and the campus (in purple). Not long after, a second university campus—Kwantlen Polytechnic University—opened in 3 Civic Plaza, pictured above.
Watts’ goal was, effectively, to overcome the chicken and egg problem in at least one place. While the rest of the city might have little or no street life, there would be one place with plenty of people walking between transit, two universities, a library, and City Hall. While the rest of the City Centre might have rock-bottom land values, in this one place, people would pay a bit more to live close to so many destinations.
And it worked. The new City Hall and library were announced in 2008 and finished by 2014. Between 2010 and 2020, the area attracted 114 applications for major development projects, many of which included multiple towers. Growth has since returned to a steadier pace after the huge spike, likely in part because the spike absorbed much of the pent-up demand for growth, and in-part because interest rates rose.
Once developers started proposing denser, mixed-use projects, they incentivized other developers to plan similar buildings nearby. The reason is simple: Every new pedestrian-friendly building makes it a bit easier to believe that streets will soon fill with pedestrians. This also makes it easier to believe that ground-level retail can succeed, and that tenants will pay a bit more to live near all that action. Pedestrian-friendly investment attracts more pedestrian-friendly investment in a self-reinforcing process. As one developer told me, “It’s like a snowball that starts rolling down the hill.” In 2018, the number of applications more than doubled.
The one block around the City Hall acted like a catalyst, allowing the entire area to shift from a low-density commuter town into a pedestrian-friendly growth model. This strategy is a central prong of our work at Happy Cities in suburban communities: Create a critical mass of homes, street life, and destinations in at least one pocket of the city, so that development can begin to snowball and transform the wider community. The idea is similar to what the Project for Public Spaces calls “place-led development,” and what the Brookings Institute calls “catalytic development.” If you want to encourage redevelopment, you have to invest in creating at least one great place.
Surrey’s progress today
I recently visited Surrey’s City Centre on a sunny, warm Friday. I was impressed. The streets had more people than I was expecting. There were many spots where I could turn my head in all directions and feel I was in a downtown.
However, the transformation is far from complete. I asked a local barista if it felt like a proper downtown yet, and she said, “It’s halfway there.” There are plenty of cafés and restaurants, but almost no bars, and she still has to go to a car-dependent mall to buy shoes.
Many of its streets are still lined by barren parking lots on one side (left) and its central plaza remains relatively quiet (right), when events and activities are not scheduled.
At this city centre, Surrey’s work is not complete. The City has invested millions of dollars into this area already—what’s left is inexpensive in comparison. Simple interventions—like seats, umbrellas, hammocks, games, food trucks, and free events—could go a long way towards creating a vibrant place where people go to spend their free time. The community now has a strong backbone. It just needs some placemaking to bring it to life. (At Happy Cities, we are helping Surrey implement exactly this kind of placemaking right now with residents in another Surrey community, Newton).
In 10 years, Surrey will likely feel like a complete downtown, and its story offers many valuable lessons. It really is possible to transform the suburbs. The first step is to create one great block.