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The Surrey Central City is part of Simon Fraser University and was designed by architect Bing Thom. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)
The Surrey Central City is part of Simon Fraser University and was designed by architect Bing Thom. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)

Urban Renewal

Surrey, Vancouver's 'ugly sister,' puts on a fresh face Add to ...

Cranes are swinging back into action on several major residential towers whose construction was frozen in the depths of the recession, and streetscapes are being renewed by Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, a Vancouver landscape-architecture firm, to include a wide lane for planting large mature trees as well as two metres of sidewalk for pedestrians.

Still, all is not yet perfectly bucolic in the shire. In targeting crime, then, Ms. Watts is taking cues from cities such as New York, Liverpool and Manchester and embracing the "broken windows" theory, which holds that authorities foster crime when they ignore abandoned buildings or petty destructive activities. Surrey's new law-and-order strategy has been in place for three years, and in November, Mike Franklin, a crime-reduction specialist with 18 years of experience in Britain, was appointed to help refresh it.

"The regeneration of the city centre is a major project," Mr. Franklin says. "Areas where the dogs are fouling the pavements, where there's garbage and litter on the streets, that's contagious, and people act according. When a city puts in flower beds or makes sure the parks are maintained as well as the streets, all of these initiatives add up to a feeling of well-being. That's a pretty holistic approach."

As for the results? "The trend for crime is all downward," he says. "A snapshot from 2004 to 2008 indicates that the total crime reduction was 30 per cent."

As well, over the past two years, about 500 homeless people have been placed in permanent housing. Often, social workers partner with volunteers from the business and religious communities in Surrey to offer innovative work programs: Across from the Surrey Memorial Hospital, for example, women whose pasts include drug addictions, criminality or the sex trade are being trained at a flower shop; they are making about 1,800 bouquets for use by the Olympics.

Surrey also has five crime analysts who check spikes in crime and help police and case workers focus on particular areas. Since 2005, nearly 1,000 grow ops have been shut down and about 190 derelict homes and drug havens demolished. On the streets, "prolific offender manager teams" made up of RCMP officers, Crown counsel and social workers meet with hard cases to help prevent offences; failing that, they deal with individuals in prison cells to make sure they have the support on release to be reintegrated into the community.

Ms. Watts seems particularly excited when she speaks of a recently opened "healing farm" in Cloverdale, one of Surrey's historic towns, where people are brought to escape the temptations of the street. They work on the vegetable plots, caring for horses or fixing fences, in an atmosphere reminiscent of the utopian treatment schemes in brick Victorian complexes at the turn of the 20th century. Fifteen people currently live and work at the Cloverdale farm, and Ms. Watts says more such second-chance facilities will be opened in the area.

In many ways, Surrey has become more of a compelling experiment in urbanism than Vancouver, given the bigger city's perennially artificial, scrubbed-clean feel. Looking out over the sea of flat asphalt roofs that spread away from Surrey central city, it's possible to see the snow-capped mountains, but something more than the protection of view corridors is motivating the work of politicians, police and architects here: Right now, all eyes are trained on the ground, where the real people negotiate their future.

Lisa Rochon is The Globe and Mail's architecture critic.

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