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British Columbia Surrey, Vancouver's 'ugly sister,' puts on a fresh face

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

It takes only 20 stops on the SkyTrain for the look of Vancouver to morph into that of Surrey. Heading east into the Fraser Valley, Vancouver's preened and primped metrosexual face - think Pierce Brosnan crossed with Nelly Furtado - loses the chiselled jaw and phosphorescent pink it gets from all that excess skiing and spa luxuriating. By the time the train crosses over the Fraser River, the face of the commuter, exhausted from a day's work and anxious to arrive home in one of the nation's largest suburbs, has grown slack and winter grey.

Yet even as the world's attention is locked on Vancouver and the unfolding of the Winter Olympics, there's a new glow spreading across the raw face of its eastern neighbour. The Olympics may deepen the divide between the rich, resort-like feel of Vancouver and the blossoming edge city, but Surrey is now officially Metro Vancouver's second downtown core. And what was once pegged as a sleeping monster of sprawl is being transformed, slowly but surely, into an urban shire.

Surrey is the fastest-growing suburb in Canada, with a population of 466,000 that is increasing by 1,000 people every month. It's young - one-third of its population is under the age of 19. The Vancouver airport is only 35 kilometres away, so it makes geographic sense to locate offices such as the RCMP's Canadian headquarters or Passport Canada here. It sits across from Blaine, Wash., making it the second-largest border crossing in Canada. On that half-hour SkyTrain ride from Vancouver, the wild real-estate prices drift away, which makes Surrey an attractive place to settle for new immigrants from China, the Philippines and, particularly, South Asia (including Surrey's many Sikhs).

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Yet it also bears a nasty reputation for carjackings, drug dens, petty theft and endless, anonymous sprawl. It has more than its fair share of troubled people on the street, suffering serious addictions, mental illnesses and chronic homelessness.

"Surrey was known as the armpit of the Lower Mainland," says one of Vancouver's star architects, Bing Thom. "Vancouverites liked to say that Surrey was too poor, too young and too dumb."

"Surrey was often portrayed as Vancouver's big, ugly sister across the river," says Mayor Dianne Watts, the vibrant and determined local girl who is leading her town not only to shake off that stigma but also to embrace its own metamorphosis. Since she was first elected in 2005, she has spearheaded a strategy that combines sophisticated new civic architecture with community building and crime reduction.

How Surrey accommodates an exploding population and ramps up development has enormous repercussions, not only for the young families and new immigrants living here, but also for many similarly amorphous suburbs in North America struggling to discover or create magnetic centres of their own.

Ms. Watts is speaking at the unveiling of two dozen finalist designs for Surrey's international competition, Townshift: Suburb into City. What's being sought is not a vision of Surrey as another Vancouver, dolled up and overbuilt. Unlike, say, Mississauga - a sprawling suburban city near Toronto that has replaced all of its corn fields with industrial complexes and executive housing - much of Surrey is relatively unspoiled. One-third of it is agricultural land, and the city council is priding itself on acquiring more parkland and resisting the urge to convert some of what is fallow into more commercial or residential development.

While Surrey's beauty has been a secret to outsiders, Crescent Beach in its south is a tidal ocean beach as vast as some of the beaches on the west coast of Vancouver Island. There are two major rivers, the Nicomekl and the Serpentine, running directly through town. Amazingly, the city's creeks were never paved over, and they never suffered from toxic dumping. ("I worked on the creeks in Vancouver and they glowed at night," says Mary Beth Rondeau, the acting city architect, who was once a Vancouver planner.) Indeed, Surrey is enhancing habitat to ensure that people can watch salmon spawn in the city's creeks for generations to come.

Figuring out tricky problems seems to be one of Ms. Watts's greatest strengths. With the backing of the united, nine-person council, she initiated an "unsightly bylaw" requiring owners of neglected, slum properties to pay up to $10,000 for repairs that the city undertakes on their behalf. Once the Olympics are complete, some of the modular structures where athletes are now rooming will be transported to Surrey to provide 52 units of supportive housing.

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But the improvements are not only environmental and functional. Surrey is aiming to position itself a city with a distinct aesthetic.

This inspiration comes from Surrey Central City, a brazen testament to the power of architecture that landed in the city's banal commercial heart in 2002 and triggered elevated visions for the future. There, Mr. Thom converted an existing regional shopping mall into an elegant retail complex and office tower, topped with a satellite campus of Simon Fraser University. For the galleria, he invented a roof structure - fashioned from "peeler cores," the formerly wasted inner rings of logs that have been stripped for plywood - that is as exhilarating as it is intricate.

Designed in collaboration with the Vancouver engineers who would later create the highly acclaimed roof in the Richmond speed-skating oval, the structure looks as though a woven basket of cedar has been lowered into the atria. Natural light is channelled through an elliptical slit in the roof. From the outside, the interior gives off a golden glow. Even late at night, the halls buzz with student energy.

With Central City (which will also get a major upgrade) in mind, Ms. Watts calculated an economic-development strategy that includes the revitalization of all Surrey's main town centres. That's why her office dedicated $300,000 for the Townshift design competition, co-ordinated by architect Allen Aubert with curator and critic Trevor Boddy. Central City is currently home to an exhibit of dozens of submitted explorations of hip street gateways, enlivened public squares and landscaped edges meant to soften the façades of shopping malls. (The winners will be announced on Wednesday.)

"I think the range and depth of the entries from 31 countries indicate that we - and I most certainly include Mayor Watts - hit a nerve in contemporary architectural and urban culture," Mr. Boddy says. "Many of us believe the next frontier in the green revolution lies in adapting and urbanizing the suburbs."

Roger Keil, director of York University's City Institute, has just completed a major research project on suburbs and new forms of density. He says the enormous land mass of edge cities such as Surrey or Mississauga demands separate nodes of development, transportation links and sports and entertainment complexes.

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He has witnessed some of the pressures first-hand: "You can see the tension building around York University. What was once an empty, barren field in the 1990s turns out now to be one of the most networked places in the [Toronto area] That means a GO [transit]station, subway, buses and Canada's first urban national park. ... So rather than looking at it as a marginal area to which you move because you haven't enough money to live downtown, on the contrary it is becoming a very attractive option."

But as Surrey sees it, such growth also requires hot-to-the-touch architecture, to persuade people to come out of their bungalows and into dynamic public spaces. The design competition is not the only move in that direction. The old City Hall, which has sat since the 1970s as a lone wolf at the corner of King George Highway and Highway 10, will be redesigned by Moriyama & Teshima (Toronto) along with Kasian (Vancouver) and built as part of a major new civic precinct next to the existing Central City. It will include a new city hall and a science-and-innovation centre meant to help incubate new businesses, as well as commercial floor space.

As well, within a stone's throw of his Central City, Mr. Thom has designed a $36-million Surrey Central Library (to be completed next year) that in conception appears to surge forward like an ocean liner with massive windows seemingly framed by the monumental ribs of whales.

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."

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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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