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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 ...

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).

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.

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