In less than ten years, UTown@UBC has grown from sleepy outpost to a thriving community.
Heather Friesen moved to the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus in 2004, looking for a haven after her years in buzzing Hong Kong, working for a multinational company.
She loved the idea of living next to Pacific Spirit Park’s wooded trails, while also being able to reach downtown Vancouver in 30 minutes. Still, there were some challenges. “There were no shops, only University Village,” she says. “And for a quart of milk, there was nothing.”
Now, Friesen is walking distance to the Wesbrook Village where the community can get groceries, pick up prescriptions, meet friends for coffee, renew their insurance, try on a new pair of runners, get their bikes fixed and even sign up for piano lessons.
The last 30 years have seen the Vancouver campus residential neighbourhoods – UTown@UBC – transformed from isolated outpost to burgeoning, vibrant community.
Significant milestones reached this coming year
With the opening of 1,200 new student and resident units, the population making UBC home is expected to surpass the 19,000-mark – roughly half the target set by the university. The Vancouver School Board has expanded the high school and will open a new elementary school next September – effectively tripling its K-8 and doubling the high school spaces on campus.
UTown@UBC will see the start of construction on the second major community centre, the opening of new parks and the staging of numerous community events.
University towns are hardly novel – think about Oxford, Cambridge and Berkeley. But creating a community from the ground up is a complex alchemy calling for just the right ingredients.
Joe Stott, UBC’s Director of Planning, doesn’t minimize the importance of the right physical components – the bone structure of any city. “The magic really happens when people move in,” he says. “They start using the parks, shopping at the stores and sending their kids to school.”
The University Neighbourhoods Association was set up to nourish these connections and opened the Old Barn Community Centre in 2007 for exactly that purpose. The Barn is the social heart of the place, providing neighbourhood youth, families, adults and seniors with a range of programs. It’s become a social hub for residents who aren’t UBC students.
According to campus resident Ying Zhou, who moved four years ago from China, the Barn’s programs have been vital. She helps organize occasional Cooking Club dinners, where residents enjoy foods from around the world while listening to guest speakers.
“Social events make UTown@UBC a better place to live for all,” says Zhou, an active member of the UNA’s multicultural committee and an incoming board member. “People bond over food – it is such a good way to get to know your neighbours and build a sense of community.”
One of Zhou’s goals for the next year is developing more programs that pair new immigrants with campus seniors and long-term residents. “Bringing these people together is part of a larger goal of creating a caring and supportive community, regardless of cultural heritage,” says Zhou, who first got involved with the UNA through a book club.
For Heather Friesen, the community gardens were the catalyst. What started in 2008 as a 40-plot project has mushroomed to 181 garden plots – and there’s a waiting list. “People start to chat,” she says, “they really come together across cultures, across generations and get to now each other through gardening. It’s really quite magical.”
UTown@UBC is hosting a growing number of community events as well, including the new outdoor movie nights. On Sept. 7, the 3rd annual Wesbrook Village Festival takes place, with live music, BBQ, and a kids zone with bouncy castles and face painting. A week later, the UNA will hold its yearly Barn Raising. “I love these events,” says Friesen. “You just have to give people a chance to meet and come together.”
UNA executive director Jan Fialkowski agrees. “This is a 24/7 community now with a real sense of energy,” she says. “People are out barbecuing together and their kids are playing together. People are putting down roots. In a few short years, it’s become a living, breathing community.”
Room to learn
This fall, the University Hill Secondary School expansion more than doubled the number of high school spaces on campus from 400 to 1,000. In September 2014, a large new 860-student elementary school, Norma Rose Point Community School, will open, adding to University Hill Elementary School’s 390 spaces, and nearly tripling the campus’ K-8 capacity to 1,250 students.
The campus schools are known to be among the best in Metro Vancouver. That should come as no surprise, says Fialkowski. “When you take an academic community full of very smart people, and add all these amazing opportunities we have – museums and lectures – its only natural an environment will grow where children thrive and want to learn.”
With 573 spaces, UBC also offers more university-run daycare spaces than any other university in North America. A 200-space expansion in 2009 eliminated waitlists for 3-5 year olds, and UBC plans to add 40 additional spaces by 2016. This year, the UNA also begins offering daycare services, and will open some 75 new spots by early 2015. There are currently 730 daycare spaces offered by various campus providers.
A bustling ‘high street’
Five-year resident and UNA Board chair Richard Alexander remembers his neighbourhood as “a little bit sparse.” That seems like a long time ago.
“Wesbrook Village has the feel of a real village now,” he says. “There are buses up and down the streets, there’s a bank, a grocery store and shops on the high street. And there are people everywhere.” There is also health care – doctors, dentists, pharmacists – and a host of other services from hair salons to a music school.
“The community has reached the point where it is large enough to support a variety of businesses,” says Al Poettker of UBC Properties Trust, which oversees the Vancouver campus’ market residential development and manages much of UBC’s institutional projects. “As the population grows, the number and types of shopping options will flourish.”
Big city attractions
UTown@UBC may feel like a small town, but with its world-class Museum of Anthropology, Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Beaty Biodiversity Centre, Belkin Gallery, Botanical Garden and Nitobe Garden, it offers big city cultural venues.
For fitness and recreation, residents can use UBC’s athletic facilities, including The Doug Mitchell Thunderbirds Sport Centre, and a variety of venues for swimming, tennis, soccer, baseball and rugby. Keep an eye out for members of the Vancouver Canucks or Vancouver Whitecaps who train and keep practice facilities at UBC.
This summer, UBC opened North America’s first campus skatepark, and for those who like a walk on the wild side, there’s Pacific Spirit Park with its trail network. There are also five neighbourhood parks with Nobel Prize-inspired names – winners who had a UBC connection, including the illustrious Michael Smith.
Sustainability as a prime directive
Turning UBC commuters into residents brings a huge sustainability benefits, says UBC planner Joe Stott. “The majority of people who live here are employees or students who would otherwise have to drive or take transit to get here,” he says. “Getting people to walk to work offers huge gains, in terms of saving energy and reducing pollution.”
UTown@UBC developments meet the highest sustainability standards, thanks to the Residential Environmental Assessment Program (REAP), a made-at-UBC green building rating system mandatory for campus residential construction. In newer neighbourhoods – such as Wesbrook Village and Hawthorn Place – every housing development either is adjacent to a park, or located on pedestrian-only green streets lined with trees, flowers and community garden plots.
By the numbers
UTown@UBC’s demographics reflect its campus setting. The largest population segment in UTown@UBC is the 9,400 students in UBC student housing – more than on any other Canadian campus. The other 10,000 UTown@UBC residents represent a mix of UBC faculty, staff and other residents. More than half of the residential units house at least one person who works or studies at UBC.
Apart from UBC’s extensive student housing complexes, UTown@UBC has 3,800 housing units, 1,100 of which are rentals. These neighbourhoods are found mostly at the southeast edges of campus and include amongst others Chancellor Place, Hampton Place, East Campus, Hawthorn Place and Wesbrook Place. The area covers roughly a quarter of the university’s 402-hectare campus.
The future is about people
UBC plans to add 14,000 new residents in the neighbourhoods by 2041. Up to 30 per cent of this future housing will be available to faculty and staff at non-market prices, in order to attract and retain current and future employees, and reduce commuter pressure on Vancouver’s already-stretched transportation system.
The UBC Housing Action Plan, launched in 2012, outlines measures that make UBC the only Lower Mainland employer to offer significant levels of restricted housing to employees, and one of the world’s few universities to offer non-profit housing to low-income staff.
For students, UBC is investing $300 million to create 2,125 new student housing spaces by 2016 – including the 600-bed Ponderosa Commons opening this September – even though it already offers more student housing than any other Canadian university. The long-term goal is to house up to 16,000 students on campus – roughly half of the full time student population that attended the Point Grey campus in 2010.
UBC Properties Trust is a company UBC created in 1988 to acquire, develop and manage real estate assets. The revenue generated from development is placed in various endowment funds earmarked for professorships, chairs, facilities and amenities, research, and academic support.
The University Neighbourhoods Association (UNA) has an elected board of directors and is responsible for local regulations in the neighbourhoods (such as noise, parking, and animal control), landscaping, community programs and recreation. The UNA acts as a liaison for the community’s use of UBC facilities.
UBC Campus and Community Planning is the steward of UBC’s public assets. It ensures the choices made about land, buildings, infrastructure and transportation support the goals of the UBC strategic plan, Place and Promise, as well as UBC’s long-range plans, land use regulations, campus and landscape design, licensing and permits, and the support of sustainability initiatives around transportation and community buildings.