UniverCity atop Burnaby Mountain UniverCity atop Burnaby Mountain

What happens when a group of urban planners attempt to create a living model of a walkable, energy-efficient and sustainable community at a scale applicable to the country’s largest cities?

You get UniverCity, a groundbreaking initiative of urban planner Gordon Harris to rethink how we work together, piece-by-piece, to solve some of the city’s most complex sustainability issues.

And, as he’s shown, make money doing it.

Gordon HarrisHarris is an award-winning urban planner working with Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. He provides land-use planning and development advice around the world, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, China, Bosnia and Guatemala. Harris is also a fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

He spoke recently with A\J’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Reeves, to talk about Building Community: Defining, Designing, Developing UniverCity, his book on how 20 hectares of land atop Burnaby Mountain has become one of the world’s most livable communities.


Alternatives Journal: Tell me about UniverCity.

Gordon Harris: We wanted to build a community that was a livable, affordable and sustainable. And so the book, Building Community, is meant to stand as a 20 year case study in urban development that isn't just like everything else. We felt from the very beginning – in fact from before the beginning – that this had to be something special and different.

A\J: How have you defined sustainable planning and practice, and how has this been reflected in your community?

Harris: Because we're at the very top of Burnaby Mountain, we're at the beginning of a watershed. And all the stormwater, the rain falls on the mountain – we get over six feet a year that flows down into a salmon bearing stream. Ultimately, our first question was: Can we build a community on a hill where the salmon at the bottom wouldn't know we existed? Could we have stormwater leave a development better than its pre-development condition in terms of water quality? That was really the starting point.

We began rethinking buildings to come up with guidelines that wouldn’t frighten developers away, but at the same time would help move them along in the pursuit of more energy-efficient buildings, better air quality and interior air quality. We also began looking at introducing a neighbourhood energy utility. And now, with SFU as a customer, we’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions on Burnaby Mountain by 85 percent. 

When we built a childcare centre we had to build one under our zoning requirements. And what we built was what Jason Mcclellan at the Living Building Challenge describes as the ‘greenest childcare center on the planet.’ It generates more energy than it uses, harvests more water than is uses, possesses no toxic substances in construction materials and its lifetime operation materials will all come from within 500 kilometers.

We're demonstrating that you can build this kind of a walkable, transit-oriented community... beside a major employer and you can make money doing it.

All of that is great stuff for me as the developer of this community. But what's important is we built it for about 18 percent of the costs of buildings built to comparable codes. That’s significant. The subtext of everything we're doing is we're building a model sustainable community that’s really a model of profitable sustainability. Because if it isn't economic it isn't sustainable. We're demonstrating that you can do this kind of project, build this kind of a walkable, transit-oriented community in a relatively isolated location beside a major employer and you can make money doing it.

A\J: Can you tell me a little bit about how important it was to show that one can do this while keeping costs from going through the roof?

Harris: We've continued to demonstrate that the costs are not [exceedingly high]. Our dual mandate was to create a model sustainable community project to bring international acclaim to SFU and the City of Burnaby. But the other half of that mandate was to create and download wealth, to monetize the land and to support the university's core activities of teaching and research. All of our net proceeds are distributed to our shareholder and our beneficiaries – Simon Fraser University and the SFU Foundation as an endowment for teaching and research.

That's the motivation to be profitable, to be prudent in how we're spending and making money. And through the last 18 years we've demonstrated that you can make money while doing a project like this. We're proving it's okay to do well while doing good.

A\J: How have you achieved this?

Harris: With good design. The original master plan for the community took into account things like terrain and slope, ensuring we built a community that would be overall less energy consuming than if we ignored our surroundings and the topography.

We then set about to make sure that the land, which is leased on a 99 year, pre-paid basis to developers – that land remains in the hands of the university. Leased land on Burnaby Mountain, particularly in the early days, was at a discount compared to elsewhere in the region, but it no longer is. I think our land values are directly comparable with other suburban development nodes in Burnaby.

We brought along a group of developers who are working at a scale that makes them very efficient. We put the zoning in place so that there wasn't a lot of time spent by developers waiting for a rezoning process to unfold, and so all of those things that take a lot of time, we were able to help developers shorten that time and reduce our costs.

And then there’s the neighborhood energy utility. In 2010, we worked with the City of Burnaby to introduce a comprehensive green zoning bylaw. That bylaw said that going forward, buildings would need to be 30 percent more energy efficient and 40 percent more water efficient than the prevailing national energy code.

To help developers get there, the neighborhood energy utility got them halfway to that energy goal. And then we said to the developers, ‘We’ll give you an additional 10 percent density if you can exceed that requirement by 50 percent, both on the energy and the water.’ We gave them density that we had actually held back so they didn't have to go back to Burnaby and ask for additional density in order to be more energy efficient and water efficient. We were simply gambling that by holding back 10 percent of the allowable density we could use that as an incentive to developers to be so much more energy efficient and still make money.

And after the passage of that bylaw, every developer took us up on that until 2015 when the national energy code was updated to generally reflect what we had been asking for from developers since 2010.   

A\J: There are major building booms in cities across the country right now. What have you learned from this experience in Burnaby that’s scalable and applicable to other cities like Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver?

Harris: We learned about creating sustainable communities and green development is that it’s incremental. You start with green zoning guidelines and eventually those morph into green building requirements as developers and consumers get more comfortable with the notion. That also showed we weren't forcing developers to find high-cost solutions to being incrementally more energy efficient.

And so incrementalism is key, but also partnering – partnering with the school board to create our elementary school was key to building our childcare center. This and the district energy system all contribute to a highly sustainable community that’s helping educate consumers here and elsewhere to ask tough questions when they’re thinking about buying a home: Do you have district energy? Do you have high energy efficient building envelope design? What's the glazing?

We were simply gambling that by holding back 10 percent of the allowable density we could use that as an incentive to developers to be so much more energy efficient.

As for scale, we're getting international attention for what we're doing, and so we're not just taking the message to Toronto, we're taking it around the world. I've spent time doing work in Australia, at a symposium in Cameron last December, talking to real estate business leaders in Mumbai. Last year I was at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on sustainable urbanization talking about what we're doing in Vietnam – a country where the scale is so vastly greater – with a real understanding from the people there that what we're doing is entirely scalable.

It's replicable and it's a neighborhood. UniverCity on Burnaby Mountain is a community of 10,000 people. That's a pretty good scale; that's a good-sized town. If you do a number of these neighborhoods and one learns from the other, we can get even better at doing what we're doing.

That's what we hope people will do when they read Building Community. They’ll say ‘A-ha, we can not only do this, but the world has changed, and we can do it even better.’ So yes, I think this is absolutely scalable. I think we're a little ahead, perhaps, of other places in the country, but we're not miles ahead. It's going to be easy to start to replicate our example, and that's another reason for the book. We want to inspire people to take what we've done and build on it.

A\J: What would you encourage city planning departments to do to follow your lead with new developments rather than prop up the status quo?

Harris: We have to help people understand that, ‘That's the way we've always done it’ isn't an answer to bringing about change and making cities more sustainable. I think higher energy costs will drive people to want to do what we're doing. We're a transit oriented community, and I think as people face increasing challenges of traffic and congestion and gas price they’ll be looking for better ideas.

In many ways we're simply a 21st century interpretation of the Garden City. No, we're surrounded not by farmland, but by a second growth forest, and we're next door to a major employer – in our case, the university. A lot of what Ebenezer Howard was talking about is unfolding here, a kind of neighbourhood that is walkable and has a strong sense of community. People love living here.

And there are no single family homes, there are no duplexes – there are four to six storey ground-oriented buildings and towers, the tallest of which is just getting underway now and will be 20 stories. It’s an urban mix, and it's 10,000 people on 20 hectares. That's real downtown urban density in a suburban setting.

Because our ambition has always been to not build just another suburb. And I think there's an appetite for that in a lot of other places.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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