SFU in Vancouver: Community Building and the Engaged University

November 06, 2012

Presentation to the Downtown Vancouver Association
Segal Graduate School of Business, Vancouver

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Good morning.  I’m pleased to be here and grateful for the opportunity to speak to you about SFU’s role as an “engaged university” in building community – in Surrey, in Burnaby, and especially here in Vancouver.

Now, if you’re wondering how the concept of SFU as an “engaged university” came into being, this too involved an act of building.    

Sometimes, when we talk about building, people assume we mean ‘building from scratch’.  Yet this needn’t be the case.  The best builders – the most original thinkers – often start with something that exists, and seek to repurpose or improve it.

Consider the wheel:  its creators didn’t invent the circle – they just noticed its usefulness and pressed it into service … to our advantage.

I like that approach: you start with something good, identify what makes it so, and leverage those qualities to make it even better.  That’s what we sought to do at SFU when we launched our envision>SFU consultation in early 2011, shortly after I became president.

It was a process aimed at identifying our strengths and discovering how those qualities could be harnessed to build SFU into the best university of its kind.

But rather than tell you, let me show a short video that will give you a bit more background on the process … and an animated understanding of the vision that resulted.

If you are wondering how all this relates to community building, it’s this:  SFU’s vision can be seen as an academic version of what is known in planning circles as Vancouverism:  it’s all about mixed use. It’s about creating an effective organization – urban, academic or both – by integrating diverse goals in the best possible way.

I know university presidents aren’t supposed to quote certain internet-based sources of encyclopedic knowledge – and please don’t tell SFU students that I did – but if you look up Vancouverism on Wikipedia, it says: “an urban planning and architectural technique pioneered in Vancouver, Canada” and “characterized by mixed use development.”

Then, by way of illustration, it quotes one Vancouver’s leading architects, Bing Thom, saying, “We have apartments on top of stores. In Surrey, we have a university on top of a shopping centre.”

That university, of course, is SFU. It’s one of the best examples of both our integration with and our capacity to build community.

As you may know, before SFU Surrey was established, the shopping mall was in decline and the neighbourhood was one of Surrey’s most troubled.  Now, in addition to a redeveloped retail, commercial and educational facility, there are a series of office towers, apartment complexes, a new Surrey Central Library, the soon-to-open Surrey City Hall and, within the next few years, a 50-story hotel and residential tower.  SFU Surrey was the catalyst for what is emerging as Metro Vancouver’s second city centre.

The renowned architect, author and professor, Witold Rybczynski, presented a photo essay in the online magazine, Slate, last year, holding out Surrey City Centre as a model for meeting “ the challenge of the coming decade.”

This he identified as “making the suburbs more urban; that is, making them denser and creating active, concentrated, walkable town centers.” It’s “Vancouverism” again (though, in this case, perhaps that should be “Surreyism”)!

Our commitment to community building is also proceeding apace on Burnaby Mountain. When architects Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey proposed the design in 1963, SFU was an inspired creation – an iconic campus perfectly designed to fit into its location. But it was also a creature of its time – a commuter destination far removed from the population it served.

We started to change all that in the mid-1990s.  As the video suggested, unable to move a mountain down to the community, we decided instead to bring a community up to the mountain.

Thanks to the development of UniverCity, Burnaby Mountain is no longer a weekend wasteland.  It now boasts a High Street where students, staff and faculty mingle with local residents as they dine, shop for food, and access a host of new services.

There is an elementary school built to LEED Gold standards, and a brand new childcare centre that is on track to being certified as Canada’s first Living Building. This is a structure that generates more energy and harvests more rainwater than it uses, is free of toxins, and is built from materials sourced within 500 kilometres.
Jason McLennan, the author of the Living Building Challenge, has called it “the greenest childcare on the planet.”

One of the most important objectives of this development is to be a model of sustainability, which means not just that it achieves a high standard, but that its successes can be replicated.  In short, we are developing a community that is sustainable –environmentally, socially and economically – with the goal that others might follow in our footsteps. As in Surrey, we are not just building community, we’re experimenting, innovating and testing assumptions so that it will be easier for others to build sustainable communities that are worthy of the name.

And it’s gratifying to see that others are noticing. UniverCity has received 18 planning and environmental awards in the past six years.

But SFU’s original effort to create an integrated campus – our first major foray into “Vancouverism” – was, appropriately enough, taken right here in Vancouver, with the support of a huge number of individual and corporate donors.

This is where we started to identify good things and repurpose them – for our own use and for the benefit of the community. Curiously, most of the “good things” we identified took the form of department stores and banks.

It began, in 1989, with SFU Harbour Centre, a re-imagination of what had been the Sears Tower (built on the site of the old Spencer’s Department Store).

We followed in 2001 with the Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue, in the former Toronto Dominion Bank building across the street.

In 2005, we added the Segal Graduate School of Business in the former Bank of Montreal Building at Granville and Pender.

In 2010, we opened the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, also on Hastings, as part of the Woodward’s redevelopment.

And, thanks to the Bill Reid Foundation’s 2011 donation to SFU of its $10-million collection of Northwest Coast Art, we now enjoy a very public presence in the Bill Reid Gallery at 639 Hornby.

That gives us a total of more than 380,000 square feet of space, making us, by far, the largest post-secondary presence in downtown Vancouver.

We offer undergraduate courses through 28 different departments, as well as 18 graduate-level programs, to a total of nearly 4,000 full-time students. If you count our non-credit offerings, the total number of courses available at our downtown campus rises to 571, satisfying the demand of 7,500 students – of all ages.

If you tally our meetings, conferences, dialogues, public lectures and performances, we host 9,000 different events in an average year.

Clearly, this has added a huge amount of physical value and intellectual energy to the neighbourhood.

Indeed, I would argue that the mere presence of all those people, and the economic, social and cultural activity they generate, has re-energised an area of the downtown that was hollowing out as the central commercial district migrated up Granville Street toward Robson.

In the process SFU’s downtown campus has become what the Vancouver Sun describes as “the intellectual heart of the city.”

We accept that compliment … not as a reason to rest on our laurels … but as an encouragement to do even more.  

That’s why, in our new Strategic Vision, we have made it our goal to “be Canada’s most community-engaged research university.”

To this end, we have pledged to “maximize the capacities of our three campuses to enhance the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities …”.

And, we have further resolved “to be BC’s public square for enlightenment and dialogue on key public issues … the institution to which the community looks for education, discussion and solutions.”

With these commitments in mind, we recently launched “SFU Public Square” – a program designed to utilize our infrastructure and harness our energy to promote dialogue and deliberation on key issues facing our province and our community.  We started this September with a summit on issues of isolation and disconnection in Metro Vancouver. And we intend for SFU Public Square to continue its work throughout the year – nowhere more than here at our downtown campus.

SFU’s underlying objective in everything I have spoken about today is building community.  And that is equally true of our educational mission, focussed as it is on graduating adaptable global citizens who will lead fulfilling lives even as they animate our society and drive our economy.

That latter goal – creating a population of skilled workers – is more critical than ever. The provincial labour outlook shows that, by 2020, 80 per cent of all new jobs will require some form of post-secondary education.  Eighty percent!  That’s a source of serious concern when you consider that only 57 per cent of people in the current workforce have those credentials.

As a world-class research institution, we also strive to expand the scope of human knowledge – for the benefit of our economy and our society. This, too, is an increasingly urgent priority, especially when you consider how aggressively other jurisdictions are financing education, research and development.

But, as with all others, these are challenges that we cannot tackle alone.  We need your help.

To that end, I and the other BC research university presidents have created what we call an “Opportunity Agenda for BC”.  We are appealing for public and government support on three critical objectives.

First, we believe that there should be a place in B.C.’s post-secondary system for every qualified student. If young people have done the work, they deserve the opportunity.  We can’t afford to waste their potential.

Second, no qualified students should be denied the opportunity to get an education because they can’t afford it. It’s folly to condemn worthy students to a lifetime of un- or under-employment – and to cripple our economy with a skills shortage – when a relatively small investment now will pay huge dividends for them and for society as a whole.

Third, in a world where ideas drive social progress and economic prosperity, we must stay ahead of the curve by investing in cutting-edge research and innovation.

In sum, we are looking to ensure accessibility and affordability for students, and a stable investment in research and innovation to enhance our society and safeguard our economy.  

I would argue that SFU has proven the benefits of such investment. We have demonstrated the advantages to be realized when a university works closely and enthusiastically with the communities it serves.

Our engagement – our academic Vancouverism – has created an educational corridor downtown, even as it has transformed Surrey City Centre and produced a model for urban sustainability on Burnaby Mountain.

So, I hope that when you think of Vancouverism … when you think of “thriving city districts” … when you think about pedestrian and transit-oriented communities that, for example, integrate commercial and residential spaces … that you also think of the positive contributions of an engaged university.

At SFU, we have come to appreciate how much universities and communities can learn and gain from each other.  And we’re determined to maximize those benefits in the years ahead.  With your help, I am confident that we can realize our goal of being Canada’s most community-engaged research university … and that the university and the community will be the better for it.