A Q&A with Gordon Harris on sustainable urban planning and his new book, Building Community

December 20, 2018

The UniverCity development at SFU’s Burnaby campus was envisioned in the 1990s as world-leading model of sustainable planning and urban development. Two decades on, the dense, mixed-use, residential community is home to more than 5,000 people and is held up as a global example of livable, affordable and sustainable community building.

In his new book, Building Community: Defining, Designing, Developing UniverCity, urban planner Gordon Harris traces the birth of the community and its journey to become an award-winning beacon of master planning and design.

Harris, president and CEO of SFU Community Trust, offers some perspective on his work and the development in this Q&A with SFU News.

Q: For people unfamiliar with UniverCity, how would you describe it? What makes it special? How does it rank among the other work you’ve done?

UniverCity is a complete, walkable, extraordinarily livable and highly sustainable community on Burnaby Mountain. It’s also a deeply and delightedly integrated neighbor of Simon Fraser University. If SFU is Canada’s most community-engaged research university (and I think it is), then this is the community with which the university is most engaged. Our community provides homes for students, staff and faculty. We provide services and amenities. We’re even a go-to location for excellent research. And because of that integration, our daycares and schools are better, our streets are more vibrant, and our evenings and weekends are more interesting. It’s a grand symbiosis.

As to how this project “ranks”? It’s unlike anything I have ever done. And yet, as a planner and development consultant it also represents a realization of everything I’ve worked toward in a 30-year career. Leading UniverCity’s development has called upon every aspect of skill and experience I’ve gathered – and has taught me some important new lessons along the way. By every measure, it’s been a rewarding, culminating experience.

Q: What was the master vision behind the development? What were your goals when you started the project?

UniverCity was launched in 1995 as a complementary community for SFU–something that would help the university escape its isolation, and that would raise money in the development process to support SFU’s mission of learning and research. Then-SFU president John Stubbs also said he believed the community should exhibit the very best in community-planning and execution. The development’s success–and the university’s reputation–hung in the balance.

Only later did we add what became a defining goal, which was to make UniverCity a model of sustainable planning and urban development. This factor has earned us the greatest amount of international acclaim.

Q: What was the biggest hurdle in designing the community? How did you overcome this? Did you overcome it?

The biggest hurdle probably was–and remains–achieving true sustainability, because that goal is difficult, and this site is unforgiving. For example, we get two metres of rainfall a year, which you have to manage in a way that doesn’t cause floods and washouts, and still sustains the salmon streams that depend upon a strong seasonal flow of fresh, unpolluted water. That was already tough, given how much of the mountaintop we had covered with parking lots where the grease and grime and oil drippings from thousands of cars washed regularly down the mountain. But we developed a storm-water management system, with bioswales and infiltration galleries and holding ponds where the water can sink in slowly and refresh before re-entering the biosphere. And we have won awards for the quality of that system. Although there is, of course, much more to do.

Q: Two decades in, how has UniverCity matched up to your original vision?

Two decades in, I think UniverCity has exceeded the expectations of everyone originally involved. It is more of a community–more a benefit to the university–and a more credible model of sustainability than anyone could have imagined in the late 1990s. But we also have raised our level of ambition, just as the world has come to recognize that we all must do a great deal more to improve our development standards and reduce our collective environmental footprint if we hope to pass a healthy and sustainable planet along to our children.

Q: Was including sustainability and livability pillars in your approach to community building revolutionary two decades ago? What else about the project was revolutionary at the time? What still is?

I think livability has always been a goal of community building; it’s just that we have made such interesting and different mistakes over the centuries. So that’s been evolutionary, and our standard of livability has benefited by that evolution–by the knowledge and understanding we now have about what makes a successful, efficient, functional and livable urban community. But sustainability!? That’s been a revolution, for sure. Twenty years ago, no-one was even thinking about a Living Building, like our Childcare Centre, which has a net-zero environmental footprint that generates more power and captures and recycles more water than its inhabitants use. The centre was built of non-toxic materials sourced within 500 kilometres and will be certified as the first Living Building in Western Canada. That’s revolutionary – and I hope others follow the example.

Gordon Harris, president and CEO of SFU Community Trust.

Q: What design/planning elements used at UniverCity have seen widespread adoption in current developments in Burnaby and in other cities in the Lower Mainland?

We at SFU Community Trust have had a real advantage in pushing the boundaries of planning and design, in part because we had the trust of the City of Burnaby. If we said we were going to develop innovative storm-water systems or energy-conservation standards or even road widths, they were willing to let us try because they knew that the Trust and SFU would stand behind those innovations–or fix them if they didn’t work. And now, energy- and water- conservation standards that we pioneered more than a decade ago are written into the National Model Building Code. And municipalities around the region have adopted rules that we developed for lock-off suites–interior units in condominiums that people could lock off and rent out if they didn’t need the space. So, UniverCity really has become a model community in many ways.

Q: If you could go back and do anything over, what would you change about the development? Anything?

UniverCity was a bold experiment in creating community where none existed. So, it was necessary–and wise–to advance the project and its sustainability achievements incrementally. In a perfect world, we would have done more sooner. But here we are, 20 years on, with a project that is a global exemplar of livable, affordable and highly sustainable community building. So, while it’s good to be impatient when a goal is urgent, sometimes it’s necessary to move at a pace that allows the world to keep up.

Building Community: Defining, Designing, Developing UniverCity.