By Phil Roberts…
A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Especially when it sits next to one of Canada’s most esteemed academic institutions, Simon Fraser University (SFU). UniverCity is a sustainable community which offers suburban living in an urban context within a unique setting atop Burnaby Mountain.
SFU founded its Community Trust (formerly known as the Burnaby Mountain Community Corporation) in 1993 with the idea to construct a community that would generate income for the university endowment and support a legacy of teaching and research. UniverCity is realization of that idea, and has become a model for practical and affordable sustainability throughout the world.
Though the strategy for UniverCity began in the early-90’s, the concept for a sustainable community next to SFU was actually initiated 30 years earlier in 1963 by Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey, the venerable Canadian architects who helped design the SFU campus.
The urban design and master planning of UniverCity was done by Hotson Bakker Architects (now DIALOG). Each resident is within 5 minutes walking distance to the main thoroughfare, University High Street, and live in residences with buoyant names such as Verdant, Harmony and Aurora. The diversity of the clientele living in the community informed a diversity in housing type, facade materials and neighbourhoods. To take advantage of air currents for ventilation purposes, taller buildings were put on the higher parts of Burnaby Mountain and low-rise structures on lower elevations. UniverCity is not a monolithic community of sameness, but through the many facets of its design recognizes that not everyone is looking for the same thing. UniverCity is not filled with students and faculty alone (40% of residents have some affiliation with SFU). Families with young children make up 28% of the community’s residents, which is equal to the average for Metro Vancouver.
The amenities also add to the sustainability of UniverCity, keeping residents on-site as much as possible. There is a 23,000 square foot grocery store, an elementary school and a childcare centre, which is expected to be the first building in Canada to meet the Living Building Challenge™.
In terms of energy consumption, the community uses a biomass-based district energy system which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from every building by more than 60%, and eliminates the need for each building to have its own hot water tanks or boilers. There is no air conditioning system in any of the buildings, though all windows can be opened. Keeping the indoor air quality refreshed is an important standard for the development. On the street, lamp posts and other forms of exterior illumination are all down-lit, reducing the amount of light emitted into the night sky. Reducing pollution of all kinds is what UniverCity strives to achieve.
There is a potent sense of community among residents, who may be in different phases of life, but find commonality in improving the quality of life in their forward-thinking community. Residents and the university are very involved in the development of UniverCity, through the Burnaby Mountain Residents Association and the SFU Community Association Granting Program. Such is the verve that residents have for their community that 93% of them say that they would recommend UniverCity to family and friends as a place to live. Resident surveys provide an abundance of useful information which is used for the planning of services and amenities in the community.
Providing livable, affordable, and sustainable spatial experiences in a topographical setting offering delightful views of the surrounding areas is what makes UniverCity a highly attractive place to live. Even the relationship between pedestrians, cyclists and motorists is a peaceful one, which certainly is an enormous plus. Burnaby City Council has already approved it expansion. The community wants to be model for similar communities on a larger scale around the world. Representatives from UniverCity go abroad to talk about the project and the world comes to UniverCity to observe the replicable city on a hill.
Phil Roberts is the creative director of sixty7 Architecture Road.