The Town Centre Model

In the prologue, we learned that Burnaby introduced an urban development policy because of three key reasons: a concern over construction quality, a need to absorb density, and a regional directive to focus densities. To help fully appreciate the innovativeness of this urban development policy, it is useful to reflect on the regional context in which it was formed.

Regional Town Centre Policy

For more information refer to Chapter 4 in my thesis under the section titled “Regional Governance and Town Centres” is a useful resource for a more detailed explanation of the following events. As we proceed through this section, it might be helpful to refer to an application I created which contains a timeline of many of these events. Please visit that applications HERE (this will open up in a new tab or window). Trust me – it’s worth looking at.


The first incarnation of regional governance was The Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board (LMRPB). It was a body originaly assembled by the Province of British Columbia  in partnership with local municipalities in response to a massive flood along the Fraser River in 1948. This led to the pooling of resources amongst multiple municipalities. This was deemed to be a better approach than either going it alone, or by achieving amalgamation. By 1952, activists within the LMRPB had the innovative idea that regional cooperation should include not just utility and emergency response sharing agreements, but also planning powers.

Also during that year, the regional body published its first long-range strategic plan, The Lower Mainland Looks Ahead. That document was heavily influenced by the work of American urbanist Lewis Mumford, an internationally renowned advocate of strategic, long-range planning. The Lower Mainland Looks Ahead was reviewed a solution for the solution for the region’s increased traffic congestion. This publication also looked to find a solution to the resultant social and environmental degradation caused by commuters driving daily into and out of Downtown Vancouver. One of the major goals of the document was the creation of “a decentralized pattern of metropolitan growth into smaller dispersed towns, led by industrial dispersal.” But unlike a flood catastrophe where it makes sense to pool resources to build a regional dyke and drainage system, it was more difficult to encourage local leaders to unite under a common planning vision. This required extra incentive to cooperate. The atmosphere fear as a result of the Cold War that was occurring during the 1950s provided planners with such an incentive.

[…] from the point of view of safety from atomic air attack we are urged by military experts to limit our cities to not more than ten square miles in area and to separate them by distances of at least ten miles of open country (LMRPB, 1952: 39).

The threat of a nuclear was helped planners to make the case for compact, mixed use centres. By 1963, the LMRPB’s second document, Chance and Challenge, identified specific areas as “Valley Cities,” with recommended populations of at least 100,000 residents each and separated by green space or productive farmland. This policy had already been used in the United Kingdom, where the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 kicked off a legacy of urban containment boundaries, locally known as Green Belts. In the sketch below by Léon Krier, “Cities within the City” offers an effective image of what this new concept looked like. This model could be contrasted with the middle two images, which represented the typical North American form at that time.

By 1966, the LMRPB produced a legally binding plan titled the Official Lower Mainland Regional Plan, changing ‘Valley Cities’ to ‘Regional Towns’. This led to the identification of the following set of interconnected objectives:

  • Orderly and staged development
  • A healthy environment
  • Efficient land use
  • effective transportation
  • A healthy, diverse economy

With the publication of the Official Plan, the provincial Social Credit government grew concerned over the rising power of this regional body. The saw this body as a potentially compromising the special relationship that the province had over it’s municipalities. This regional board was dissolved by the government in 1968 because the government feared they were losing power over the municipalities. By 1968, the LMRPB was disbanded by provincial government legislation.

Even though the LMPRB was dissolved, the concept of regional planning continued. Shortly after the Board’s dissolution, civil servants in the Department of Municipal Affairs began speaking covertly with other municipal advocates across the region  who still recognized the need for regional coordination. The Minister for Municipal Affairs was reluctantly drawn into those discussions, but every detail, even down to selecting the name of the new regional body was a delicate issue. The first name given to the new body was the Regional District of the Fraser-Burrard, for fear of the perception of granting more favor to one part of the region over another. The name was changed to the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) after initial confusion when officials were issuing bonds to an indefinable territory.

The Greater Vancouver Regional District board first met unceremoniously on July 12, 1967 as an addendum to a regional Hospital Board meeting. In time, the members of the new GVRD Board attained greater control, regaining many of the powers they had previously lost. One of its strongest advocates was Burnaby Mayor Alan Emmott, serving in the seat of Deputy Chair of the region’s then second most populous municipality.

::Regional planning gets serious… for a little while.

In 1972, a new provincial government brought regional planning back from the abyss. The Dave Barrett New Democratic government introduced a series of provincial legislative changes that supported many of the goals of regionalism. This included the creation of the Agricultural Land Commission and a greater commitment to public transportation including an effort to connect it with regional development goals.

In 1975, the GVRD produced its first significant strategic planning document, titled the 1976/1986 Livable Region Proposals. The document presented a five-point plan that stated the region’s key goals. As with previous regional plans, the Regional Towns concept was again a key objective:

  1. Achieve residential growth targets in each part of the region
  2. Promote a balance of jobs to population in each part of the region
  3. Create Regional Town Centres
  4. Provide a transit-oriented transportation system linking residential areas, Regional Town Centres and major work areas
  5. Protect and develop regional open space

The diagram on the right was used to represent the interaction between these concepts. The organization of this diagram helped to state point that these were all interconnected objectives with specific relationships between each other.

Unlike previous iterations, for the first time, this document set out a timeline for the creation of Regional Town Centres (RTC). One RTC in each of the four municipalities were selected as candidates to achieve the region’s objectives: Burnaby, New Westminster, Coquitlam, and Surrey:

The plan called for the immediate creation of two Town Centres. It selected only two because these developments required a lot of attention, and any more than two would be too distracting and too costly to build. The RTCs were designed to be a regional venture. I choose the term ‘venture’ very intentionally, because the idea was that municipalities all across the region would contribute efforts to ensure the success of the first two Town Centres. When those two RTCs had achieved sufficient success, as measured by sufficiently dense and diverse development, it was expected that the windfall from the lift in land value would be used to spin off the next pair of RTCs, and so on so forth.

The first two Regional Town Centres were decided to be located in Burnaby and New Westminster. Burnaby’s Town Centre would be located in the vicinity of the Metrotown that the City had already established there (more on this later). Planners at the GVRD had suggested that because Burnaby was already focusing a lot of attention on this area, that getting an RTC up to speed would not be a difficult challenge. New Westminster’s downtown area would be paired up with Metrotown. The area bounded by Royal Avenue and the Fraser River was chiefly selected because the local government and business association had already initiated a development agency to revitalize the area. This  development assistance was seen as a complement to the regional district’s efforts.

More interestingly was the rationale for delaying Surrey and Port Coquitlam RTCs as second phase projects, and excluding other RTC candidate sites entirely (pages 35 to 46 of the 1976/1986 Livable Region Proposals are especially worth reading). Coquitlam’s proposed RTC was deemed to be too much of a greenfield to foster future growth: regional planners preferred RTC candidates to have a modest amount of pre-existing development. Surrey’s ‘Bell Plan’ concept of a Whalley-Guildford RTC was viewed as too large. It was also perceived that the selection was based on the municipality’s reluctance to choose between two preferred sites.

By the time the Proposals were passed into binding law on July 9, 1975, the recommendations had been significantly watered down. The GVRD Board, Chaired by Mayor of Surrey, Bill Vander Zalm, amended the original document to reflect an intention to begin preparing the conditions for a Surrey RTC immediately. And because Surrey was included, Coquitlam’s RTC was also approved. As it turned out, amending the plan made little difference. That same year, the newly elected Bill Bennett Social Credit provincial government quickly began to send signals that support for regionalism would be reduced.

Citing an economic recession, the Social Credit government quietly withdrew support for the Regional District and its strategic planning agenda. By 1983, the Regional District’s statutory planning powers were rescinded and transit was drawn back under the province’s full control. Evidently feeling threatened, staff at the regional district changed their titles from ‘Planners’ to ‘Development Officers’. Within two years, a whole set of previously dismissed Regional Town Centres were named. North Vancouver’s Lonsdale RTC was designated, rationalized in part by the prior establishment of the head offices for ICBC. Richmond RTC was rationalized in part because of the establishment of head offices for another crown corporation, the Workers Compensation Board and the recent construction of the Richmond Centre Mall. Langley RTC was designated thanks to intensive lobbying pressure by then-City Mayor Marlene Grinell, while Maple Ridg RTC was established for no apparent reason other than that Langley was already designated, so why not?

It was apparent that the Town Centre concept had been morphed and massaged into a political instrument. It suddenly became caché to have a Town Centre, even if local officials were unaware of the necessary characteristics or future implications of having one. Two key components of developing a Town Centre were the presence of a strong financing mechanism and the host municipality’s undivided attention. Without active regional guidance though, there was very little expertise or incentive to achieve the full potential of these RTCs.

In 1992, Ralph Perkins, a Master’s student in the SCARP Program, concluded that the Region’s Town Centres, with very little exception, varied very little with their surrounding environs. He concluded, with few exceptions, that the existence of the regional policy had made very little impact on the sites that designated RTCs. At first glance, Perkins’ conclusions appear to be a rebuke against regional planning. But, after closer thought, it perhaps not so surprising that Surrey, Richmond, or Langley, Maple Ridge, or Coquitlam had failed to reach their full potential. Setting aside that the Richmond RTC was regarded as too large, the municipality continued permitting farmland conversions elsewhere throughout the municipality. This delayed the densification of the RTC core as developers were permitted to build in areas with lower land values. Surrey officials permitted the same process, opening up development in the South Surrey-White Rock area to the detriment of their RTC. Coquitlam also continued rezoning green space to the detriment of their RTC.

::Transit Muddling

Throughout this period, regional governance continued to become undermined by a lack of support from the provincial government. In 1986, instead of building a transit system that leveraged the full capacity of the Regional Town Centres as was originally intended, the province unveiled a cadillac-priced transit project that connected only two Town Centres (as an afterthought only) – Metrotown and New Westminster – with a downtown Vancouver terminus. In 1987, Minister of Transportation Rita Johnston, a Surrey MLA, under guidance of Premier and fellow Surrey MLA Bill Vander Zalm, spearheaded the next phase, an extension from Scott Road at the North tip of Surrey, to Whalley, what is now Surrey Central. The plan came as a surprise to residents in the Northeast Sector, an area where transit had been long-expected.

Coquitlam Mayor Lou Sekora was so outraged by the plan that he threatened to intercept provincial plans to build the Westwood Plateau residential subdivision, a project steered by a crown land development agency by the Social Credit government. Sekora staked his argument on the cost differential – climbing the steep hill from Scott Road to Whalley would far exceed the cost of an extension to Coquitlam and the Northeast Sector. But, Johnston insisted on the Whalley SkyTrain extension, even using Surrey’s much-maligned ‘Dumbell’ Town Centre plan as ammunition. The debate sparked a war of words in the local media. The Minister of  Transportation argued:

Nobody’s going to come to Surrey to be dropped off at Scott Road. We’ve got to get them up the hill (to Whalley). To drop people off at Scott Road will provide little more than a faster means of getting out of Surrey.

In response, Sekora belted back:

For her to spend $100 million of taxpayers’ money to make some dumbbell plan work in Surrey is totally out of order […] Why on God’s green earth would people leave downtown Vancouver to go to Surrey to shop […] It really bothers me to hear that statement from  a minister of transit. It’s a ridiculous statement.

Ultimately, the debate had no impact. The extension from the massive park and ride Scott Road Station to Whalley was commissioned and later completed in 1994. The SkyTrain line to Coquitlam has yet to break ground, though construction is expected to break ground in 2012.

Through 1991, the Social Credit Party sagged in the polls, thanks largely to a conflict-of interest scandal over a Christian-themed nursery park owned by Premier Bill Vander Zalm. A seven month stint by interim Premier, Rita Johnston (the same Rita Johnston that argued for the Whalley SkyTrain extension) was not enough to salvage Social Credit Party fortunes. Later that year, the long-time opposition New Democrats squeaked up the middle between a decimated Social Credit Party and a reconstituted BC Liberal Party.

::Regional planning gets another crack at the bat

Despite the considerable lack of support, regional planning continued to endure. In 1991, with tenacious planning advocate Darlene Marzari as Cabinet Minister under the Mike Harcourt NDP government, the province once again began to pay attention to the GVRD’s interests. In 1995, a series of provincial legislative changes culminated in the Growth Strategies Act. That body of legislation once again connected transportation planning to regional planning, giving regional districts a significant boost of support. This was quickly followed by the GVRD’s passage of the Livable Region Strategic Plan in 1996.

The plan was again bold, but lacked some of the specific qualitative and quantitative language that appeared in previous long range plans. This plan was instead much more focused on enhancing partnerships amongst the Regional District’s constituent municipalities. In addition, the plan continued to emphasize the importance of Regional Town Centres as a key element to fostering a livable region. Part of achieving a livable involved the implementation of Regional Context Statements: yearly reports that the municipalities were obligated to produce which demonstrated their commitment to the endeavor of regional goals.

Nearly 16 years passed until the next significant long range planning document was finally approved. In the intermediary time, the provincial government had once again unlinked transportation planning from regional planning. The Regional Growth Strategy though, continues the regional district’s commitment to long range planning. However, as my thesis points out, this commitment has tended to suffer from occasional spotty support from some municipalities and the provincial government.

Despite all of the challenges in developing and maintaining regional policy, throughout the literature, many references were made to one municipality that seemed to have been closest to achieving the right mix of Town Centre planning and development.

>> Continue Reading The Town Centre Model ~ Part  2>>

2 thoughts on “The Town Centre Model”

  1. Just curious. Are there any differences between the Metrotown growth strategy from the Town Centre strategy, or are they synonymous?

    1. Wow – sorry for the super late reply! Yes – at least there is a significant difference between Regional Town Centres (what Metrotown is) and Municipal Town Centres (Brentwood/Edmonds/Lougheed), at least historically (see here). Because the Regional Growth Strategies require consensus from each constituent municipality for them to pass into law for Regional Governance, you end up getting some strange injections where smaller cities that would otherwise be inappropriate for urban growth, demand a regional centre for themselves. Its a great planning concept, but as with everything, it tends to get manipulated to suit the interests of folks who don’t entirely comprehend or perhaps don’t care about the initial intent.

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