SFU’s direct engagement now extends to campuses in Surrey, downtown Vancouver and to the development of UniverCity adjacent the original campus on Burnaby Mountain.
Leveraging its public and private resources, SFU has added social and economic value across Metro Vancouver
Simon Fraser University was always going to be an activist and innovative force. Established atop Burnaby Mountain in 1965, the university’s faculty and staff showed from the first day that they were determined to engage – creatively, sometimes boisterously – with the wider world.
But, like other post-secondary institutions of the era, SFU’s so-called “radical campus” was physically isolated and somewhat inaccessible. “That was a leading inspiration for building a Vancouver campus,” says SFU President Andrew Petter. “My predecessors saw a demand for continuing education in the downtown core and wanted to make that easily available.”
So, 30 years ago, SFU stepped into the Harbour Centre space vacated by the Sears department store, a move that Petter says has transformed the university as much as it has revitalized downtown Vancouver. “It was a defining initiative,” Petter says. “It set the stage for SFU to become what it is today: Canada’s most community-engaged research university.”
Larry Beasley, former co-director of planning at the City of Vancouver, says that SFU opened in Harbour Centre “just as we [at the city] were trying to implement Vancouverism” – an urban planning innovation designed to bring more jobs, people and vitality into the downtown core. SFU’s arrival, Beasley says, was pivotal, injecting educational opportunity, energy and investment, and attracting colleges and the Vancouver Film School to the same neighbourhood, Beasley says. With support from some of Vancouver’s most venerated leaders and philanthropists, SFU has since added eight other facilities, including the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, the Segal Graduate School of Business, the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts and the Charles Chang Innovation Centre, creating what the Vancouver Sun has called “the intellectual heart of the city.”
SFU’s subsequent engagement with Vancouver’s citizens and business community engendered such vibrancy and social relevance that the university was emboldened to establish a third campus in Surrey. Situated in a stunning structure that also includes an office tower and a shopping mall, the campus fulfilled the vision of the late architect Bing Thom, who predicted the facility’s potential to be the catalyst for a new Surrey City Centre. Beasley is again enthused. Instead of creating an independent campus building, he says, Thom’s mixed-use development revived the fortunes of a faltering neighbourhood and helped to establish a new urban focal point for the province’s fastest growing city – a transformation reinforced by the City of Surrey’s investments in a new City Hall and Central Library, combined with investments from the private sector and public agencies such as the Fraser Health Authority.
SFU also has further growth plans for the area, and has just opened another remarkable Bing Thom-designed building that combines labs and classrooms for its new Sustainable Energy Engineering program with space for community use. In these ways, the university has been able to “leverage their investments for a lot bigger yield than from just building new facilities,” Beasley notes.
Even while revitalizing and enriching Vancouver and Surrey, SFU has modeled innovative city building on Burnaby Mountain, Beasley says. “If it was only a matter of getting value out of their original endowment, SFU could have done just a basic housing add-on. Instead, they have built a complete, resilient, sustainable and socially responsible community.” UniverCity now has over 5,000 residents (on its way to over 9,000), with a commercial high street that serves the university as well as the community. The development has been a global trend setter, contributing everything from a zero-footprint UniverCity Childcare centre hailed as the greenest on the planet to a low-carbon neighbourhood energy utility and, soon, a 12,000-square-foot art museum, sponsored by the Marianne and Edward Gibson Trust. Beasley says, “It’s an exemplary settlement, a model of contemporary thinking. I don’t think UniverCity has received anywhere near the national attention that it deserves.”
Petter is equally enthused. “SFU has been forever conscious about leveraging our resources to the fullest extent possible for the benefit of our communities. At the same time, our engagement strategy has enriched learning experiences and research opportunities for students and faculty, and helped to strengthen the university’s reputation. In Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby, we have shown how a university can do well by doing good.”
Richard Littlemore, a frequent contributor to BC Business, is also frequently engaged by SFU, which sponsored this content.