Surrey – a creative city in progress

More than 60 municipalities are exploring culture-led development as a key pillar in building livable communities.

Catherine Murray

Canada Day celebrations are spreading out over the summer across the country, taking increasing poignancy in a period of extreme weather events, uncertain economic climate, and stories of municipal crisis in governance in two of Canada’s biggest cities. We all need stories to celebrate more than just survivorship. We need a sense of belonging.

One of the least well-known stories on our march to Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017 is just how much of cultural, environmental, social and economic power is devolving to our cities and moving away from the core. Recently, more than 60 municipalities began exploring culture-led development as a key pillar in building livable communities positioned for the future, but proud of their pasts.

Like Vancouver, one of the leaders to declare a creative city strategy in 1986, they are looking at how the cultural sector is broadening beyond arts, heritage and culture to include new design, fashion, architecture and new media production in new alliances with public libraries, museums, and universities. Certainly, the creative economy has proven remarkably resilient since the downturn of 2008 in most countries, now accounting for impressive proportions of the GDP. A vital cultural scene helps foster appreciation for difference, a sense of individual and collective belonging, and resilience.

Instant towns which experience rapid growth often struggle to provide sufficient infrastructure to be attractive places to settle, retain creative businesses, and grow their economies. As one of North America’s fastest-growing cities – and demographically the youngest – Surrey offers special challenges to creative economy strategists because of its location next to Vancouver, known for one of the highest per-capita number of artists and creators and as a North American hub for video games.

Since my 2008 White Paper on the subject, Surrey has made startling progress as a Capital of Canada (2008), crafted a Cultural Plan (2011) and conducted extensive and innovative consultations about how citizens think arts and heritage can help city building. It’s about to issue a decade-long history of urban design written by Trevor Boddy and has a palpably interested Surrey Board of Trade.

Although B.C. is not a national leader in accessing federal infrastructure funds, Surrey has won support for major capital projects – the Surrey Library, and the planned, soon-to-be renamed Surrey Central expansion with a performing arts facility, an arts expansion to South Surrey Rec Centre with studio, arts and pottery spaces, and made visible 30 cultural facilities, 54 public art installations, and over 120 organizations (three times the baseline count found in the 2008 White Paper) suggesting rapid community-based, entrepreneurial growth.

Edge cities that make creative businesses grow help start-ups with their business plans. They build incubators, where creative businesses can share space. They establish tax holidays for arts and creative based businesses. Conversely, they provide stabilization grants or provide needed loans when starts ups need to transition and change their managerial structure to grow.

And they exploit the weaknesses of their city cores like Vancouver. Where is Vancouver most vulnerable? Artists are being forced out of studios and small businesses. Surrey can attract them by offering affordable live/work studio space, or housing with below market rents where a proportion is set aside for creators. They can grid future transit expansion over the existing and planned cultural and park spaces.

Second, red tape barriers in start-ups and pop up public events are still renowned in Vancouver. Surrey can offer one-stop shops and adapt to the pop up creative landscape more easily. Third, Vancouver is coming to an end to the natural life of its community amenity bonusing, which built some 16 or so cultural spaces. Yet new spaces will have to go somewhere. Surrey can be ready for them.

Surrey’s strength is its youth. Surrey could position as a leader in youth cultural participation and production in North America – so youth grow up there, learn to create there, find it attractive to grow businesses, export and stay there.The South Asian Fusion presence in cultural innovation is limitless in its potential, and needs a cluster around it. And finally, no city except Montreal has tried to bring all the creative industries together under a design umbrella, and address the innovation and sustainability agendas in a concerted fashion.

Creative City Strategies take 30-50 years to mature. They need breathtaking ambition and buy-in from the top, a source of Surrey’s comparative advantage under Mayor Dianne Watts. Creative Surrey? The wait for challenger creative city strategies won’t be long.

Catherine Murray is a professor of communication at Simon Fraser University.

Surrey North Delta Leader

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