Twenty years ago, Surrey became a city. By many standards, it had been a city for a long while before that, but the legal change in status from a district municipality to a city seemed to spark some attitudinal changes.
These changes didn’t come instantly. For many years, going back at least to the 1960s, Surrey had often been the butt of jokes from Vancouver-based media and political figures. There were some reasons for some of the jokes – Surrey had a controversial and at times raucous political culture, and rapid growth led to some awkward and at times embarrassing moments. Surrey was frequently likened to a gangly teenager working through adolescence, and it was an apt comparison.
The movement from district municipality to city didn’t just happen in Surrey. Burnaby made the move in 1992, a year before Surrey did, to mark its 100th anniversary. Since that time, most municipalities from Coquitlam to Chilliwack have become cities. Given the rapid urbanization in the entire region, and the increasing importance of urban issues across the region, this isn’t surprising.
In Surrey’s case, 1993 marked another year of political battles over a whole series of issues. Council and the school board had been quite badly divided since the mid-1980s, largely along provincial political lines. This came about when the NDP set up a municipal arm that caused a strong negative reaction from a number of elected officials, including some with NDP leanings.
Growth had been strong in the late 1980s and council was dealing with issues like tree cutting, social housing and park preservation. The school board was faced with massive overcrowding, and the challenges of providing sufficient health care and transportation services were coming to the fore.
In a way, the movement to become a city was a distraction – but it was also an important step. It marked a recognition by council and by many citizens that Surrey needed to deal with issues in a thoughtful and meaningful way. Name-calling and political brinkmanship wouldn’t do.
A major event at Bear Creek Park to formally mark the transition on Sept. 11, 1993 attracted about 8,000 people. They were excited about the change of status and confident that Surrey could move forward as a city.
The 1990s saw a gradual easing of the political rhetoric, although it continued on a number of occasions right up to the election of Dianne Watts as mayor in 2005. Watts specifically campaigned on working through a number of urban issues that council had been having difficulty with, and she brought a much more collaborative approach to decision-making.
Her style has been widely-admired throughout B.C., and when Gordon Campbell announced he was stepping down as premier in 2010, there was considerable pressure on her to seek the Liberal party leadership.
Watts chose to remain mayor and in the 2011 municipal election, her Surrey First political group captured all nine council seats. Elected councillors come from a variety of political perspectives, but seem united on working first and foremost on local issues, as compared to getting into politics simply to move to a higher level of elected office.
But Watts, as important as she is to the process, is only one reason that Surrey is thinking more like a city than ever. Its citizens, who have come here from all over the world, are taking more pride in the city than has been the case for a long time. Large events like Canada Day and the Fusion Festival, and special events like the 2010 Winter Olympics, which saw a large outdoor venue for viewing the events on a big screen at Holland Park packed with people night after night, have made a huge difference.
Services are notably better. While transit expansion remains a concern, it is incrementally getting better. There has been an expansion and re-purposing of parks, notably Holland Park, which has become a major gathering place.
The city is determined to not just talk about Surrey City Centre but to act as a catalyst for change, by moving city hall there. A new library has already opened, and perhaps most importantly, Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus has changed the dynamics of the Whalley area dramatically.
Surrey has densified significantly. No longer are densities solely marked by the number of unauthorized suites. Instead, new townhouse and apartment developments have sprung up in many areas where such densities at one time seemed unlikely.
In housing, Surrey has moved forward as a city in a more deliberate way than Vancouver, where there is increased densities around False Creek, with much of the rest of the city still dotted with single-family homes dating back to the 1950s.
The education and health care infrastructure has improved dramatically, and while there are still some serious needs, Surrey has advanced significantly in these two critical areas.
Surrey would not have the attributes of a city if citizens didn’t buy into the notion. They have embraced the concept, because they want to have good reasons to be proud of where they live. While Surrey will have many challenges going forward, a lot of the hard work in getting from gangly teen to confident adult has taken place in the past 20 years.
It will be fascinating to see what the next 20 years will bring.
Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.