Sustainable Spaces Dialogue Report

  • Overview

    The Sustainable Spaces Dialogue took place on March 21st, 2014, at the Aboriginal Gathering Place in Douglas College. The event was an evening dedicated to how urban space is viewed, used and shaped in the City of New Westminster. It was organized by Colin O’Neil, as his Sustainable Living Leadership Program project.

    As a growing city limited by available space, New Westminster must think of innovative ways in which urban space can be used. During the Dialogue, presenters addressed strategies in which spaces are used and imagined within the city, and considered opportunities for these spaces to change and grow in ways which promote sustainability and livability for all residents.

    There were three panelists leading the discussion:

    • Colin O’Neil, Rivershed Society of BC
    • Susan Briggs, Urban Livability, Douglas College
    • Patrick Johnstone, New West Environmental Partners Society

    Fin Donnelly, from the Rivershed Society of BC and a Member of Parliament, was the master of ceremonies.

    Between speakers, the floor was open to questions and discussion. The event was a resounding success. It was a packed house with over 75 people taking part in the two dialogue sessions.

    Colin has generated a report of the first dialogue of the evening. You can find it under the ‘Report’ tab at the top of this page.

    Related links:

    Original event listing
    Recap of the evening

  • Report

    The Sustainable Spaces Dialogue

    Rethinking New Westminster Neighbourhoods

    By Colin O’Neil

    The Sustainable Spaces Dialogue took place on March 21, 2014 at Douglas College in New Westminster. Organized by Colin O’Neil with the support of the Rivershed Society of British Columbia, the Sustainable Spaces Dialogue brought together engaged citizens and knowledgeable professionals for an evening of lecture and discussion around issues relating to sustainability and urban space. Three speakers discussed topics relating to sustainability and the urban environment, while two dialogue sessions gave guests the opportunity to collaboratively engage with the material being presented.

    The speakers were:

    • Colin O’Neil – Sustainable Living Leadership Program graduate and New Westminster Resident.
    • Susan Briggs – Douglas College professor of English in the Faculty of Language, Literature and Performing Arts.
    • Patrick Johnstone – Member of the New Westminster Environmental Partners and Environmental Coordinator for the City of Richmond.

    The evening was emceed by New Westminster-Coquitlam MP and founder of the Rivershed Society of British Columbia Fin Donnelly and the dialogue was facilitated by Douglas College Sociology Professor Siobhan Ashe and her students.

    The Sustainable Spaces Dialogue was attended by over 70 guests; it brought members of the community together to consider and discuss the important issues facing cities as they seek to develop in ways which mutually benefit the city itself and the citizens who live there.

    Here I will discuss the first dialogue session at the Sustainable Spaces Dialogue, in which guests participated in re-thinking and re-designing neighbourhoods within the City of New Westminster.

    All those who attended the Sustainable Spaces Dialogue live in cities and know cities well. Therefore it came natural for dialogue participants to look at a city and discuss the ways in which it could improve. The first dialogue was structured around different neighbourhoods in New Westminster. Each table was assigned a different neighbourhood with different characteristics. Those unfamiliar with New Westminster could use those characteristics to imagine other neighbourhoods in other cities. Each table discussed what currently exists in their neighbourhood and what could exist. Such an exercise asks participants to think both practically and impractically. As this is simply a discussion, it offers the opportunity to dream big. Imagination and discussion is the first step towards making real change. The groups had 10 minutes for this exercise.

    Here is what each neighbourhood discussed:


    The oldest neighbourhood in New Westminster, characterized by constantly changing retail space on Columbia Street, two Skytrain stations, dense housing and a thoroughfare for traffic coming through the city in the form of commuter cars and truck-transport.

    What is there now:

    • Two Skytrain stations.
    • A Parkade.
    • Retail space/a lot of bridal shops.
    • Apartments.
    • Restaurants, bars, movie theatre.
    • Offices/Civic Centre.
    • Bike lanes.
    • Douglas College.
    • The Paramount Theatre.

    What could be there:

    • No car Columbia Street – only busses and walking/cycling.
    • Rooftop farms/green roofs.
    • Living walls.
    • Restaurant patios extending on to street (think Times Square).
    • Farmers market at the waterfront all year round. Fish market and more connectivity to river.
    • Regular public performances.
    • Green spaces.
    • Lighting for pedestrians.
    • Multiple walkways from downtown to waterfront.


    A neighbourhood consisting primarily of single-family residential but has a growing core and more densely populated housing around Columbia Street and Sapperton Skytrain Station as well as some retail and lots of industry between Columbia Street and the Fraser River.

    What is there now:

    • Royal Columbian Hospital.
    • Transportation: two skytrain stations as well as an active train thoroughfare.
    • Industry and office space.
    • Businesses and retail.
    • Housing.

    What could be there:

    • Laneway housing.
    • Bike lanes.
    • Sapperton landing connection through the industrial area to Braid Station.
    • Increased bus services (was recently a cut-back).
    • Need for an industrial road for trucks to travel instead of using Columbia Street.
    • Rental bike system just like Paris so people have access to other areas of the city. Implementation of energy-generating ‘green’ bikes, bike T-bar, magic mat.
    • Car-pooling, Car2Go, Zip. This would loosen up traffic and parking.
    • Seating: indoors and outdoors.
    • Family meeting place.
    • Public art at places like transit stops. This makes transit spaces more welcoming.
    • Free parking.


    A neighbourhood consisting of high-density housing, lots of retail space, a large senior-citizen population and the city’s only high-school.

    What is there now:

    • Retail malls.
    • Rental homes and high-rises.
    • Moody Park.
    • High School.
    • Lots of traffic.
    • Transit: bus hub.
    • Lots of pedestrians.

    What could be there:

    • Public open space that is less commuter-oriented. A pedestrian-only 6th and 6th.
    • Bike lanes and bike racks.
    • New high school with meeting place.
    • More diverse retail space.
    • More mixed-age housing.
    • More restaurants and pubs.

    The Quay:

    A neighbourhood consisting of waterfront homes, a public boardwalk, the River Market and some light industry.

    What is there now:

    • River Market.
    • Walking Pier.
    • Washrooms.
    • High Density Housing.
    • Limited access/lack of arterial routes.
    • Pier Park.

    What could be there:

    • Ease of accessibility for pedestrians and bicycles.
    • Water accessibility.
    • Sustainability Centre.
    • Free Parking.
    • Improvements to the Market, such as more affordable options.

    Queen’s Park:

    A neighbourhood characterised by Queen’s Park, single-family heritage homes, a large baby-boomer population, high-income, and no industrial, retail or commercial space.

    What is there now:

    • Heritage homes. Many homes have heritage status so protected from demolition.
    • Low-density. Small numbers of people living in very large homes.
    • Strong community.
    • Anti-development sentiment.
    • Lack of retail and basic services – have to travel to 6th street.

    What could be there:

    • More density through subdivision of homes or laneway housing, while still keeping character.
    • More youth involvement.
    • More focus on sustainability.
    • Retail/commercial space in more walkable proximity.
    • Better transit options to connect to other neighbourhoods such as 6th and 6th and downtown.

    Massey Heights:

    A residential neighbourhood of single-family homes and few shops or services.

    What is there now:

    • Single-family homes.
    • Traffic on 8th avenue.
    • Parks; walkable/bike-able neighbourhood.
    • Access to small market on Burnaby side of 10th ave – Choices and Shoppers.
    • Disconnected by transit.

    What could be there:

    • More services.
    • A gathering place for the neighbourhood.
    • Organized community events such as a community-wide garage sale.
    • More density – subdivided homes, laneway homes.
    • More connectivity via transit.
    • Beautification – should take advantage of views.
    • Try to maintain separation, which community was designed around, but implement things which build community for those that want it. D
    • Decrease dependence on cars.

    The West End:

    A neighbourhood consisting mostly of detached, single-family homes with two commercial streets (20th street and 12th street) acting as borders.

    What is there now:

    • Housing.
    • 12th Street retail space and some denser housing.
    • 12th Street Festival, building community.
    • Skytrain within walking distance and bus service on 3 major routes.
    • Big back lanes and garages.
    • Grimston Park.

    What could be there:

    • Community meeting place.
    • Laneway homes, denser housing.
    • Liquor store and grocery store.
    • Row housing.
    • Traffic regulations on 20th street.
    • Middle school.
    • Housing atop businesses.

    This is a brainstorming exercise and it should be noted that in some neighbourhoods, suggested changes are already being implemented. In others, suggested changes face many challenges, be they bureaucratic, financial or spatial. In others, suggested changes may be considered impractical, unnecessary or unwanted by those living in that neighbourhood. Regardless of the practicality or desirability of these suggestions, a dialogue has been started between members of the community and members of surrounding communities, both of whom are vital to bringing experience and imagination to the City of New Westminster’s urban structure.

    What has been achieved through this dialogue is a re-thinking of the spaces that we occupy. Though effective change requires a great deal more than the generation of ideas, it is the generation of ideas that act as a starting point for that change.

    Here I would like to note some common themes that present themselves across the various neighbourhoods in which these groups represented:

    In almost all neighbourhoods, a suggested change was increased densification. The City of New Westminster consists of a number of single-family-home neighbourhoods and many are drawn to the city for this reason. Yet from a variety of perspectives, densification represents an opportunity for improvement. Densification is a way for urban-dwellers to live more sustainably and offers an opportunity for members of the community to engage in ways that are discouraged in low-density neighbourhoods. As we have seen in numerous cities both locally and around the world, densification does not have to mean sky-scraper apartment buildings. Laneway housing, lot-subdivision and row housing represent opportunities to increase the number of people who live in a neighbourhood while still maintaining livability and privacy. New Westminster has moved in this direction in a number of places in the city already, but as our groups illustrate, it must continue this trend in all neighbourhoods.

    In a number of groups—the West End, Massey Heights, Queens Park—the topic of increased retail and commercial space within a walkable distance was brought up. Neighbourhoods such as Downtown and Uptown New Westminster are able to support their retail space because they have a higher population. Increasing the number of people that live in a neighbourhood not only decreases the ecological footprint of that neighbourhood through more effective use of space, but it provides a population base to support retail and commercial space. And when basic services such as grocery stores, drug store and shopping centres exist within close proximity, residents will choose these retail spaces over those that exist further away, decreasing their reliance on automobiles and increasing their connection to other members of the community.

    A number of neighbourhoods – Sapperton, the West End, Massey Heights, Downtown – stated that they lacked a community gathering space. As Susan Briggs addressed in her presentation on public space at the Sustainable Spaces Dialogue, community gathering spaces are essential for citizen engagement. Gathering spaces are often constructed by developers out of obligation, and are built in such a way which is either deterring or based solely around consumptive activities. Public space is space that welcomes all individuals and provides opportunities to engage freely with other users of that space. True public space, Susan argues, is the foundation of democracy, as it is the place where individuals meet on their own accord and share concerns and desires for their communities. Gathering places connect community members, creating safer neighbourhoods and a more engaged citizenry. They can be spaces of education or political discussion, but mostly they are spaces in which community members come to relax and engage with other members of that community.

    Finally, in almost all groups, the broad topic of sustainability was addressed. Bike lanes, community gardens, rooftop gardens, living walls, composting and recycling programs, educational programs and farmers markets are only some of the ways in which cities are promoting more sustainable living. In New Westminster, many of these examples exist in some capacity already and more are undoubtedly in the works. Ultimately, however, such projects are spawned not in the Planning Department of City Hall, but in the community, by concerned and motivated citizens. Thus we return to Susan Briggs’ argument for public space. When individuals meet and share their desires and concerns, such projects are born. And as such projects grow and move forward, they draw in members of the community. Neighbours get to know one another and they learn to work together. Trust is built and the individuality which single-family-home neighbourhoods so effectively support is replaced by a sense of community. Children and adults become educated in sustainability and the daunting task of creating more sustainable communities and more livable cities becomes a lot easier and a lot more fun.

    The City of New Westminster faces challenges and opportunities which are both common and distinct. The size and boundaries of the city limit New Westminster’s ability to expand outwards. Instead it must grow upwards and inwards; the city must carefully examine the space that it has and determine the best ways to use it. Addressing what exists in the city and talking about what could exist is but one single step in creating effective and desirable changes within the City of New Westminster.