As a university student living in SFU’s UniverCity during COVID-19, I am extremely privileged. Not only do I have access to a safe home, feel financially secure, and have a strong support system, but I am also able to use UniverCity’s public spaces which helped maintain my physical and mental health. Beyond the immediate effects of the virus, the pandemic has largely impacted the wellbeing of people around the world and to overcome its adverse effects, people are looking to city planning.
Located on Burnaby Mountain, UniverCity planning commenced in 1996 when the City of Burnaby agreed to allow Simon Fraser University (SFU) to develop 65 hectares on Burnaby Mountain in exchange for making 320 hectares of Burnaby mountain a conservation area.
Close to 40% of UniverCity residents are connected to SFU either as staff, faculty or student and upon its completion, will be home to 10,000 people.
The UniverCity planning organization, the Community Trust, identified a gap in the SFU community and created opportunities for affordable housing, public transportation, public spaces, and created access to other necessary services like a daycare, an elementary school, a grocery store, personal services, and restaurants. The University also provides recreational facilities and access to the library.
In addition to offering these amenities, UniverCity has strong building efficiency mandates that are beyond standard building requirements. UniverCity also has a storm water system that recycles 100% of water back into the ground leaving creeks at the base of the mountain unaffected by the Community above.
David Orr notes in his article, System Thinking and the Future of Cities, that every solution to a problem should solve many other problems while ensuring that no additional problems are created in this process. The extensive planning of UniverCity did just that by taking on a systems thinking approach and creating a flourishing community that improves life for SFU’s students, faculty and staff. UniverCity also expanded Burnaby Mountain’s conservation area and developed systems so that life on top of the mountain promotes a healthy ecosystem for the surrounding areas that are connected to SFU and the UniverCity community. This same level of planning will be key in adapting to changes onset by the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, the community’s specific amenities that are helping people tackle its adverse effects include trails, parks, community gardens and art. Burnaby Mountain is surrounded by an extensive system of bike paths that extend into the Metro Vancouver area. These paths follow up onto the mountain and were well used in the summer months, particularly by mountain bikers and hikers.
Burnaby mountain has three community gardens: Highlands Elementary School Community Garden, SFU’s Learning Garden and the Naheena Community Garden, that is accessible to the general public. Additionally, Burnaby Park Mountain was extensively used during the pandemic. During sunset hours, the park was full of socially distanced groups of people.
The UniverCity ARTwalk consists of eight pieces of art that can be found in UniverCity. These public art pieces bring interpretation, education, inspiration and aesthetic beauty and were no doubt more strongly appreciated as people had more time to spend outdoors and walk around the community.
Although UniverCity is an award-winning community, after living there for the past year and a half, myself and my neighbours have noticed certain areas of improvement in UniverCity that should be addressed and have become more apparent during the pandemic. I have identified three proposals that consider accessibility, equity, and the local economy. These changes our outlined in the map I created below and include:
Improved accessibility to trails
The entrance and exists to trails offered on Burnaby Mountain are moderate difficulty making it difficult for seniors and children to use these trails. It’s important for seniors to have access to outdoor spaces as 50% of Canadians over the age of 80 experience feelings of loneliness. Additional entrances into trails should be created with beginner level difficulty.
There is a lack of connected sidewalks along University Drive, on the outskirts of UniverCity. To compensate, there are paths from people continuously walking along the side of the road. However, these makeshift paths are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs and can be dangerous during slippery conditions.
Along University High Street there are many restaurants that offer take out and dine in options. To allow for social distancing, restaurants should expand or implement outdoor seating. New York City’s successful Open Restaurant Program enabled restaurants to have additional seating along sidewalks, patios, and roadways.
Mark Roseland, a member of the SFU Community Trust and who was involved in the planning of UniverCity, says in his book Toward Sustainable Communities, that UniverCity is part of a select number of communities that
“ … tend to push at the conventional boundaries of municipal jurisdiction, law and structure to move toward creating places of innovation, creativity, culture, health and environmental vitality.”
As we look beyond the pandemic, urban planners can use UniverCity as an exemplary model for community planning. The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design Toolkit further emphasizes the importance of empathy and understanding the people the community is being designed for and ensuring the most vulnerable are able to thrive in the community.
IDEO.org. (2015). The field guide to human-centered design. https://www.designkit.org/resources/1
New York City. (n.d.). Open restaurants. Retrieved from https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/pedestrians/openrestaurants.shtml
Orr, D. (2014). Systems thinking and the future of cities. The Solutions Journal, 4(1), 54-61. https://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/article/systems-thinking-and-the-future-of-cities/?fbclid=IwAR2Pj_XGDn8loBnyBkULpJwcPPZiviIzs80WWFX__Q2eypX9dRbRMgPPVf8
Roseland, M. (2012). Toward sustainable communities: Solutions for citizens and their governments. (4th ed.). New Society Publishers.
Roy, J., Jain, R., Golamari, R., Vunnam, R., & Sahu, N. (2020). COVID-19 in the geriatric population. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1002/gps.5389
UniverCity. (2002). Simon Fraser University Official Community Plan. https://univercity.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Simon_Fraser_University_Official_Community_Plan.pdf
Von Hausen, M. (2013). Dynamic urban design: A handbook for creating sustainable communities worldwide. IUniverse Inc.