As it turns out, there’s an urban village at the Newton Town Centre in Surrey, British Columbia. Finding it requires selective vision, looking past monster roadways, big box stores and industrial yards; but in its lopsided way, the village offers housing choices, commercial services, transit, and walking trails, straddling the former main highway between Vancouver and the USA.
Newton is one of seven planning areas in the vast city of Surrey. The municipality covers 316 square kilometres, an area as big as Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond combined — or four times the size of the island of Manhattan, if that’s clearer. Google Maps estimates that it might take you three hours time to cross Newton diagonally on foot. It’s too big to be a neighbourhood — a borough, perhaps — but there are broad demographic tendencies. Surrey’s fact sheet on languages reports that Punjabi is the most common mother tongue in Newton, ahead of English; in the Cloverdale area to the east, the English-to-Punjabi ratio is 10 to 1.
A note on the City website states that E.J. Newton settled near King George Highway in 1886, and for a time his property sat alone, surrounded by forest. The site is now part of the Newton Town Centre, a designation that is plain from the overhead signs but largely overlooked in the City government’s online documents. The King George at 72 Avenue corner is also the southern terminus for the proposed Surrey light rail system.
I visited Newton Town Centre on a Saturday morning with co-tourist Bob Smarz, who lives half an hour away by foot. We approached from the south along King George Boulevard, formerly King George Highway. It’s no longer a primary provincial truck route, but it’s still a noisy river of steel. Some of the old tourist motels hang on, but the the strip is increasingly dominated by big retail stores and associated parking lots. The one-time Surrey Public Market, a home for micro-retailers that thrived and then failed in the 1990s, is now a fenced-off, crumbling hulk with a grass-grown parking lot.
To construct the urban village, we imagine a resident who relies on walking, cycling or transit, and we look for the services our resident might find within their pedestrian comfort zone — maybe 500 metres, or less, or more, depending on the local geography. Standing at E.J. Newton’s corners, Bob and I saw no sign of housing. We saw gas stations and fast food, and shopping malls tucked in behind those, and off to the northeast, warehouses and factories. But without residents, there’s no village.
A short clockwise tour past the bus loop, the municipal wave pool, the movie theatre and the library brought a change of perspective. After almost 10 years of work on a “Town Centre Plan,” which so far takes in just a stub of the functioning whole, the City has completed a presentable rainwater catchment pond and surrounding trails. Chelsea Gardens, an adult residential complex with more than 200 units, sits across the street from this new park, and there is more medium-density housing in a strip running northward along the procession of highway-oriented malls. And voila, folks: an urban village. I’ll mention again that I find not mention of this entity in the municipal documents, and no map.
It was a long walk, and I had things to do on Saturday afternoon. Bob and I skipped the village high street, which runs north off 72 Avenue. I returned a few nights later with our friend David Plug to fill in this gap.
Architecturally, 137 Street in Newton Town Centre mimics a small-city downtown. The overall effect, however, is hollow. There’s nobody home. If the street was built today, the two-storey buildings might have apartments on the second floor, or they might be four-storey condos; and there might be fewer at-grade parking lots interrupting the high-street facade.
From the high street, our evening walk around the town centre proceeded in a slightly strange fashion, through parking lots, a back lane and an industrial-retail strip showing off flooring and auto accessories. We spent 20 minutes looking for an acceptable pub, ending up where Bob and I had eaten lunch on Saturday: good food, but only industrial suds.
Overall, Newton’s urban village moves into the middle of the Fraseropolis pack for its range of walkable services, offset by its modest housing stock and lack of status in the municipal plan. I’m deducting a point for the critical shortage of good beer.
[This is post #32 in our Urban Villages series.]