“Surrey is a community in transition in a really tremendous way. And you see it in the juxtaposition of things like a pawnshop right beside a high-end luxury condominium. So there’s definitely a lot of visible change going on.”


-Robert Bell, co-founder and executive director of the Intelligent Community Forum


population:  468,251

area:  316 km²



Surrey City Centre Library


Bing Thom Architects




7,620m² (82,000 sq ft)


$26.5 million CAD


City of Surrey






Over the past 20 years, immigrants from the world’s developing nations have been arriving to Canada in large waves.  Many of these new immigrants are landing in neighbourhoods along city edges: low-income suburbs that lack proper transportation networks, amenities and basic services.


At the same time, income inequality in Canada has increased dramatically. Thirty-six per cent of immigrants to Canada who have been in the country for less than five years currently live in poverty.


The swelling population of these Canadian suburbs, made up of  diverse ethnicities, are becoming places where new and sometimes unexpected economies and cultures are developed. The journalist Joel Garreau first wrote about this phenomenon:


"I've come to call these new urban centers edge cities, because they contain all the functions a city ever has, albeit in a spread-out form that few have come to recognize for what it is. Edge, because they are a vigorous world of pioneers and immigrants rising far from the old downtowns, where little villages or farmland lay only thirty years before." wrote Garreau.


Surrey, a suburban city just outside of Vancouver BC, is part of this distinct trend taking place across North America.  Already, the rapid transformation of this "edge city" suburb, and others like it, is challenging our our conventional understanding of what it means to be urban.





"All new city forms appear in their early stages to be chaotic," said Robert Fishman, a professor of urban history and policy at the University of Michigan. Fishman says that in contrast to the growth of most cities, which result from a long, dynamic process occurring over centuries, edge cities arise from rapid population increases. As a consequence, it is exceptionally hard to predict whether or not they will be good places to live.


For years, Surrey was dominated by urban sprawl and economic disparity.  But over the last three decades, waves of immigration to western Canada combined with Vancouver’s super-inflated housing market have made Surrey the fastest-growing suburb in the entire country, and the second largest city in British Columbia.


Since 2005, 15,000 new businesses have opened in Surrey, and 11 billion construction dollars have been invested into the city during the same period.


In fact, Surrey is growing at a rate four times that of Vancouver. It is projected to surpass Vancouver's population over the next decade. New immigrants from China, the Philippines and, particularly, South Asia are arriving each day, and a third of these people are under the age of 19.


This new demographic has jump-started the local housing market, and fueled the revitalization of Surrey’s suburban neighbourhoods.

Surrey, and other rapidly changing suburbs like it, is being reinvented by a newly landed, diverse generation of young Canadians.




Surrey's growth is most apparent at  Surrey City Centre. The new downtown is poised to become the second major downtown area in Metro Vancouver.


To date, the Surrey City Centre is home to a 1.7 million square foot retail complex and office tower as well as a satellite university campus for Simon Fraser University. Most recently, Surrey's main public library and its city hall have been built down the road, opposite the SkyTrain station linking Surrey with Vancouver and the surrounding suburbs.


Next, there are plans for a performing arts centre, a luxury hotel and a recreation centre nearby. Twenty-eight new high-rise residential and office towers are included in Surrey's master plan.






Not long ago, the City Centre site was an economically depressed area called Whalley. The area had little to offer local residents, with a landscape  predominantly made up of parking lots and big box retail stores.


Now, the area is animated by a diverse mix of university students, professors, business people and city workers. The careful programming of businesses, recreation facilites, and public services has provided multiple reasons for people to be in neighbourhood at all times of day and night.


"Always the problem of these cities is how do you take these agricultural grids and transform them to city grids that are walkable, that are conducive to mixed use rather than just singular buildings surrounded by parking," says Bing Thom, the  architect of Surrey's new Central City shopping centre, SFU campus and City Centre Library, as well as consultant to the city on its master plan for Surrey's  new downtown.


Thom, who founded his firm, Bing Thom Architects, in Vancouver in 1981, specializes in urban planning and public architecture projects. Recently, he was recognized as a "Canadian who has made and continues to make outstanding contributions to the development or improvement of living environments for Canadians of all economic classes," by the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia. The jury panelists commended his ability to think strategically about how a building can create synergies within a community.


"I think the hope for the City Centre is that it will always be mixed use, it will always be drawing people of disparate values, disparate ideas, different incomes, so that there are the opportunities for just mixing and exploring with each other," says Thom.  "I think that’s what creates the dynamics of a society."


Surrey's former mayor, Dianne Watts, led the redevelopment of Surrey City Centre over nine years before finishing her last term in 2014.  She has credited with pulling Surrey out from under the long shadow of Vancouver.



Built in 2011, the City Centre Library is a central library that services the entire city.  Located across from the Surrey City Centre Skytrain station and opposite Surrey's new City Hall, the library forms the eastern border of Civic Plaza, a new public square that acts as a gateway into the new downtown.


Inside the library, light streams into the bright, white open spaces, pouring over the generous amphitheater steps that climb up the central atrium space, alongside windows that look onto Civic Plaza. The steps are wide enough to sit on, and are often occupied by a scattering of people. On special occasions, like performances or lectures, the steps are filled with crowds.


Couches and loungers sit adjacent to sleek gas fireplaces, and oversized chairs fitted with private speakers are available for visitors who want to listen to music or audio books. Designated community meeting rooms, teen rooms, and kids areas are programmed into the space, along with a cafe on the ground floor that allows people to linger in the library for the entire day without having to leave the building to eat or drink.


The City Centre Library is part of a new generation of libraries designed specifically for the digital age. With many books and resources now available online, the space traditionally dedicated to book stacks is given over to community gathering spaces - places that encourage social interaction among diverse populations.


"I think the vision we’ve always had about our own buildings or communities is this whole idea of accidental collision of people that  [creates] the catalyst for creativity," says Thom.


Retired local resident, Roslyn Simon, spends most days in the new library, reading books, newspapers and magazines, surfing the internet, or assisting in the library's programming for seniors and new immigrants.


"The important thing is the interaction. You get to meet and mix with people," she said.


Simon, who has spent the last seven years in Surrey, is originally from Trinidad. She said that before the redevelopment of the City Centre, living in the area was comparable to living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.


"Now, with the new buildings, the lighting, the constant traffic it's a lot easier; it's like being in the heart of the downtown of any city," said Simon. "What I love about this library is that it's open, whereas most libraries are sort of closed and quiet. You sit with the glass all around and take in the scenery."