When a University Builds Its Own City Celebrates SFU and its Adventures in Real Estate Development  

By Tom Sandborn 

P5Building Community

By Gordon Harris with Richard Littlemore

Ecotone Publishing       2018       Seattle, Washington

$34.95                                                                  144pp.


In 1995 SFU and the city of Burnaby signed a memorandum of agreement about creating a dense urban village next to the campus, a planned community later branded with unfortunate cuteness as UniverCity.  The first buildings in this ambitious project were built in 2001, and when the project is built out to its projected maximum in 2020 it will house 10,000 residents.

Building Community can best be read as a fan’s notes on this ambitious project. The lead author, Gordon Harris has served as President and CEO of the SFU Community Trust, the body that administers UniverCity.

Unsurprisingly, the book’s tone is celebratory throughout. And there is much to celebrate. UniverCity has been designed to be eco friendly, supporting lots of pedestrian and bike usage, while gently discouraging automobile use.   (This focus on promoting sustainable travel will advance further if the proposed gondola between a Skytrain station at the bottom of the mountain and the school and village at the top is completed.)

Buildings at UniverCity are built to a high standard of sustainability and the community design includes many green features. The focus on creating a walkable community will pay off in quality of life for residents   

But there remain concerns that are not addressed by this sumptuously illustrated and enthusiastic homage to UniverCity. While Harris assures the reader that parking atop the mountain is not a big problem, I have spoken to student commuters at SFU who adamantly disagree. And while a shortage of parking spaces might annoy, both the university and the village are facing a much more serious danger, one unmentioned in Building Community. The storage tank farm for the controversial Transmountain pipeline squats like a cluster of flammable toads downslope from SFU and UniverCity. Burnaby Deputy Fire Chief Chris Bocock warned in a 2015 report that the proposed expansion of the tank farm would make it impossible for fire fighters to respond adequately to a fire in the storage area, creating the real danger of a firestorm and fall-out of toxic chemicals over the mountain, making an evacuation from the campus and UniverCity very difficult.  Given UniverCity’s focus on marketing itself as a sustainable community in tune with its environment, the book’s silence about this danger is troubling. Ah well, for now the courts have ordered a temporary halt to pipeline construction, and anyway, a good firestorm would create a lot more available parking!

Tom Sandborn lives and works on unceded indigenous land in Vancouver. He was one of several hundred arrestees this spring protesting the pipeline development, and he welcomes your feedback and story tips at

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