What other Metro Vancouver municipalities can learn from the Shipyards District

People celebrate Canada Day at the Shipyards in 2022.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
People celebrate Canada Day at the Shipyards in 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

New Westminster Mayor Patrick Johnstone knows there's one mid-sized city in Metro Vancouver with a waterfront plaza that is the envy of the rest of the region.

And it's not New Westminster.

"I would be lying if [the Shipyards] wasn't at the front of many people's minds when we think about how we address the riverfront in New Westminster," said Johnstone, referring to the North Vancouver public space beside Lonsdale Quay.

"I do think that the shipyards gives us something to shoot towards because I cannot emphasize enough it is an incredible piece of urban design."

In just four years, the Shipyards District has become an example across the Lower Mainland of how communities can create public spaces that can revitalize neighbourhoods and become tourist destinations.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

The mix of homes, commercial outlets and public space used year-round is something planners often envision, but rarely becomes reality as well as intended.

And other municipalities are taking notice.

Active and passive places

To Johnstone, whose council is taking a field trip to the Shipyards later this winter, that means taking a fresh look at Pier Park — New Westminster's scenic mix of green spaces, playgrounds and boardwalks next to the Fraser River — as it expands further west.

"Pier Park is pretty good at being a bit of a passive-use space where people can come and have a picnic and enjoy the view or hang out with friends," he said.

"But it's not really a gathering space as such."

Even more inland communities can find points of inspiration in the Shipyards.

"Langley City, we definitely would be of a more traditional public realm design. So really that's about creating public plazas," said Langley City Mayor Nathan Pachal, who hopes to create plazas around the two SkyTrain stations that are scheduled to open in the city in 2028 when the construction of the Expo Line extension from Surrey is complete.

Pachal said the plaza in the Shipyards works because they've introduced public programming events like skating, but also commercial outlets that people want to walk back and forth through.

"So you've created a reason why people would go there and you create active traffic," he said.

"If you just have a plaza and there's no reason why someone would go through a plaza in their day-to-day journey, you're going to end up with a dead plaza."

'Reactivate the waterfront': councillor

But it may be in Delta where the Shipyards example prompts the most direct comparisons.

"We'd like to get back to our historical roots and reactivate the waterfront," said Delta councillor Dylan Kruger, standing between a derelict building and the historic Ladner waterfront.

The municipality passed a new Official Community Plan for the Ladner Village area last year, and Kruger said they're keen to approve more outdoor events and mixed-use buildings, just blocks from a more vibrant heritage community area that peters out in foot traffic before reaching the water.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC News
Maggie MacPherson/CBC News

"North Vancouver has done a great thing with public art, with interactive activities, with having alcohol allowed, with people wanting to gather all year round," he said.

"Obviously that's a much larger site than what we have here, but that's a great example to lean into to see if we can create our own version of the Shipyards here."

Of course, the Shipyards redevelopment happened over the course of a decade, and involved many political controversies and votes.

In Ladner, the community is divided over turning a lumber mill a block from the waterfront into a six-storey building.

"That'll be coming up to council later this year and that'll be the first test," said Kruger.

"Change is always hard when you're talking about redeveloping a space that people have grown up with. So it's nice to be able to point to something that is better by all standards and say we can have this too."