Is New West the new Brooklyn?

By Dr. Rini Sumartojo, Instructor, Department of Geography and the Environment

The title of a May 2012 article in The Tyee argued that “Vancouver needs a Brooklyn, and New West could be it”. A number of subsequent articles from various sources echoed this comparison, with one author summarizing the similarities between Brooklyn and New Westminster by describing New West as ”a once proud city that went through hard times, but [that] is rebuilding itself with a cooler image.”Dr. Rini Sumartojo

While some aspects of these comparisons of New Westminster to Brooklyn seem a bit farfetched, the idea of a city transforming its image along with its built environment may very well be applicable to New West. One important element of this apparent transformation is the redevelopment of New West’s riverfront area.

The City of New Westminster’s vision for the riverfront emphasizes connecting places along the water as well as improving access to the river from the rest of the city. It aims to protect the area’s industrial heritage and ongoing industrial uses, while simultaneously enhancing tourism and fostering vibrant, authentic public spaces. It seeks to help transform what was once thought of as derelict or underused areas along the river into the heart of a reimagined downtown – changes that seem worthwhile and necessary.

At the same time, however, such transformations always involve the need to negotiate trade-offs among the different meanings and uses of urban space. Heritage and authenticity, for example, can be thorny topics, as can deciding how to balance the needs and interests of different publics.

A common critique of public space redevelopment projects is that they are fundamentally geared toward facilitating the flow of global capital into an area, often sacrificing the needs and interests of lower-wage communities and other marginalized groups while favouring middle-class consumption and leisure. Along with this comes an approach to regulating public space that distinguishes between “legitimate” users and “illegitimate” users. In other words, those with money to spend and those without.

Another concern is that the transformation of poorer areas into more livable neighbourhoods (e.g., transit-friendly, walkable, amenity-rich, etc.) can almost paradoxically make those neighbourhoods less affordable (and less livable) for current residents. Here again, the example of Brooklyn seems instructive. If Brooklyn has become known for successful redevelopment and rebranding, it’s also become known for gentrification.

This raises some questions about the transformation of New West, including its riverfront. Is it possible to prevent the displacing effects of gentrification that may accompany redevelopment? How will newly accessible public spaces along the river be regulated and policed? Given the City’s various other plans and financial obligations, how should elements of the riverfront vision be prioritized? And ultimately, what vision is the city crafting, and for whom?

Join the discussion at the next Urban Challenges Forum, Riverfront Remake: What vision is the city crafting, and for whom? Jan. 17 at the New West Campus in room 2201 from 6:30–8pm.

This is a free event and open to the public.

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