Eduvation Blog

Moving Mountains: UniverCity @ SFU

Faced with tuition caps and declining government grants, public colleges and universities are becoming more entrepreneurial and seeking alternative revenue streams, often by selling off surplus campus lands to developers, or leasing campus space for retail or residential development. Simon Fraser University, built in a conservation area atop Burnaby Mountain just a 30-minute drive from downtown Vancouver, took its unique geographic opportunity and turned it into an exercise in city-building, literally “moving mountains” to establish a complete, walkable and almost self-sufficient town adjacent to its campus.

In previous visits to campus, we learned about SFU’s community engagement strategy and the many ways in which the University uses its campuses in Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby to build communities. This week, Ken Steele talks with SFU president Andrew Petter, and SFU Community Trust CEO Gordon Harris, about “UniverCity,” a development that is creating affordable housing for 10,000 people, adding two dozen shops and services for the campus community, generating a $90-million endowment for the institution, and exploring new frontiers in environmental and economic sustainability.

Built “in splendid isolation” atop Burnaby Mountain in 1965, SFU wanted to engage with community – but in this case, had to build its own community from scratch. The University negotiated with the municipality to transfer its zoning density from the entire mountain to a much smaller 65-acre parcel adjacent to campus, and built a suburban community with urban density, largely on lands formerly occupied by student parking lots.  When fully complete, UniverCity will be home to almost 10,000 people, in apartment-style condos and stacked townhomes that meet the most ambitious environmental sustainability goals on the continent. UniverCity has won more than 30 national and international sustainability awards, including for its comprehensive stormwater management system. All developers aim to be 45% more energy efficient and 68% more water efficient than a typical code building, in order to quality for additional density. Many buildings have rainwater harvesting systems, solar arrays or geothermal heating. A new district energy system will use biomass to provide heat and hot water to two dozen buildings, in UniverCity and on the SFU campus. UniverCity’s $3 million Childcare Centre is the “greenest childcare on the planet,” and will soon have earned Living Building Challenge certification as a building that generates more energy than it uses, harvests more water than it uses, and is built from recycled and local materials. (It will be the first in Western Canada.)

UniverCity also strives for economic sustainability, creating affordable housing to help SFU attract faculty, staff, students and their families. (About half of the residents are affiliated with the University, and almost half have young children.) SFU leased some of the land to developers like VanCity at a 30% discount, so that residential units could be sold at a 20% discount in perpetuity (such as the “Verdant” townhomes). Standalone “green mortgages” amortize the cost of environmental upgrades separately from the purchase price of units. As urban planner Harris explains, “if it isn’t economic, it isn’t sustainable.”

UniverCity had to provide more than just housing to its residents: it needed to establish all the infrastructure of a small town, including restaurants, a grocery story, pharmacy, childcare centre, an elementary school, and soon a medical centre.  Residents also have access to campus facilities next door, including fitness and aquatic centres, art gallery, library and bookstore – and in return, the campus community can access shops and services in UniverCity. Someday it may also have an active seniors facility, where alumni and others could move in retirement.

The community has added life and vitality to the SFU campus, as well as $15 million worth of new infrastructure, from a town square to the new heating facility and underground pipelines. Ultimately, the UniverCity endowment will support teaching and research at SFU “for the rest of time.”

Thanks again to Andrew Petter, Gordon Harris, and the SFU videographers who made this episode possible.

To learn more about UniverCity, visit, watch this beautiful documentary by France’s EchoLogis, or read Gordon Harris’ new book, Building Community: Defining, Designing, Developing UniverCity

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