An outsider's view of Surrey

An immense "outdoor room" with children playing in the trees, seniors engaged in games of bocci and vendors selling their wares in front of colourful murals.

A troubled area of Newton, currently home to drug dealers, addicts, and residents afraid for their safety, could be revitalized with these ideas and very little effort, says urban planning guru Jason Roberts.

Roberts, an information technology expert from Oklahoma, has given several TED talks on his concept, "Build a Better Block."

The idea is that neighbourhoods can experience positive change through the work of grassroots involvement by citizens.

On Saturday, Roberts was the keynote speaker at the Surrey Arts Centre during the launch of Surrey Steps Up – a community engagement project created by the Surrey RCMP in partnership with the city that mirrors Roberts' Build a Better Block model.

As part of his visit, Roberts toured different parts of the city with Surrey planners.

On Thursday, The Leader took him to one of the city's biggest trouble spots: the municipally owned space near 72 Avenue and 136 Street where 53-year-old hockey mom Julie Paskall was brutally beaten to death last year outside Newton Arena.

After Paskall's murder, one of the initial proposals by the city to make the area safer was to cut down a grove of heritage trees in order to provide clear sight lines, thereby flushing out the drug dealers.

But Roberts says the trees are a tremendous asset and should be left standing.

His first impression of the Newton hub? The problem isn't so much that a bad element has found its way there, he says, it's more that the good element hasn't been invited in a meaningful way.

Roberts says the city should create a welcome place for lingering (by the right demographic) rather than have the area exist as a corridor where people pass through quickly to get somewhere else.

To accomplish that, several elements could be brought into the green space, he says.

Rope and wood platforms - connected from tree to tree – would provide a place for kids to play among the large cedars.

Want to usher out the bad element? Roberts suggests piping in classical music. It's a strategy that has worked in some of Robert's project cities in the U.S.

He also urges the city to welcome a greater range of ages in the beautiful shaded space. He suggests attracting older people by putting in chess boards and a place to play bocci.

Small "pop-up" retail storefronts could be created along the now-stark walls of the community centre and nearby businesses (which he believes should be covered in colourful murals).

Those stores would offer everything from crafts, to fresh produce, to food, prompting more people to come and stay in the area.

He also sees the treed area as being a perfect setting for a classical German-style beer garden.

Roberts believes the best way to accomplish these things is by letting the community take charge, and having city hall get out of the way.

"We're all experts, we all live in cities," Roberts says. "We know what great places look like and feel like."

He knows of what he speaks.

While Roberts has no formal training in urban planning, he has visited Europe and was inspired by the beautiful piazzas and effective bike travel.

He has toured the U.S., turning moribund blocks into lively, pedestrian-friendly meeting places.

And his ideas are being taken seriously here, where the Surrey Steps Up initiative will encourage schools, businesses and residential communities to work together to improve neighbourhoods.

His advice for getting started? Don't over-think projects, and don't wait for the finished product before asking people to come out, connect, and enjoy the public space.

Send out the invitations, and "blackmail" yourself into getting the job done, Roberts says. The longer you wait, the more chance you'll talk yourself out of making the change.



Jason Roberts' Ted Talk on urban renewal

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