Dr. Sarah Burch
MC3 Research Associate, Centre for Interactive Research for Sustainability, University of British Columbia

Published January 15th, 2013

Case Summary

The City of Surrey, nearly one third of which is agricultural land paired with moderately dense urban development, is a rapidly growing municipality in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Surrey is made up of three distinct urban areas with a fair bit of travel required between them. Large distances paired with limited options for transit creates challenges for limiting transportation related greenhouse gas emissions.

Through the lens of sustainability and energy resilience, Surrey is pursuing a suite of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. These include the creation (and possible future expansion) of a District Energy System, densification, climate change action planning, and the development of an overarching Sustainability Charter. These key innovations, along with ingredients for their success and challenges faced, are discussed below.

Sustainable Development Characteristics

The key innovations in Surrey relate to the creation of a District Energy system and the approach to planning (ie Development Cost Charges, density bonuses, and integrated energy/neighbourhood planning) that is simultaneously being pursued in order to support it. This represents a cluster of innovations rather than a single tool or strategy, which may provide interesting lessons to other municipalities.

Efforts to integrate energy planning into neighborhood planning are being led by the City of Surrey Planning department but in partnership with landowners and citizens (S1). These efforts are designed to enable changes to zoning, such as from single use to a more compact mixed-use form, bringing benefits for livability, efficiency, and climate resilience. In order to stimulate this high-density development, transportation must be simultaneously considered (S1), revealing the importance of integrated planning for sustainability transitions. In addition, a new bylaw states that new buildings must have the capacity to connect to the District Energy system in the downtown core (S1).

Alongside this is the City’s approach to sustainability: namely, its development of a Sustainability Charter. Finally, the City has devoted staff to both greenhouse gas management as well as climate change adaptation. The former focuses mainly on corporate emissions, while the latter is only in its infancy.

District Energy System

Plans to construct a District Energy System in Surrey are currently under way. The first feasibility study focuses on City Hall, Library and 400k sq feet of new residential space, with plans to expand throughout the whole city centre area (500 acres, 60k new residents; 30k new jobs). The District Energy System run by a new City-owned and operated utility, Surrey City Energy. The current challenge is to secure customers for the system, and to this end a new bylaw was into place requiring all new development to connect to the system.

The DE system came into place in part because the priorities of Surrey and BC Hydro aligned (energy efficiency, largely) (S8), and the Community Energy Manager role (partially funded by BC Hydro) was crucial in this regard. The project helps meet multiple objectives – decrease greenhouse gas emissions, decrease energy consumption, increase energy efficiency, revitalize city centre, enhance long term resilience against commodity price shifts, and protect the community from natural disasters (S8).

Sustainability Charter

The Surrey Sustainability Charter was created in 2008, and pre-dated provincial policy on climate change (S2). While the Charter contained language pertaining to climate change, this language was general and referred to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Partners for Climate Protection milestone program. The Charter serves the critical function of being an approved city mandate and policy framework. City of Surrey staff can strategically refer to the Charter and encourage alignment between other strategies and policies and the Charter (S2). The Charter has also given rise to a sustainability checklist, which is applied to new development proposals, although interviewees suggest that this doesn’t fundamentally influence decisions and has not yet been successfully operationalized (S3; S5). The Charter provides a filter through which projects can be justified, but doesn’t force initiatives to meet standards that they wouldn’t otherwise have met. Furthermore, this checklist only applies to developers, not to every other decision that is made by the city (S3). The Charter is also being used to update the 5-year financial plan for the City (S2).

The Charter has also given rise to the creation of a sustainability dashboard, which monitors a suite of sustainability indicators in the community. Data is collected on 87 indicators, such as tree canopy cover, proximity measures (ie what % of the population lives within 400m transit, schools, parks, and groceries), and vehicles kilometers travelled. Not measured, however, is satisfaction and overall quality of life, but according to one interviewee this is the most important indicator of them all (S5). Categories of indicators captured by the dashboard include transportation, economy, food and farming, energy systems, health and safety, and a suite of others.

Climate Change Planning

The City of Surrey’s Corporate Climate Change Action plan, developed and approved in 2012, is currently being both implemented and monitored (S2). HB Lanarc Golder is currently leading Surrey’s Community Energy and Emissions Planning (CEEP) process, which was launched on July 1st, 2011. As part of the CEEP, energy scenarios were created in the fall of 2011. A number of policy agendas were ongoing at the time, including a transit study and an Official Community Plan (OCP) update. As such, CEEP consultants were required to develop an alignment between the CEEP and these other agendas in terms of timing and content. Although an interviewee noted that the CEEP would be complete and approved by November 2012 (S3), it appears that it may be complete in the winter of 2013.

Greenhouse gas reduction targets have been integrated into Surrey’s Official Community Plan, as per provincial policy requirements. Surrey adopted the provincial climate change reduction target of 33% per capita by 2020. As part of HB Lanarc Golder’s CEEP process, scenarios were devised to chart the path towards these goals. It appears, however, that Surrey will not reach these reduction targets even if the most ambitious suite of policies were chosen and implemented (S2;S5).

Adaptation is in the pilot and policy-making phase in Surrey. The City is part of ICLEI’s adaptation pilot, which provided $8k/year for 2 years. Adaptation is currently framed as consisting of tweaks to existing strategies (ie tree planting) (S6), and proposals have been described as modest rather than transformative (S6).

Critical Success Factors

Significant work on sustainability had been undertaken prior to the creation of the Sustainability Charter, but it had been piecemeal (S2). This was especially focused on energy, and ultimately highlighted the need for a more integrated, forward-looking approach. This, combined with commitments made under the provincial Climate Action Charter, gave rise to Surrey’s approach to sustainability and efforts on climate change.

The effective identification of compelling opportunities for transformation is facilitated by Surrey’s unusually high level of skill in Geographic Information Systems (S3). This is a form of technical capacity that may set Surrey apart from other municipalities.

Other drivers of action include competition between municipalities, re-election, the activities of BC Hydro regarding energy conservation, and strong provincial priority setting (S5). The Mayor and Council’s vision for themselves and for the municipality has also factored in: they have expressed a desire to be viewed as innovative, self-sufficient, and efficient (S6) – qualities that sustainability actions may demonstrate.

BC Hydro’s support of Community Energy Managers has been integral to the actions taken in Surrey. Funded through a shared agreement between BC Hydro and the host municipality, Community Energy Managers form a network that facilitates the sharing of knowledge (S1; S3). One interviewee indicated that CEMs are at the front edge of a market transformation (S3) and represent a key source of expertise. Partnerships between BC Hydro and Fortis BC have also been crucial in the realm of energy conservation. These partners are both more experienced with, and more focused on, stimulating demand-side management of energy (S1). As such, awareness-raising around conservation is most often left to these organizations rather than undertaken by the City of Surrey.

The Sustainability Office in the City of Surrey is a key initiator of actions. Its role is to come up with new tools and strategies, bring these forward (S1), and embed them in the operations of the other departments. But once this occurs, the Sustainability Office is often no longer involved (S1) – as in the case of District Energy, which is now part of the day to day operations of other departments. Other interviewees, however, suggest that the role of the Sustainability Office is not to start new initiatives, but rather to integrate and highlight what the departments are doing on sustainability (S6, S8). The theme in common is that the Sustainability Office embeds, or institutionalizes, sustainability in the municipality’s operations.

In part because of the leadership of the mayor (S3), the City of Surrey has attracted a large number of young, but highly skilled individuals to its staff. This may be a crucial ingredient of the development of integrated, sustainability-oriented policies, the focus on densification, and new approaches to both land use planning and renewable energy generation. Although Surrey has one of the lowest numbers of per capita staff in the region, one interviewee commented that these staff were well-chosen and allowed significant latitude, thus fostering a culture of innovation (S6).

What Didn’t work?

Like all other municipalities across the province (with the sole exception of the City of Vancouver, which operates under its own Charter), the City of Surrey’s jurisdiction is limited. The municipality cannot mandate anything above and beyond the parameters of the provincial BC Building Code (S1; S5)1, and thus must find other strategies for incentivizing density and efficient development.

Cost was identified as a barrier, especially with adaptation (S1). The reason cost is a barrier, however, is because of entrenched formulae for calculating returns on investment and quantifying benefits. Similarly, inertia (or path dependency) is a challenge with regard to urban development (S5;S6). Density and transit can be used to lure higher concentration of jobs into Surrey and away from Burnaby, Richmond, and Vancouver, but this is a very gradual process and will likely not match the ‘pull’ of downtown Vancouver jobs (S5). Due to public perceptions and infrastructure costs, it is also easier to create density on new land, rather than convert low-density developed areas to high density (S5).

Ultimately interviewees suggested that the sustainability transition in Surrey faces significant challenges with regard to developer pressure. Developers may move proposed projects to the neighboring community of Langley, creating competition between the cities. The focus on economic development and the fear of losing investment led one interviewee to argue that the development path in Surrey is not yet being transformed by the sustainability measures currently in place (S2). A disconnect clearly exists between the rhetorical commitment to sustainability and the day-to-day practice of planning in the city. Nonetheless, the District Energy system and plans for densification/transit provision may have the potential to contribute towards transformative change.

Financial Costs and Funding Sources

New funding mechanisms are being explored to incentivize green development and clean tech innovation. For instance, Surrey is arguing for an expansion of Development Cost Charges to fund mitigation, with which they are tasked by the province but not compensated for under the current DCC structure (S8). The provincial government is very specific about what municipalities can charge DCCs form: water, roads, sewers, parks etc, but Surrey would like to add mitigation to this list. Bill 27 allows municipalities to decrease DCCs for developments that decrease energy and water use, but not to broadly collect revenue from greenhouse gas reduction. Ironically these new ‘powers’ granted by Bill 27 actually diminish a source of revenue for the municipalities rather than creating a new one. A provincial decision to change the structure of DCCs would give Surrey political ‘cover’ from the development lobby, and potentially accelerate climate change action (S8).

A new city-owned utility (Surrey City Energy) has been created to fund (and reap the rewards of) the proposed District Energy system in the Surrey City Centre. This mimics energy corporations started in the City of North Vancouver and Revelstoke.

Finally, the Community Energy Manager partnership between Surrey and BC Hydro is a funding and skills development arrangement that facilitates the implementation of sustainability strategies in Surrey.

Research Analysis

The following section raises a number of interesting findings that deserve further study. While necessarily brief, the section focuses on framing of sustainability versus climate change, the importance of co-benefits, and particular barriers faced by the City of Surrey.

The City of Surrey’s approach is very much focused on sustainability and energy efficiency rather than on climate change. This is evident in the focus on developing the Sustainability Charter and the framing of the District Energy system (ie economic and energy security). Priorities in Surrey appear to be transit, providing new services to expanding areas, and energy resilience (S3; S5; S7). The extent to which sustainability or carbon management are consistent with these priorities appears to be the extent to which they are undertaken.

While energy security and economic development are the primary objectives of Surrey’s District Energy plans, co-benefits include greenhouse gas reduction and waste diversion. This is a case in which the climate change mitigation is most frequently considered to be a co-benefit, rather than the initial driver of the action. Co-benefits are important aspects of both the framing and implementation of climate change and sustainability activities in Surrey. One interviewee indicated that a clear articulation of co-benefits facilitated a more aggressive push towards ambitious targets (S6).

A dichotomy or inconsistency between sustainability/climate change targets and the actual way that Surrey develops is a key barrier standing in the way of a transformative sustainability transition in the community (S2). Building out (or up) more sustainably, however, is contingent on the provision of funding for rapid transportation and community awareness and support – both of which are lacking in the case of Surrey (S2). It appears that priorities other than carbon management are of primary concern to the Surrey City Council (S3), although a symbolic commitment has been made to it (S3).

The framing of provincial policy was raised as a barrier. Framing the greenhouse gas emissions issue entirely in terms of climate change precludes the inclusion of the broader issues of pollution and air quality (allowing doctors to be cited regarding human health impacts, for instance). Similarly, the issues weren’t framed in terms of a jobs agenda, or green energy development. Climate stood alone so it didn’t naturally reinforce other priorities (S3), and if co-benefits occurred they were by accident. This highlights the tradeoffs between focusing very narrowly on one issue that requires a strong push to trigger leadership, and versatility and resilience of policy mandate that is more broadly acceptable and more widely defined.

Funding for rapid transit in Surrey is largely contingent on provincial decisions and is thus out of the hands of Surrey. Translink, however, requires that density thresholds be met before the investment in rapid transit is deemed viable (S6). Surrey may not reach these thresholds in the near future, and this may suggest the need of case-by-case threshold reduction in order to stimulate sustainable patterns of development. The alternative option is to densify first, in order to demonstrate the need for transit provision (S5). Furthermore, a lower density threshold is needed to justify the construction and expansion of District Energy than is required to support transit (S3), and yet transit directly supports even the density necessary for DE. This raises the question of which comes first, and time horizons upon which decisions are made. To overcome this ‘chicken and egg’ relationship between transit and density, Surrey is working to incentivize density along corridors where planners expect to need transit (S5).

Overall, community engagement and public awareness-raising do not appear to be central to Surrey’s approach to sustainability. This may be a determinant of the perceived (and real) disconnect between Surrey’s sustainability rhetoric/mandate and its day-to-day planning practices. Deeper engagement with the public, and more vocal demand from the community for sustainability and climate change action (S2), may serve to remedy this disconnect and combat developer pressure for unsustainable expansion. The Community Energy and Emissions Plan process is one way to begin to do this. Stakeholder engagement sessions (including the Surrey Board of Trade, BC Hydro, and Translink) as well as public engagement sessions were part of the early phases of the CEEP (S6) and will continue throughout the process.

Detailed Background Case Description

Surrey is a large community with a land area of around 317.19 sq. km and a population estimated at 473,238, and nearly 1,000 new residents move to Surrey each month. From 2001-2006 Surrey’s population change was 13.6 percent. Surrey’s total immigrant population in 2006 was 150,230 a 31 percent increase from 2001. 61,985 people in Surrey have a high school certificate or equivalent and the education rate is on the rise at 43 percent.

A bird’s-eye view of Surrey reveals an urban community with about 98,655 dwellings owned and 32,485 rented (at an average gross rent of $806.00). There are 109,484 business locations with no employees, and 90,317 locations with employees. In 2010 Surrey’s residential building permits totaled 3,609.

Surrey’s economy is diversified. The median income (2006 estimate) in Surrey is $30,530 for males and $19,282 for females, a 3.9 and 9.6 percent change, respectively, since 2001. In Surrey the source of total income is 67.4 percent from employment and 8.1 from pension. The main trends of increase and decrease in Surrey’s labour force from 2001-2006 are: 23 percent for farms; 69.4 percent from forestry and logging; 24.4 from fishing, hunting and trapping; 56.6 percent from mining and oil; 51.4 percent from construction; 20.0 percent from retail trade; 4.6 percent from manufacturing; 16.9 percent from healthcare and social assistance; 3.1 percent from arts, entertainment and recreation; and, 5.5 percent from public administration.

Surrey’s physical geography could be generally described as coastal rainforest along British Columbia's west coast, adjacent to the Strait of Georgia and south of the City of Vancouver. Generally low-lying, Surrey is bounded to the North by the Fraser River and to the South by Boundary Bay, and is shaped by the Serpentine and Nikomekl rivers. Dominated by mist and low cloud through treetops, the climate of Surrey is one of Canada's wettest; Surrey has a moderate coastal climate where temperatures vary little between summer and winter. Geologically, the main rocks of the Surrey area are volcanic and sedimentary from the Mesozoic age. Windstorms are one of Surrey’s main geographic vulnerabilities.

Surrey largely approaches the problem of climate change through the lens of sustainability. In 2008, the Surrey City Council unanimously adopted its Sustainability Charter: a 50-year vision for Surrey as a sustainable city. This Charter is an overarching policy document, which guides decisions in the absence of more specific policies and clearly articulates both the dimensions (ie economic, social and environmental) of sustainability and relevant spheres of influence (ie corporate, municipal, and external organizations) as they pertain to the City’s sustainability vision. Since the creation of the Charter, an implementation plan has been developed and put into action and indicators have been devised to monitor and evaluate progress. This work has resulted in Surrey being awarded the Fraser Basin Council’s ‘Overall Sustainability Award’ in 2009.

In the more specific realm of climate change, Surrey is pursuing both adaptation and mitigation activities. The City signed the provincial Climate Action Charter, and has adopted per capita greenhouse gas reduction targets rather than absolute targets (33% per capita by 2020 and 80% per capita by 2050). As part of Bill 27 (Green Communities) requirements, these targets are currently being integrated into an updated Official Community Plan. To meet its GHG reduction targets, Surrey is engaging with local small businesses, creating a District Energy System in its city centre, and is developing a Clean Energy Strategy.

Climate change adaptation is also being explored in Surrey. In the fall of 2010, ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) launched its Adaptation initiative. This program follows a five-milestone framework that mirrors ICLEI’s mitigation program, and assists local governments with the creation of an adaptation plan. The City of Surrey was part of the first cohort of 14 municipalities participating in this process.

Strategic Questions

  • To what extent can a municipality trigger transformative change along a sustainable development pathway given limited jurisdiction?
  • What are the costs and benefits associated with framing climate change action in terms of sustainability, economic development or energy resilience?
  • What are the particular challenges faced by rapidly growing, geographically expansive municipalities?

Resources and References

Sustainability at the City of Surrey.

ICLEI Canada Adaptation Initiative.

*References labeled with "S#" refer to information retrieved from personal communications.*


1This was found to be a barrier in other municipalities in the province.
Burch, S. (2010). In pursuit of resilient, low-carbon communities: An examination of barriers to action in three Canadian cities. Energy Policy, 38(12), 7575-7585. return to text