Surrey’s population explosion leaves city looking for answers

posted on August 1, 2019

By Vancouver Sun |

With Surrey in the midst of a population boom, city staff are looking for a data whiz who can find a better way to capture that growth on the fly and project it into the future in a bid to bolster planning efforts.

By 2016, the city had surpassed half a million residents thanks to a 10.6-per-cent jump in population from 468,251 people in 2011 to 517,887. For city planners, that population growth represented nearly 50,000 new residents in just five years who had to be absorbed into Surrey’s infrastructure and services.

Surrey remains one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Canada, although it grew slower than both Edmonton and Calgary, among others, from 2011-2016. The city’s population is expected to reach 770,000 by 2041, according to Surrey’s official community plan.

Preet Heer, a manager of community planning for Surrey, said the city continues to grow faster than the Metro Vancouver average, which was at seven per cent from 2011-2016.

“I think affordability is a huge factor. When you look at the cost of housing, comparatively, Surrey may be more affordable than some of the other urban areas,” Heer said. The city is also geographically large with plenty of undeveloped land.

What planners see in Surrey is growth that is concentrated in transit-supported areas. The city typically wants at least 40 per cent of its growth in urban and transit centres, and it is now tracking at around 43 per cent, Heer said. With rapid transit plans in the works, that trend may continue.

“I imagine that with the SkyTrain plans we’re going to see, potentially, higher growth in those areas once we have some land-use plans established,” she said.

For planners, it’s important to be able to capture that growth as it is happening. While the census provides the city’s primary source of population data, that demographic information is only available every five years. What the city uses to supplement that data with the most up-to-date information is a so-called “population and employment model”. That model can take granular looks at specific geographic areas and can cover the in-between periods that broad census figures do not capture.

Data from the model is used by staff for land-use planning, traffic modelling, transit corridor studies, and for planning by school board and police and fire services, according to the city, and it is updated monthly, Heer said. Ensuring transit closely follows growth patterns is one of the biggest challenges planners face, she said.

The city’s population model is fairly accurate when measured against census findings, Heer said. But it is complex and suffers from methodological drawbacks, and staff hope a contractor can improve on it. The city has issued a request for proposals with the hopes of getting starting on a more efficient and responsive model by September.

B.C. government population projections suggest Vancouver will grow more slowly than Surrey through to 2041, but that Vancouver will remain the more populous city.

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