The best-run city in Canada

Lean, debt-free, and offering great public services, Burnaby is a model for the country

The best-run city in canadaBurnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan presided over a Grade 3 field trip to the city hall council chambers on the second last day of the school year. He worked the room, assigning each child a task. Some were council members, others city staff or reporters. He draped the chain of office on the shoulders of a girl named Nicola, after extracting a promise she wouldn’t run against him next election. “I need someone to look after my money,” Corrigan said, looking to another girl. “Do you have pockets? No? Okay, then, you can be my director of finance.”

Lucky kids. Burnaby, B.C., ranks as the best-run city in Maclean’s first annual survey of municipal governments, conducted by the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), a public policy think tank. AIMS based the ranking on extensive criteria, tracking performance in areas as diverse as socio-economic status, crime, fire services, transportation, road and sewer conditions, economic development, recreation spending, and such indicators of civic engagement as voter turnout and library use. “Generally when you end up first, it means you’re doing well across the board, and that’s pretty much what you find in Burnaby,” says AIMS executive vice-president Charles Cirtwill.

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Corrigan, an advocate of open government, was pleased at Maclean’s first attempt at ranking municipalities, even before learning of Burnaby’s first-place finish. “I think it’s a healthy exercise,” he says. “It’s important to always be benchmarking yourself against what’s happening in other cities.” Burnaby was the only community to rate a B, scoring at or near the top in areas like environmental health, recreation and culture and economic development. It has spent millions to achieve its goal of turning 25 per cent of Burnaby into parkland, one of the highest rates in the survey. It bought out private lands surrounding its two lakes, creating, at Deer Lake Park, one of the great concert venues in the Lower Mainland. The city has also bought industrial lands along the Fraser River and converted them to public use. Its overall cost of government, $148 per person, is substantially below the $235 national average. Spending on economic development initiatives is also modest, yet it has reaped an A-list of knowledge-based industry giants, including Telus and video-game maker Electronic Arts. Members of the region’s development community heaped praise on Burnaby’s planning department this year, rating it the best in the Lower Mainland, “based on competence and ethical professionalism.”

While many Canadian cities are hamstrung by borrowing costs, Burnaby is not only debt-free, it sits on $633 million in financial reserves and a municipal land bank worth hundreds of millions more. The refusal to go into debt, says Corrigan, is a legacy of the dirty thirties, when welfare costs drove Burnaby into bankruptcy and the community was run by trustees. “We always save for what we’re going to buy,” he says. “If we buy a fire truck, we immediately start saving for the next one.”

Burnaby is in good company. Its two larger neighbours—Surrey to the south and Vancouver to the west—finished third and fourth respectively of 31 cities in the survey. Saskatoon ranked second overall and Longueuil, Que., was fifth, all with scores of B-.

There’s no simple explanation why all four top cities are from Western Canada, and three of them are from B.C., says Cirtwill. “What you find is that the top five or six cities do very well in terms of efficiency and effectiveness on recreation and culture,” he says. They have been able to balance economic development and growth pressures with a focus on quality of life issues. “They’re doing good in terms of creating green space, and areas for people to gather and experience the arts,” he says. The western communities have high growth rates, and such quality-of-life amenities as arts, parks and sports facilities help attract and keep young families. As Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison puts it: “We don’t want people to use this as a stopping point before moving off to what are called the MTVs of the world,” a reference to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. “We want people, when they move here, to say this feels like a home to me.”

Even top-ranked cities have their share of problems. Crime rates are historically higher in Western Canada and the top cities are not immune. Saskatoon’s rate of all crimes per 100,000 population ranks second in Canada, Surrey ranks fourth and Burnaby ninth. Much of the crime is limited to localized pockets in all three cities, and when policing costs and fire services are taken into account, AIMS graded the efficiency of all three safety and protection services with above-average Bs.

Growth presents both opportunity and challenge. Burnaby, with a current population of about 220,000, has the second largest influx of immigrants of the cities AIMS surveyed—50 per cent of the population, including historically the province’s highest intake of refugees. In the short term, immigrants place a strain on schools and social services, but they offer a long-term benefit to the community and its culture, says Corrigan, and AIMS concurs; it sees immigration levels as a predictor of other successes. In Saskatoon, which has among the lowest immigration levels, just eight per cent, the province’s strong economy has spurred growth from elsewhere in the country. Projections show the city will grow to 260,000 by 2026, an increase of some 50,000. But part of its challenge is that the number of people age 65 and over will more than double by 2026. Keeping pace has necessitated an $800-million infrastructure deficit, for everything from “kneeling” buses to building arterial roads and overpasses to developing areas. Still, Saskatoon maintains a top-ranked AAA credit rating, says Atchison.

Then there’s Surrey, where a third of its residents are under age 25. It is expected to swell to 633,000 by 2026 from the 395,000 measured in the AIMS survey. Surrey’s phenomenal growth rate, and the resulting commuter traffic, has proved one of the greatest headaches not only for its mayor, Dianne Watts, but for Corrigan, across the Fraser River in Burnaby—and for those caught in the perpetual traffic jam that is the Trans-Canada Highway, linking Surrey to Burnaby and Vancouver. “It’s kind of an Achilles heel,” Cirtwill says of Surrey’s transportation scores. “Their spending is a little bit above average and what they’re getting as a result is a little bit below average.” Watts is acutely aware of the problem. When she spoke at a recent Vancouver breakfast meeting of real estate developers, she set her alarm for 4:45 a.m. to make the commute. Each morning traffic from Surrey and further east in the Fraser Valley crawls across the overwhelmed Port Mann bridge and spills into Burnaby, choking its streets en route to Vancouver. “It drives our community crazy,” says Corrigan. “It’s the biggest source of complaints.”

The long-term solution, both Watts and Corrigan agree, is for Surrey to move from a commuter suburb to a self-contained community, a transformation already in the works. “That’s why we’re concentrating on making sure we have jobs for our residents so they can stay within the city,” says Watts.

Meantime, though, the two mayors squared off over a provincial commitment to build a larger 10-lane replacement bridge over the Fraser. Watts supports the multi-billion-dollar expansion on behalf of her car-bound constituents. Corrigan opposed it, winning no friends in Surrey, or the provincial government, but plenty of support at home. Corrigan is so adept at reading the local mood that his left-leaning Burnaby Citizens Association won every council seat last fall. (The party has held the council majority for 24 years.) The resulting lack of suspense may be to blame for one of the worst municipal voter turnouts in the country, 26 per cent, earning Burnaby an F for effective governance.

Corrigan doesn’t mind. He’s still beaming after ushering the students of St. Helen’s School out the door with a handshake, and souvenir pencils and pins. Such visits make politics “real for them,” he says. “It takes away a lot of fear. I think kids, especially, want to know there’s stability around them, there’s structure around them.” It seems their parents value that, too.




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The best-run city in Canada

  1. Make your city family-friendly and get government out of the way of business, and it will attract young families . Families tend to grow and consume more than individuals. This causes local businesses and the housing market to thrive while tax revenues go up. End result: a good place to live as long as the city doesn't mess it up with corruption.

    The east has an aging population, increased dependence on social programs, high business taxes, and a general attitude that raising children is not worth the trouble and contributes to the rape of the planet. No wonder families are heading west.

  2. Make your city family-friendly and get government out of the way of business, and it will attract young families. Families tend to grow and consume more per income than individuals. A typical family has 1-2 incomes and 4-5 mouths to feed, as opposed to singles or couples where the ratio is 1:1. Therefore for the same number of jobs, there is greater demand for products. This causes local businesses and the housing market to thrive while tax revenues go up. End result: a good place to live and an easy city to run as long as the bureaucrats don't mess it up with corruption.

    The east has an aging population, increased dependence on social programs, high business taxes, and a general attitude that raising children is not worth the trouble and contributes to the rape of the planet. No wonder families are heading west.

    • By "East" you should exclude Quebec. Overall they are probably the most family friendly province in Canada.

      • Alas, Quebec has the lowest birthrate in the country. I cannot help but think that overbearing nanny states are, on some level, not very conducive to marriage and children. I do not wish to suggest that Quebec is the only province to suffer from this – it's pretty grim in most of Atlantic Canada as well.

  3. Burnaby best managed City in Canada, not quite
    The city of Burnaby built a lit soccer field 50 feet from the back yards of residents (this pushed through by Corrigan himself) The City has a noise bylaw but because of the noise generated from the lit soccer field the City is in violation of its own bylaw. Come and visit Burnaby and see the lack of sidewalks. No way is Burnaby a well managed City and if you want proof just come and visit the place. Gang crime is suoper high in Burnaby

    • Which soccer field are you talking about? I think I know which one you are talking about… but the closes houses to that field are on the other side of the Trans Canada highway. I imagine that they already have some noise through out the day from the trans Can. In addition, if the games end before 10:00 pm then there is no problem with the bylaw. Since the noise would be acceptable under the Commercial level section on the bylaw, as long as it is under 60dB. If you're wondering what 60dB is that is about the volume of a lively conversation. The field is far enough from the houses to be reduced to that level.

      If anyone is curious about the bylaw here it is: <a href="http://74.125.155.132/search?q=cache:VVUrhvgAKiMJ:http://www.city.burnaby.bc.ca/__shared/assets/Environmen... target=”_blank”>http://74.125.155.132/search?q=cache:VVUrhvgAKiMJ…” target=”_blank”>www.city.burnaby.bc.ca/__shared/assets/Environmen…

      As for walking. There are residential areas that lack side walks… but I can't think of any busy street that doesn't. Lougheed, Hastings, Willingdon, Boundary, Carriboo, Kingsway, Edmonds, Gilmore, North road and that are all the main roads I can think of have side walks and even bike lanes. So I'm not sure what you are talking about.

      As for the crime rate in this article Burnaby is listed with the 10th highest crime rate in this article, but in March 2008 McCleans didn't even have Burnaby in the top ten crime list. Actually, Saskatoon was 2nd, Edmonton was 5th and two neighbouring cities of New Westminster and Vancouver placed 6th and 9th.

      True that there has been crime problems in Burnaby, that naturally comes with any highly populated areas. However, when I think of lowermainland gang problems my mind goes to Surrey, NewWestminster and Vancouver. I'm sorry Tim but I don't think the gang crimes in Burnaby are 'suoper' high. However, gang crimes in the lowermainland.

  4. Sorry Tim, but I think Burnaby still fares better than Edmonton… Come to the city of never-ending, pointless, seemingly stupid and wasteful construction for some useless interchange that really won't make any difference for traffic by the time it's finished (the 23rd/Calgary Trail interchange, which is over budget, past scheduled completion and is a headache for anyone living in South Edmonton or Leduc coming into the city, and the numerous other over budget projects that Edmonton and the Alberta government like to just throw funding at in random), and where you've got a very liberal, very socialist, tax-hungry civic administration (Mayor Mandel and his wonderful councilmembers love to give themselves juicy raises and jack up residential taxes with no consultation with the city's finance department or committees made up of residents and businesspeople, and to what improved services?), and don't even bother mentioning our pathetic, out-dated transit system, once again the subject of millions in spending by the city and Alberta, but to no avail. Our only real bright point is that we are a culturally inclined city, with alot of diversity, and the fact we have one of the best universities in Canada doesn't hurt either. The crime rate here doesn't rate any better than Burnaby, in fact it ranks worse. This is probably why I'm not surprised that Burnaby comes in on top and I'm surprised that Edmonton actually comes in at 18th and not in the last three.

  5. I was born in Vancouver and spent my teenage to young adult years in Burnaby. I am now almost thirty and no longer live there for personal reasons. Like any big city, yes Burnaby has it's share of problems.
    Here's my list of the good and bad.
    (Continued next post)

  6. (continued) THE GOOD:
    The mayor, Derek Corrigan (he's been mayor as long as I can remember, must be doing a lot right)
    SFU
    BCIT
    Electronic Arts
    Research In Motion (Blackberry)
    Ballard Power Systems
    Burnaby 8 Rinks
    Bombardier (Skytrain maintenance @ Edmonds)
    Park space and lakes (Deer Lake, Central Park, Burnaby Lake, Barnet Marine Park, Burnaby Mountain, Fraser Foreshore, etc)
    Metrotown (especially the CHQ arcade)
    National Nikkei Museum & Heritage Centre (Japanese Canadian museum)
    Burnaby Village Museum
    Shadbolt Centre For The Arts
    The Bridge Studios (Where Stargate SG:1 and related shows are filmed)
    North Burnaby
    Grand Villa Casino
    Lougheed Mall area
    Burnaby has two Skytrain lines!
    The transit in Burnaby is really efficent,
    buses every 10-30 minutes, awesome.
    The fact that you can get so many different cultures food inside
    Burnaby, and mostly authentic too.
    The point where you can be in Burnaby, Port Moody and Coquitlam all at once.
    You can be in Burnaby and Vancouver at the same time (Boundary Road)

  7. (continued)
    THE BAD:
    I can stand at the intersection of Royal Oak & Kingsway and tell you from my own memory how many people have been murdered around
    there (more than three people, all gang related) , not to mention the loads of car crashes at that intersection, including that gruesome accident between the RCMP cruiser and the two young fellows… I heard that crash from my home…
    The hooker from Surrey who stands in front of the Japanese restaurant that used to be Sharkie's Steakhouse and a crematorium.
    It's parallel to KFC and across the street from IHOP and 7-11…
    She's there almost everyday according to my mom.
    So theoretically, you can get a hooker, a bucket of chicken, pancakes, and a slurpee within a few metres. And that is no joke. So depending on who you ask, it might be a good thing. The fact that the closer you get to New Westminister, the crappier it gets, except for Highgate. You can get mugged on your own street by people who live on your street, perhaps the same building as you.
    Metrotown.

  8. Joe Sakic
    Michael Buble
    Michael J. Fox

  9. LOL
    BURNABY STINKS! the best city of Canada with only 3 or 4 high schools in it!! ROFL!
    sucky eh!

  10. Burnaby's hands off government with its no deficit and millions in the bank proves how uninvolved it is with best practices related to pedestrian safety; traffic calming; sidewalks; street tree planting and maintenance of small parks and high density streets re garbage pick up and recycling.

  11. I am excited to be moving to Burnaby-it is very small which was a surprise. But from what I have seen it is beautiful- trees and greenery everywhere, clean and quiet where I visited. And only a short ride into Vancouver. And of course no snow or 30 below zero like most other locations in Canada. BCIT and SFU for post secondary-close to UBC and other educational facilites-what’s not to love?

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