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Surrey is in a hurry

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Surrey has shed its reputation as a wilderness full of �hicks�  and is closing in on Vancouver as largest city in B.C.

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Surrey has shed its reputation as a wilderness full of �hicks� and is closing in on Vancouver as largest city in B.C.

VANCOUVER -- Rivalry between major cities has long been an accepted fact that passionately drives loyalties for citizens intent on exercising their bragging rights.

Catfights between Beijing and Shanghai, Paris and Marseilles, New York and Chicago, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Sydney versus Melbourne are legendary, as us-against-them ideology neatly frames everything from housing costs to earning power to the best restaurants to green space.

Now there's a new entry in these civic sweepstakes: Vancouver -- glorious and intellectual and sensual as she is -- is facing increasing competition for the title of British Columbia's most important city from neighbouring Surrey, which is rapidly experiencing a metamorphosis from a home for loutish behaviour and cheesy mobile home parks to a sizzling Second City for the new century.

Billions of dollars and heartfelt civic pride are at stake as the two cities try to out-muscle each other while continuing to expand and lure in new residents.

This rivalry has reached a new level of urban schadenfreude as population projections show Surrey, one of the largest and fastest growing cities in Canada, will become a bigger hub than Vancouver within three decades.

Bigger in people power, yes, but maybe not more important depending on how the congested intersection of local politics, civic infrastructure, housing costs and land development plays out.

What is already certain, however, is Vancouver's seemingly permanent reign as First City is no longer undisputed. In fact, according to many Vancouver boosters, the knuckle-dragging barbarians from Surrey are quickly approaching the gate.

David Hogben, a semi-retired journalist and a fourth-generation Surrey resident, has had first-hand experience of Surrey's many perceived lows and recent highs.

Now 56, Hogben has fond memories of Surrey being a "a cool place with giant cedar trees and wilderness" when he was a boy.

That perception began to change, he said, when he was about 15 and began travelling to other parts of Metro Vancouver to play hockey.

"We were considered hicks," he recalls, adding people from Surrey -- unlike those who lived in Vancouver -- were thought of as lousy drivers, criminals, uncouth and, generally, rough around the edges.

But that was then.

Four decades later, says Hogben, Surrey is an entirely different community. "It is a different place now. It doesn't really seem the same place at all. It's quite urban."

Driving that change is population growth fuelled by huge swaths of cheap, developable land -- at least compared to Vancouver's crowded and high-priced residential footprint.

Statistics from the 2011 Census tell the story. Vancouver's population then was 603,502, a 4.4 per cent increase since the 2006 Census. For the same period, Surrey recorded 468,251 residents, an 18.6 per cent increase.

Various growth projections suggest Surrey will have more residents than Vancouver sometime before 2040.

Surrey's biggest draw -- in the past, now and in the future -- is its large land base, which, at 317 square kilometres, is almost three times Vancouver's.

Considering Vancouver has little, if any, raw land left for housing, it seems clear hundreds of thousands of people will continue to flock to Surrey in the coming years.

And Surrey, which averages 10,000 new residents annually, has enthusiastically thrown out the welcome mat.

Located 30 kilometres east of Vancouver and south of the Fraser River, Surrey was incorporated in 1879 with its first European settlers being loggers and farmers. Made up of six major communities, Surrey is currently developing a city centre to anchor civic, business, residential, cultural, entertainment and educational aspirations. These include a new library, a covered youth park, a recreational centre, space for seniors, an expanded hospital and a community plaza.

Last week, the Real Estate Investment Network named Surrey, for the fourth consecutive year, the No. 1 town in B.C. to invest in. According to the city's website, Surrey was listed as one of the top five real estate investment cities in Canada by Business Review Canada in 2012, and in 2011 it was named the best place in Western Canada to invest in real estate by Western Investor Magazine.

Even though its growth rate is slower, Vancouver isn't taking backseat, especially considering its spectacular setting between the North Shore mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Host to the 1986 Expo World's Fair and the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver, which was incorporated in 1886 and became a railway town the following year with the arrival of the first CPR train, is regularly named as one of the world's most liveable cities.

The city's website notes The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Vancouver the third most liveable city in the world. "Every year from 2007 to 2011, Vancouver placed first on the EIU benchmark, making it the first city in the world to hold the No. 1 spot five years in a row," the website boasts.

Wanting to be known as the greenest and most sustainable city in the world by 2020, Vancouver is also home to most of the province's major sports, arts, post-secondary and cultural venues.

With all that in mind, it's hard to see the cutthroat urban development race between Vancouver and Surrey, which are now both lobbying for hundreds of millions of dollars of new rapid transit infrastructure for the region's transit system, declaring a winner anytime soon.

Chris Rose is the Winnipeg Free

Press West Coast correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2013 A11

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