A neighbourhood in search of community

What happens when a community loses its way? How does a community regroup and develop their sense of place? Well, this is exactly what’s happening in the Waterloo Northdale neighbourhood.

The explosive growth of Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo surrounded a suburban community intended for single-families. Students flocked to these growing universities and near-campus rental properties became commonplace. This influx of students changed the dynamics of near-campus neighbourhoods and tensions rose within the area.

I don’t live close to the universities, but in my neighbourhood, I feel a sense of community. I feel a sense of pride in where I live. I welcome conversations from my neighbours. I care about them, their family, and their well-being. We each come from different backgrounds, our ages are varied, but they know me and I know them. All of which contributes to my sense of community.

If you were to walk through the Northdale area, I don’t think you’d feel a strong sense of community. Tensions between permanent residents and transient students have damaged the Northdale community over the past 20 years. Yes, the Northdale study currently underway will create zoning regulations, outline a community improvement plan, and help determine the look of the neighbourhood. But, building relationships between neighbours will be what determines how the community feels.

For students, the community they live in often forms their impression of the entire city. Incoming students may have preconceived notions of what their experience will be within a city, but their actual experience is shaped by the physical places they live and their interactions within their neighbourhoods.

In the 2011 Globe and Mail Canadian University Report, University of Waterloo students rated their satisfaction with the City a B, while Wilfrid Laurier Students rated their satisfaction with the City of Waterloo a B+. It’s a passing grade. But, why are students more satisfied with communities like London, Guelph, Sherbrooke, and Victoria – not to mention larger communities such as Toronto, Montreal, Laval, Vancouver, and Ottawa?

Are university students valued and welcomed more in London and Guelph compared to Waterloo? Or, are they offered the housing, lifestyle, and services sought by students. I’m not sure about the answers to either, but it appears students have a stronger affinity with those communities and identify with the images of those cities.

Throughout the years, consultants, committees, and Councils have created a variety of plans and reports to implement neighbourhood and community changes. Some plans were more successful than others.

In 1988, Waterloo City Council adopted the Uptown Community Improvement Plan. At the time, the optimistic plan appeared to be idealistic and improbable. Looking back, the plan has come to life. One driving force behind implementing this plan was the Uptown Waterloo Business Improvement Area (BIA) as they created pride in our uptown area. Without the BIA, I doubt Uptown Waterloo would be the vibrant neighbourhood we see today.

Within every community, we have a responsibility to work together. We need to bring a sense of pride and purpose back into the neighbourhood. The revitalization of the areas surrounding both campuses will need the input from the public and engagement of stakeholders. A factor we must remember when “re-urbanizing” this neighbourhood is that communities are never comprised of one homogenized group; it’s the variety of backgrounds that create a community with depth.

Our community was built on a barnraising framework. Organizations like Communitech, Canada’s Technology Triangle, and the BIA are perfect examples of organizations that lead through collaboration and strengthen the barnraising tradition in the Waterloo Region. There has been relative success in building consensus through Waterloo’s Northdale Special Project Committee as this study has progressed. I hope this is a building block to develop working relationships opposed to an ends in completing this study.

We need to look at students as an asset to our community and invest in the growth and development of these potential long-term citizens. With nearly new 10,000 students moving into our region each year, and a total of approximately 40,000 student in the area, we need to create a community that will keep them as citizens and ensure the grown of our Region.

Appeared in the Waterloo Region Record as a Community Editorial on Monday, January 27th, 2012

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