Abbotsford is the largest city, outside Vancouver, in the province of British Columbia and is among the most diverse in Canada. More than a quarter of its population of 150,000 hails from south Asia, mostly from the Indian state of Punjab. The city borders the United States to the south and is part of the Vancouver metroplex, which has gifted it with both an independent economy and participation in the economic sphere of western Canada’s gateway city.
Eighty percent of city lands are protected for agricultural use, and its farmers make good use of that land, earning the highest income per acre of any place in Canada. Other important industries are transportation, manufacturing and retail. The city is home to the University of the Fraser Valley and an international airport. The Abbotsford Regional Hospital is its largest employer. Given these assets, the challenge that Abbotsford has set itself is to leverage them for growth in a global economy that is dominated by digital while preserving an enviable quality of life and a culture whose roots date back to 1858.
Guiding the journey is Plan 200K, which envisions what the city will be like when its population grows to 200,000 residents. Plan 200K began with an intensely interactive work of advocacy, which drew on 8,000 interactions with residents over two years. From these conversations, Abbotsford established four cornerstones for the future: a vibrant economy, a complete community, fiscal discipline and alignment of all parts of local government in carrying out the vision.
Following community engagement, city government updated all of the master plans governing transportation, utilities, parks, the historic downtown and agricultural lands. Sustainability was an important issue because the projected growth in population will be concentrated in just 20% of the city’s land area. Sustainability goals are baked into Plan 200K, and projects have already achieved reduction in energy consumption by 320,000 kWh per year, diversion of nearly 16,000 tonnes of waste through recycling and composting, and expansion of water metering throughout the city.
Food is Not Just for Export
The planning exercise also uncovered a disconnect in the city’s economy and culture. Agriculture is a vital industry, yet the community exports nearly everything it grows and lacks a local food culture. Access to local food is limited and local businesses have little incentive to support local food producers.
To change the culture, the city partnered with a local brewer, the Chamber of Commerce, Regional District and a community market to create the Valley Field and Farm Collective. This nonprofit organization brings together a cross-section of people from the community to integrate food production into community life and boost local commerce in food. Not by coincidence, its founder also chairs Abbotsford’s Community Innovation Partnership, started by the Economic Development Department to foster an innovation ecosystem throughout the community.
Funded by private investors, government grants and community banking partners, the Collective launched a summer farmers market in 2018, where local growers sold directly to the public and local businesses. Later in the same year, the Collective began executing a more ambitious plan to create a central kitchen and food innovation hub, communal brewhouse, local food café, music venue and community rental space.
On its base of traditional industries, Abbotsford is also laying the foundations of an innovation ecosystem for the city. It decided to focus on youth. In 2010, Vancouver established a program called CityStudio and in 2018, Abbotsford imported the program in partnership with University of Fraser Valley (UFV) and a secondary school. CityStudio is an innovation hub where students, city staff and community volunteers co-create experimental projects – online services and prototype products – that aim to make the city more sustainable, livable and joyful.
For secondary and university students, Abbotsford’s CityStudio provides practical learning about real-world challenges, career training, exposure to local business and the chance to gain valuable skills. For city government, the dialogue with students and experimental projects are shifting the culture of City Hall from perpetuating the past to innovating for the future. In its first year, CityStudio held 18 classes for students and city staff and launched 11 experimental projects, of which one on reducing littering in city parks won an award from UFV and was featured in a TedX event in Abbotsford.
Fiber to the Premise
Abbotsford represents an attractive market for communication carriers, because so much of its population is concentrated in a small share of its land. As a result, the incumbent phone company Telus has invested more than C$80 million to connect over 90% of homes and businesses to its fiber optic network at no cost to taxpayers. Completed in 2017, the fiber-to-the-premise network provides upload and download speeds of 300 Mbps with the potential to increase to 1 Gbps. Another fiber network has been deployed by Zayo to serve the high-capacity needs of data centers and technology companies. And as a result of a partnership with ICF Canada, Shaw approached the city with an offer to expand its public Wi-Fi capacity, so that by the middle of 2018, the company had 1,000 hotspots acrss the city including in all city-owned facilities.
With this kind of capacity, the city’s digital equality efforts have focused less on access and more on programs to help citizens use the connectivity to improve their lives. The library system offers an online learning collection featuring thousands of video courses, including language education. E-books and audiobooks are available online, as is a database of magazines, a car repair database and free music library. About half of Abbotsford residents are regular users of these services, each developing skills and experience with digital platforms that will pay dividends in the future.
Abbotsford’s Intelligent Community project is in the early stages of implementation, but it is grounded in careful plans developed in close collaboration with the community. The culture of that community draws on the best of farming tradition: hard and steady work toward the goal, staying steadfast in the face of setbacks, and caring for the land. In the plans and early results, it is possible to see the vision of an Abbotsford of 200,000 people ready to prosper in the decades ahead.