As larger metropolitan areas grow and spread, is there a place and opportunity for smaller cities? Across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver, planning is transforming the city of Nanaimo into a regional powerhouse and a more affordable competitor to its big neighbour.
We first spoke with Nanaimo’s Mayor Leonard Krog, who has led his city since 2018.
From humble beginnings as a mining town, Nanaimo’s growth within the past generation has been nothing short of meteoric. The city enjoys a position as the fifth largest urban centre in British Columbia, growing by 8 percent in the most recent census – significantly ahead of the 5.6 percent growth in Vancouver and 5 percent in Canada nationwide.
Home to a major port, university, and newly expanded airport, the city is riding a wave of growth fuelled by strong natural amenities and a more affordable cost of living. And now Nanaimo’s City Council is shaping a comprehensive plan to ensure growth remains steady well into the future.
The action plan
At the forefront of Nanaimo’s new growth strategy is its newly revised community action plan. First conceived in 2008, the new plan is but a part of a much larger strategy to ensure continuous and responsible growth in the city.
Dale Lindsay, Nanaimo’s General Manager of Development Services, explains how all the city’s plans are being both updated and consolidated. “Our goal here is to have them reviewed simultaneously, and end up with one coherent document that guides the community for the next 25 years.”
The plan, he continues, is intended to be completed though innovative engagement with the community to ensure the widest possible input and to ensure that the population’s needs are met.
However, Lindsay makes clear that the plan is not set in stone but is reviewed every five years: “It needs to be a living document, and to respond to the community’s desires as it moves forward.”
An additional facet of Nanaimo’s plan is the city’s climate change resiliency strategy, itself part of a larger municipal environmental plan.
Krog and his colleagues are well aware of Nanaimo’s natural beauty as one of its strongest attractions for both visitors and residents, and are taking proactive steps to safeguard Vancouver Island’s treasures.
As Lindsay explains, the strategy first measures potential areas of impact on the community, particularly storm surge and forest fire risks given Nanaimo’s heavily forested and coastal setting. “We just have to make sure that we’re sizing our systems properly, and placing ourselves in a good position to respond to those issues,” Lindsay explains.
Through this measure, both local government and the private sector can take proactive measures to limit the effects of a changing environment and reduce the impact of future natural events.
Trial of transition
Mayor Krog knows full well that he is the voice not only of Nanaimo’s government but also of the city’s older generation, which remembers a much smaller place that it called home in the not-too-distant past. He observes how Nanaimo is making the transition from an older, more traditional small town to a city where growth and development is planned for and sought after.
“That’s been harder for some people,” he admits, “but I’m hoping the official community plan process will give voice to those who are worried about their children and grandchildren.”
Growth may be inevitable, but the plan can help preserve the spirit of Nanaimo and its roots as it moves forward.
This growth is most apparent in residential construction. Nanaimo enjoyed an unprecedented nearly $450 million in building-permit activity last year, shattering 2007’s record of $253 million.
“We’ve had incredible growth in apartments in the community,” Krog confirms, especially in a city-wide shift from single lots to multi-family units. Furthermore, this new construction is being built to Nanaimo’s new environmental standards, with more Green construction and less water-consuming lawn space.
The results are self-evident – Nanaimo is currently on track to not just meet but exceed its 2007 greenhouse-gas reduction plan. “That’s a point of pride for the city,” Krog says.
While the residential growth is impressive, it can only continue with available jobs and services.
To that end, the City Council has conducted a comprehensive land analysis to determine its land capacity. Lindsay remarks how, as Nanaimo has grown to its boundaries, the city is working to have new development sites continually in the pipeline.
“For years, the city’s had light industrial and heavy industrial land,” he says. “We know they’re becoming a premium as they start to develop out. It is our expectation that the land capacity study will confirm that Nanaimo requires additional industrial lands it will just be a matter of the order of magnitude.”
Opportunity crosses the water
Despite Nanaimo’s desire to retain its unique flavour, the town cannot escape its proximity to the larger Vancouver area, as Krog admits. But rather than lamenting this, he sees Nanaimo as the better alternative for Vancouver residents.
“I think we’re the natural place to do it,” he says, referring to potential growth areas in Nanaimo. “We’re just a ferry or barge ride across the water [from Vancouver], and so we’re very conscious of what that means.”
With an influx of new residents commuting daily from Nanaimo to Vancouver, Krog and his government are working to further diversify Nanaimo’s economy to keep more jobs on-island. Krog remarks how a recent economic study broke the city’s businesses into 83 percent service-related and 17 percent production-related companies, “which was probably not the case in the days when we were pumping out coal or lumber.”
To facilitate this diversification, Krog and his government are working to bring in more sub-sectors, particularly in the area of tech, to bring about what he terms “semi-independent economic development.”
He also recognizes the cyclical nature of the economy, and that Nanaimo must be prepared for the day when the present boom from construction ends. “We want to be sure that as our economy changes, as it inevitably will, that we have employment for people in other sectors of the economy.”
Becoming a hub
Nanaimo has already seen success in some of its heavier industries. Seaspan Industries, which manages much of the freight traffic across the Strait of Georgia, has relocated from a small facility in downtown Nanaimo to a much larger industrial area outside the metro, creating a major distribution hub.
“A significant portion of the goods coming on and off and the island are heading through that facility, and we see all kinds of opportunities for industries to support that,” Lindsay says.
The Port of Nanaimo itself is undergoing a $100-million expansion to handle increased passenger and freight traffic. A recently added vehicle-processing plant handles most of the cars and trucks imported via Canada’s west coast.
“The fact is, it makes more sense to come to Nanaimo and ship north or south on Vancouver Island, and so the port is an integral part of our employment,” Krog remarks, saying that he thinks this processing plant will be the first of many industries to grow around the port.
He is also certain the port will bring in more workers from Vancouver to live in Nanaimo. “If you come to Nanaimo, the dream of home ownership is still relatively accessible.”
Convention critical mass
Elsewhere in Nanaimo, the city’s Vancouver Island Conference Centre is now gaining the service businesses and hotels necessary to support large-scale conventions and trade shows.
A new 172-room hotel, built by Utah-based PEG Developers, is helping the downtown area reach the 1,000-visitor capacity necessary for conventions. This hotel is one of a number of investments in Nanaimo’s downtown core, including a $17.1-million firehouse renovation, new parks and bike paths and numerous housing developments for families and seniors.
These developments, Lindsay explains, will help Nanaimo keep pace infrastructurally with its increasing growth and prevent stagnation. “Over the last couple of years, our largest investments in the community have been in the downtown, so it’s an exciting time for not just developments like hotels but also new residential projects and commercial investments in our core.”
Planning for the high road
Getting the large number of building permits processed is no easy task for Nanaimo’s government, and where a lesser body might be tempted to lower standards, Krog is dedicated to taking the higher road. “We’re going to hold the line and protect the public interest.”
Despite the influx of growth producing a recent spike in rents, Lindsay is confident these projects will, in time, stabilize housing prices and safeguard Nanaimo’s affordability. “New, expensive projects today lead to old, affordable projects tomorrow,” he remarks.
While the city (and BC as a province) continues to grapple with issues of homelessness and drug abuse, Krog relates how Nanaimo is working to solve both of these at their sources by providing new jobs and affordable housing.
As an added boon to growth, the reality of a fast ferry between Nanaimo and Vancouver, long discussed, is now looking increasingly possible. “That would be a tremendous boon to the city in terms of its development and employment. Enabling that easy and relatively inexpensive transport between Vancouver and Nanaimo would be wonderful.”
With new plans and a strong team of dedicated public servants leading it, Nanaimo’s future looks brighter than ever.