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'Community, belonging and connection top priorities': State of the City Address 2023

Mayor Patrick Johnstone touched upon housing, transportation, and community building as focus areas in his State of the City speech

"What do we want to prioritize in the term ahead?" — when attempting to answer this question, New West Mayor Patrick Johnstone and the city's council members always ended up coming back to words like "connection, belonging and community.”

At the mayor’s state of the city address on May 24 at Starlight Casino, during a speech followed by a Q&A session, the mayor elaborated on the focus areas in the city’s strategic plan for this term — with "empowering community leaders" being a top one. 

“It (New West) is still a city where you know the local brewery guy’s first name ….” he said.

“It's a city where the person who cuts your hair is also in your yoga class or coaches your kid's soccer team. We are a community of small connections, and even our politics in New Westminster is kind of personal because we all live in the same small town. And that feels really inclusive to us.” 

He added that with almost “a thousand new people moving to New Westminster every year for the foreseeable future, some people in theory fear we're going to lose that community feel and that connection that makes New Westminster special.” 

To address this, the council’s conversations about their strategic plan, he said, have centred around making sure everyone feels like they belong — “whether they are a newcomer to the city, a third generation or whether their family and ancestors have been on this land and on this river since time immemorial.” 

The city will support organizations that connect our community — be it the arts and sports, cultural or business organizations and non-profits, he added. 

Here are other top highlights from the Mayor’s State of the City Address:

‘Housing is the number 1 issue in the region’ 

The mayor said the city has been a “leader” when it came to housing policies — “from shelter and supportive housing to getting more purpose-built rentals built than any other city in the Lower Mainland, to building that family-friendly and transit-oriented market development on the SkyTrain line.” 

“I don't feel the least bit bashful in saying that if the rest of the region had done over the last 15 years what New West has done on housing policy, we would not be in the same housing crisis that we're in right now,” he said, drawing applause from the audience.

Going forward, the focus will be to implement the city's Homelessness Action Strategy, better target the affordable housing efforts and align it with senior government funding opportunities, continue to prioritize market housing development on and near transit including the 22nd Street SkyTrain station, and update the infill housing density program to bring more housing diversity to every neighbourhood in New Westminster, he said.

‘Transportation has lost its status as the number 1 issue’

But Johnstone called it “number 1 in his heart.” 

He added, “About 50,000 people are moving to this region every year, and they're not all going to fit on Royal Avenue at five o'clock in the afternoon. We need to build alternatives, and public transit funding is a big part of that.” 

Johnstone said he was recently in Ottawa with 11 other mayors “on a single vision, talking to the federal government about permanent transit funding.”

Saying that the streets have become less safe for a pedestrian or a cyclist in the last three years, he said the council will be prioritizing rectifying this.

“If it's not safe to walk in a 15-minute city, then we cannot achieve our transportation, livability or our greenhouse gas scores,” he said. 

‘Infrastructure: the un-sexy but important stuff’

The city plans to up its infrastructure, and building good infrastructure will mean investing in electrical substations, sewer upgrades, pump stations — “that really disruptive, expensive, but really un-sexy stuff that keeps the city running,” he said. 

“And we're taking an asset management approach to it, which means that we are putting life-cycle costing into these improvements when we build them."

That's the responsible thing to do today for those that are going to be here tomorrow, he said. 

‘Prioritizing around a people-centred economy’

Johnstone said that council's focus will be towards helping local economy prosper in a way that serves the needs of the people in the community.

“We need to be investing in arts and culture because they pay returns into the local economy. And they bring the kind of experience that pays returns in local retail areas,” he said. 

“We also want to ensure that local jobs in commercial and industrial sectors are supported as they really serve through the resiliency for the city needs in the long term,” he added. 

'Climate action — every department's responsibility'

Climate action was not listed as one of the focus areas in the strategy plan — but Johnstone explained, “it's not work that sits alone on somebody's desk or small group's desk.”

It’s something that has to be taken up by every department in the city, he said. 

“It's not an area of focus. It's a different way of doing business.”

What this means is engineering our public space differently — like approving buildings that are in tandem with a zero carbon future or building resilient buildings with extra carbon capture, he said. 

‘A difficult year for reconciliation’ 

2023 was declared A Year of Truth as a step towards recognizing how colonial practices wiped out the Indigenous peoples’ histories. 

"The city has gone through 160 years of city archives, records of the city here and in Victoria, and found every instance where the council of the City of New Westminster and the mayor of the City of New Westminster either took an action that displaced Indigenous people, that police Indigenous bodies, or erase Indigenous identity from this community,” he said.

“And I'm going to tell you, it is a thick report. It's not an easy read," he added. 

The report has not been released to the community in its entirety because, said Johnstone, "we feel it's important that we release it first to the people whose ancestors it talks about.” 

“We are sharing with them to find out how they want us to share that story. Because this is the colonial story, what is their story?"

Facing a 'staff crunch'

“If people ask me, what keeps me up at night in this job as mayor, it's not the threat of that earthquake that’s going to happen eventually, it's not even the Letters section of the New West Record that keeps me up…,” said Johnstone. 

“... It is this fear that we will not be able to deliver on our ambitious standards, because we simply don't have the staff to do the work,” he said.

“We're probably 15 per cent down in staff in most apartments in the city right now," he added. "We simply cannot compete with bigger cities or with the private sector when it comes to wages.” 

Being short-staffed can affect staff’s morale, and end up becoming a “dangerous cycle.”  

While stressing on the need to support the staff, Johnstone also asked the members of the audience to ask themselves: “What are you doing to build stronger connections in your community?”