The clash and integration of the past and future are usually easy to spot in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. Yet hiding in plain sight at the twin cities’ northeast fringe is a prime example of the 21st century swallowing its roots.
A two-storey house of tawny, crumbling bricks and two weathered grey barns are huddled together. Windows are broken and boarded up. An eavestrough dangles. Pickup truck parts and smashed doors and windows are strewn about. A mound of cinder blocks looks like a small drumlin, marking the glacial pace of decay.
Fifteen years of development has buried much of the history around these fading buildings. Looking north, an arching roadway hems in a well-manicured park, a pond, sports fields and baseball diamonds. Across the road is the huge multi-use rec centre that anchors 200-hectare RIM Park, which also boasts the GreenLab conservation education facility and a golf course. A compact suburban community to the south gives way to more spacious ones. A long zipper of power towers stretches northeast into tree-lined pasture and cuts southwest through BlackBerry’s Northfield Technology Park — a gleaming cluster of offices built to accommodate the tech company’s once-overflowing staff — then beelines into Canada’s 10th largest urban area, home to almost half a million people.
Kitchener-Waterloo’s rapid expansion is tempered by doses of contraction, as the relic buildings and BlackBerry’s recent difficulties suggest. (The former Research In Motion — the company changed its name in July — put K-W on the map in global business circles.) But BlackBerry’s impaired share value will slow this powerhouse region’s momentum about as much as an old farmhouse can stall development. Canada’s Technology Triangle, the brand name that Waterloo Region’s economic development partnership has touted since 1987, is flush with more than 800 IT-related companies, including the likes of Google, Electronic Arts, Cisco and OpenText. And while K-W is certainly Canada’s less-endowed answer to Silicon Valley, local ingenuity extends to a wide range of vital industries: business and financial services, academic and scientific research and development, and advanced manufacturing.
But the shabby house and barns still have some cultural relevance. Obviously they speak to the region’s agrarian ancestry, which remains part of K-W’s social fabric not least because of the still-vibrant Mennonite community that settled here more than 200 years ago. Many other local buildings have been renewed by an equally strong secular faith in heritage, communal labour and practicality. It may be this communal push for innovation, whether homespun or high-tech, that continues to bind K-W.
Just a few kilometres east of RIM Park, across the Grand River, is another old farmhouse. But instead of losing ground, this one has priorities that are penetrating the city.
Linda and Dale Stevanus both grew up in Waterloo region farming communities, but neither wanted to grow food for a living. After they started careers, got hitched and took over the 18 hectares where Dale’s grandfather began farming in the early 1900s, however, it made sense.
By the mid-1990s they were harvesting more produce than their family of five could eat.
Linda, 57, and Dale, 59, sold veggies for more than a decade at the Saturday Waterloo farmers’ market. But in the mid-aughts the market changed into the sprawling, craft- and bargain-heavy bustle it is now, so they tried other options. They had a stall at an ultimately unsuccessful Wednesday market in downtown Kitchener, then a roadside stand next to their land in the outskirt town of Bloomingdale. Encouraged by customers, they became a CSA farm — community-supported agriculture, which means consumers front their growers an income for a share of the harvest — because it seemed closer to the experience they were seeking.
They started out small in 2007 with 28 shareholders and expanded gradually. “We always kept squeezing one more in,” says Linda, shaking her head and chuckling. “We’re not good at saying no.” No doubt: they hit 81 shareholders in 2013.
“The challenge of it has been to get variety,” explains Dale. They began experimenting early on, partially inspired by an old Dutch farmer who brought eggplant to market: “Middle Eastern customers were just flocking to him.” Kale was among their first departures from the cabbage that Dale’s grandfather grew (sauerkraut was the original farm’s bread and butter), and they’ve since tried sprucing up deliveries of tomatoes, peppers, leeks, potatoes and other staples with things like rapini, bok choy, Asian cabbage and okra — with varying degrees of success.
Dale says they’re simply catering to the diversifying marketplace. “Everybody always seems to have a favourite vegetable.” Satisfying a range of appetites is tough. The labour can be overwhelming (especially when salvaging unfamiliar crops from drought or diseases), and raccoons and deer enjoy exotic produce, too. But the Stevanus’s efforts have been rewarded with opportunity. They’ve built a customer base of shareholder families, creative chefs and deliveries to a few local offices.
“This is also a community that’s willing to try different things,” says Linda. Take purslane, for instance, a plant they’d weeded for years before Linda learned it was a herb that’s high in omega-3s and believed to be good for arthritis pain. She was soon selling four bins a week, and more to restaurants.
Dale says the community is not only adaptable but big on self-sufficiency, too. “In Waterloo region, there’s a very high value put on food systems, which is why the local food movement caught fire here pretty quickly.” More than 1,400 farms (including a handful of other community-supported farms), two perpetually packed weekend markets (in Kitchener and nearby St. Jacobs) and many fabulous small restaurants also attest to this.
Appropriately, Dale and Linda embody the characteristics they describe in their customers. Their latest project is beekeeping. After acquiring hives, taking an apiary crash course with his daughter-in-law and waiting patiently, Dale harvested 27 kilograms of honey on a chilly morning in early October 2012, which they spent the winter selling.
Ostensibly, Dale was motivated to generate more income, learn something new and overcome a childhood fear of bees. But he shows his cards with a wide grin and these words: “You just can’t feed me enough honey.”
Waterloo region’s current success largely stems from one hive of activity, the University of Waterloo. The roots of local innovation run deep — in 1910, Kitchener (then called Berlin) became the first city in Ontario to provide citizens with hydroelectricity. But everything changed after two businesspeople began turning cornfields into a campus in 1957.
Presciently, Gerald Hagey and Ira Needles focused on engineering, math and science, and on forging connections with industry. Their young university flourished, and launched two more noteworthy Canadian firsts within a decade: a computer science department and an optometry school. Waterloo is now a world-class institution with the country’s strongest reputation for innovation and an unparalleled co-op program. It consistently cracks Google’s top three schools on the planet from which to recruit talent. By shrewdly allowing students to keep intellectual property rights to their ideas and inventions, it has spawned a raft of science and technology companies (BlackBerry among them), and continues to attract overachievers.
Construction has been a fixture at the university in the last decade (with more to come). Most ambitious is the Institute of Quantum Computing, a new $160-million glass-covered Goliath in the heart of campus that aims to revolutionize how we catalogue and interpret reality. And the university is constantly adding international partnerships and educational capabilities, including a new campus in nearby Stratford and an architectural school in neighbouring Cambridge.
Thriving academia is, in fact, transforming the entire region. There are about 75,000 full-time post-secondary students and more than 150 research institutes, including Wilfrid Laurier University and Conestoga College, one of the country’s leading polytechnic schools. The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (a.k.a. CIGI, a think-tank for humanitarian and policy issues) are helping remake uptown Waterloo.
On Waterloo’s main campus, at first glance, none of this momentum seems to permeate the psychology, archeology and sociology building, an angular, coiling concrete fortress in the arts faculty. Still, the university’s dustier pockets are adapting, largely because of fresh, exciting educators such as Brian Orend. One feature of the 42-year-old philosophy professor’s charisma is his sense of humour; commenting on Waterloo campus’s Cold War-era architecture, he quips, “They’re bunkers — where’s the bomb?”
Orend is a fan of the new buildings and their aesthetics because they draw students together. This gels with one of the university’s big priorities, of which Orend is an ambassador. “It’s all the rage to talk about interdisciplinary,” he says, “but it’s actually real, and most of the professors love it.”
Last year Orend published Introduction to International Studies for a course he developed in a department he created, and it quickly became a requirement for accounting and finance students. He also works with an affiliate faculty at the Balsillie School of International Studies on global research and advises some CIGI post-grads. Orend’s two previous textbooks are read in humanities departments and military academies around the world, and their titles neatly convey his overlapping expertise: The Morality of War and Human Rights: Concept and Context.
In class, Orend is charming, laid-back, acerbic and fair — everything an undergrad could hope for. He says his students motivate him. “I’m spoiled because I’m constantly surrounded by young people, and every year there’s a flood of energetic, idealistic 18- to 20-year-olds. They get an education — maybe they just come for that and then leave — but the rest of us get their energy for a time. And some of them do stay and create something, some of them love the area.”
Orend spent his adolescence here and did his undergrad at Waterloo. He admires how the community has matured. “It’s a place that can really surprise you and overturn your expectation,” he says. “It has a reasonable population, lots of young people, entrepreneurs and immigration, dynamic high-tech, aspirations for the future, and a nice blending of green space.”
He thinks groundbreaking people and projects stick around because “there’s a real entrepreneurial ethos here, and there aren’t big, stratified classes like there are in Montreal or Toronto.”
That said, he doesn’t like the “barn-raising, massively co-operative metaphor” that gets parroted to explain what makes Waterloo region tick. “I think it’s the smart, committed entrepreneurs, and because people didn’t stand in their way, they just went for it. And they had some friends, sure — but this kind of quasi-religious group ethos is really overstating it, and it’s too rural.”
K-W’s identity is definitely urban. Orend lives in downtown Kitchener, among the other brick century homes and tree-lined streets close to Victoria Park, where he often plays with his 12-year-old son, Sam. He wants Sam to appreciate the character and flavour of the core — “tons of people, new immigrants, diverse cuisines, all this kind of stuff” — and how it compares with suburbia.
He also wants him to witness Kitchener’s evolution. Its next frontier is the intersection of King and Victoria streets, long a primary traffic artery that will soon become the region’s uncontested transportation hub. “It was total wasteland there,” Orend recalls. “Just these bleak, huge, old, belching factories, with a rail line through it, something you drive through and hold your breath.”
Within a decade, it will be an unbeatable spot to stop and observe the twin cities in flux.