Vancouver is Becoming the World's Most Sustainable City, Officials Say, but Not Everyone Sees Green
In March, one year ago Mayor Robertson addressed the first Vancouver Greentech Exchange and set a visionary goal for Vancouver to become the greenest city on the planet by 2020.
How has the City of Vancouver progressed toward this goal over the last year? VO asked the people who were standing in the room when Robertson made his greenest city vision public. The answers reveal a gap between public perception and the actual strides the City has made toward the goal.
SFU President Michael Stevenson’s office referred VO to Mike Volker, Director of Simon Fraser University's Industry Liaison Office, who replied: “Those are hard questions to answer mainly because it is not defined what ‘greenest city’ means. How would one know or measure that?”
In actual fact, the City of Vancouver’s Quick Start Implementation document, available for download on the Greenest City website, published in September 2009 does offer measurable targets. City Council officially adopted the following to reduce human-induced greenhouse gas emissions (GHG’s) in line with the international Kyoto Accord, calling it Vancouver’s GHG Imperative:
- 6% below 1990 GHG’s by 2012:
- 33% below 2007 GHG’s by 2020; and
- 80% below 1990 GHG’s by 2050.
Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer shares the thrill of creating an expert team to a lay a groundwork for the City's green goals. Vancouver's 19-member Greenest City Action Team (GCAT) put together the Quickstart Implementation document. Says Reimer, “There are 44 actions outlined in that report. Thirty-one of them are done.”
The multi-stakeholder GCAT includes David Suzuki, famed scientist and environmentalist; David Boyd, one of Canada’s leading environmental lawyers; Mike Harcourt, former BC premier and Vancouver mayor; Tamara Vrooman, Vancity, CEO; Karen Cooling, Western Region, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada; Andrea Reimer and Mayor Robertson.
Released a few months later, Vancouver’s Climate Leadership report states the City is on track with this year’s GHG reduction targets. To back this up, the report claims a 20% GHG reduction from municipal operations.
Says Reimer, “The biggest change in the first year of the greenest city campaign is there is now both a big picture coherent strategy which deals with ten major issues over a ten year period and the success of Quickstart. These give us concrete long range goals and discreet specifics.” The Green Capital's Bright Green Future Strategy Document and other reports can also be downloaded from Vancouver's Greenest City website.
In contrast, the seven non-City insiders VO spoke with for this story shared a perception of isolated examples of progress, but not enough fundamental change over the past year.
Catherine Kerr tending one of her Greenstreets garden beds
“I was happy to see vegetable gardens … on the grounds of City Hall. Now, there's encouragement for the human grassroots…,” quips Catherine Kerr, communications consultant and Greenstreets gardener. She, and others, listed a few positive accomplishments towards the greenest city goal. Said Kerr, “[I noticed] … an increased number of large-capacity transit buses and the … [energy efficient] heat exchange system for the Vancouver Olympic Athletes' Village... It's exciting to see … an entirely new standard of building.”
Reimer underscores this, noting the upgrades to building codes in Vancouver which create the highest green standard for new homes in North America, as well as holding major building developments and municipal offices to Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) standards; and required plug-ins for electric cars in new construction.
Kerr and others interviewed point out larger systemic problems Vancouver has yet to tackle, such as a lack of care in sorting recyclables or lack of participation in recycling; the distances some trucks travel (and the fuel consumed) to perform City services; and the need for increasing public transit to reduce automobile use and potentially even eliminate cars from the downtown core.
“Imagine replacing the truck traffic along Knight St., from the port to Richmond, with a rail line,” said Ed Levinson, physicist and start-up consultant.
Speaking of the City and its citizens, Kerr said, “Vancouver doesn’t [yet] appear to be … environmentally conscious.”
Farrell Segall, Chief Systems Architect, Novax shared an anecdote with VO that to him speaks volumes of the gap between desired change and execution. “Some months ago I visited the new City Hall annexed offices on Broadway at Cambie. We were ‘treated’ to a sorry sight: a three-story interior dead green ivy wall! The staff person escorting my colleague and I confessed to us, the City didn’t know whether they had forgotten to hire a contractor to water it or whether a contractor they had hired hadn’t watered it.”
At the same time, Segall looks forward to increased capacity and capability of Vancouver to actually be a green city.
In his reply, Levinson emphasized the need to push for change from “all levels of government to do more — especially the feds.” Levinson said, “There is … increased activity locally in developing green technologies, but it’s a tiny fraction of what … could be [achieved] with the right … support.”
Reimer’s view is similar. The “…other levels of government, — but to be fair, much more the federal government has been a stumbling block to moving forward on the issues where we share responsibilities. The 13 things [from Quickstart] we didn’t get done [this year] relate to that.”
Itay Wand, Product and Project Management Consultant added, “The fact I can't mention many [indicators shows] there is a communication and a marketing problem with this municipal objective. …There is info on the City website - but this isn't enough. There should be a consistent city-wide omnipresent campaign to get everyone excited about this.”
Reimer’s passion for doing it right comes through as she says, “If the public’s not seeing much – maybe it’s ok – because this year was about planning and creating a framework for big policy movement – not a public relations exercise… I’ve worked in environmental policy for 20 years. It’s better to have a phenomenal plan and concretely moving toward a goal. Past council’s haven’t taken the time to do more than small pet issues.”
Among the Quickstart accomplishments this year, Reimer is most proud of City Council’s recent decision to implement curbside composting of kitchen scraps in three phases. For the past ten years, the complexity of implementing composting has resulted in frustrating deadlocks.
Pending a contract with Metro Vancouver, the first phase kicks in April 22, 2010, on Earth Day, allowing homeowners to add a limited range of kitchen scraps to their yard waste bins. Phase 2 will add meat and other food wastes, along with reducing garbage collection from once per week to every two weeks and increasing yard waste collection to weekly.
“Apartment dwellers will be in phase 3, which is hard because they need it most,” explains Reimer, but that’s the reality of creating a realistic, achievable transition to zero waste for Vancouver.
The delight in Reimer’s voice is apparent as she shares, “People I have contact with and people I’ve worked with for 20 years on green policy – they look and say wow that’s amazing that Vancouver is willing to make that big of a commitment.”
“What needs to happen next is unleashing the power of the public.” Reimer, City Council and the GCAT want to see all cross-sections of the general public involved, from organized labour to community groups, schools, homeowners and apartment dwellers.
The Vancouver Police Department officially allied itself with the Greenest City Goal in December 2009 by creating a green team to oversee implementation of a comprehensive plan to reduce waste by 70% and GHG’s from police vehicles and buildings. “This is a great thing,” says Reimer. “If we can have a green police force, surely we can have green school… there’s a ton of opportunity for people across the city...”
Bernard Harris, Systems Architect expresses a sentiment likely shared by all the people who heard Mayor Robertson declare the greenest city goal one year ago: “Just by setting it as a goal, the Mayor has started something very positive. It gives focus and direction to something that will hopefully gain enough momentum to make a real change.”
“City Staff’s response on the Greenest City Initiative is all about faster, higher stronger. My sense is they were waiting for the political will to bring forth some of these pieces,” says Reimer.
Mayor Robertson leads the way along Dunsmuir bike lane
“We challenge all cities to this friendly but vital competition to be the greenest, for the health and prosperity of our world.” (Mayor Gregor Robertson, Vancouver’s Climate Leadership report)
Actions speak louder than words. In October 2009, Robertson and Portland Mayor Sam Adams officially declared a working partnership between the two cities. They describe it as a ‘sum is greater than the parts’ alliance to develop green economies of scale and lobbying clout, eventually all along the West Coast.