Andrea Reimer on nimble government
Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer, well-known for her Green Party roots, contacted me to respond to Village Vancouver’s Randy Chatterjee in my blog post Making Vancouver sustainable: Greenest City meets Village Vancouver (VV). It featured interviews with VV founder Ross Moster and board member Randy Chatterjee speaking on how bottom-up citizen initiatives and top-down City projects can work together to make Vancouver more sustainable.
We sat at low table in the back of her modest, standard issue, Councillor’s office at City Hall.
“Ross Moster's characterization of Village Vancouver and the City is a good one: the institution of the City is completely dependant on the individual to make change happen," Reimer said. "At the same time the individual needs the City for basic support. It’s a very dynamic interplay.”
Reimer said it frustrates her when people fail to see the value of basic services. “Cities do certain things well. The tap goes on, sewage goes where it needs to go. These very systems give the community a foundation upon which to innovate.”
Councillor Reimer and the Vision Vancouver slate were elected on the promise of renewal of government itself. “I’m an innovator,” said Reimer. “My generation and younger — we want government to be nimble and responsive to this unpredictable, changing world.”
She believes this is possible while, “continuing our mandate to foster the positive attributes of a stable system.” Reimer cites, as an example, the Open Data Initiative (ODI), for which the City of Vancouver (CoV) recently won the top BC Business Award for Most Innovative Organization in B.C.
Through ODI, CoV staff gathered and organized key data across departments and now offer more and more data free of charge to the public in various file formats.
“The number one call to CoV 311 information has been to ask, ‘when is my trash pick–up day?’” Reimer told me how Recollect.net (formerly Vantrash) utilized the trash schedule on ODI to create a simple app notifying residents of their garbage and compost collection days.
I tested the app and found it to be accurate, quick and slick. Just plug in your postal code and voila, a map and your collection schedule instantly appears. You can also order up email (free), voicemail, text or tweet alerts (for a small fee). Popular support for recollect.net in Vancouver has led to expansion across the Lower Mainland, Victoria and Nanaimo.
“Now, our receptionists use this app from citizens. It takes them two–thirds the time, which saves City dollars. It’s a great example of the way government and citizens can enhance each other’s efforts,” said Reimer.
Reimer describes a further synergy. CoV advertises on recollect.net as part of a campaign to encourage citizens to stop contaminating yard waste and compost with plastic bags (and learn how to prevent pests and odours, while their at it). The problem is huge and potentially will delay Phase two of the Residential Food Scraps Collection Program, by a year, to 2012.
But why should we give up the wrap–it–in–plastic habit?
“40 percent of our waste stream is food waste,” explained Reimer. “Garbage is not like education or health care, where if City government spends more there’s more value. With garbage if we spend more money, there’s no benefit -- only more garbage.”
According to Reimer, besides less garbage in the landfill, separating out and composting yard and food scraps is ultimately cheaper for the City, and us, the taxpayers.
Both Moster and Chatterjee believe trucking yard and food waste to Delta is counter–productive to Greenest City goals, since it adds more CO2emissions. As an alternative, Chatterjee described successful neighborhood composting in Europe and wondered why Greenest City wasn’t championing similar programs here.
Reimer agrees, in theory, that neighborhood composting would be preferable. Yet she argues that the City could not find an example of a “predictable, stable, sustained,” neighbourhood composting program that was beyond a pilot anywhere, including Europe. She said that creating ongoing neighbourhood composting would be a “pioneering effort”.
The City is working on a neighborhood composting pilot, according to Reimer. At the same time, she believes the main block to the whole food waste recycling challenge is in our homes. Reimer urges citizens to make a new habit: consistently sort food scraps without putting them in plastic.
But what about smell? “At our house,” said Reimer, “we use an empty laundry detergent bucket. It’s sturdy, with a snap on lid, and the scent from the detergent lingers, blocking food odours.”
At collection time, they dump the contents of the container into the yard waste bin.
Reimer hopes Moster, Chatterjee and Village Vancouver will continue their pioneering efforts. She would love to be in a position to roll out a viable neighborhood composting program developed by VV or any other group of citizens.
“When a citizen chooses to compost, it has an impact. Then ten or a hundred or a thousand more people may start composting. When the City decides to compost there’s an order of magnitude impact. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people are composting. But we’re absolutely dependent on those first ten or hundred or a thousand to show it possible, and lead the way,” said Reimer.
I asked Reimer how will her government’s Greenest City by 2020 promise be realized if Vision Vancouver were to be swept out of office.
Reimer asserted that the project would continue even without Vision Vancouver in power. “From the outset, we built it to last,” she said. “Greenest City is a like a tree with good, deep roots … at a political level, we’ve made sure it would be painful and hard to rip out.”
She explained that Greenest City is integrated across departments: for example, social planning and cultural services are working with engineering to solve the composting problems. Reimer explains that, historically, each department was like a silo, isolated in function and strategic direction from the rest of City Hall. “Organically, we’ve come together around the needs of Greenest City, which is about supporting our eco–system, more basic even than water or sewage.”
Reimer said that despite the current slowdowns in implementing Phase 2 of the Residential Food Scraps Collection Program, the plan is expected to succeed. “Food will be banned from the landfill by 2015. We’ll just give it back to you.” She added that while dryer lint can go in the compost, old socks and cotton clothes beyond any rag life would have to be ripped up.
Andrea Reimer is optimistic and speaks with conviction. Each of the ten Greenest Goals has tangible, associated actions, she said. “We’ve completed 79 actions in only 20 months, with hundreds more to come.”