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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.”

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