Plotting the green history of Vancouver

The phrase “green city” hasn’t always had the weight of meaning that it has today. Growing from something suggesting greenbelts, park spaces, and simple city recycling programs, the phrase now suggests electric vehicle charging stations, sustainable watershed development, bike lanes, extensive and affordable public transit, and leadership on emissions reductions. Cities around the world are being celebrated for taking action on such issues: Copenhagen, Reykjavik, Bogota, Malmo, Portland, and of course Vancouver, consistently show up on lists of the world’s greenest cities. But despite “green city” being a modern, contemporary label, it has its roots in countless decisions and actions taken by previous generations seeking to build a city they could be proud of.

Over the past two years Carbon Talks, an initiative of the Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue, has worked with a group of undergraduate students on a project to build a timeline that tracks the history of those generations who enabled Vancouver to grow into a modern green city. These students represent the diverse nature of Vancouver: while some were born and raised in the region, others have come to Vancouver through their home countries of Mexico, Brazil, India, China, and South Korea. Their research has included personal interviews, literature reviews, scouring numerous websites and blogs, and countless trips to the archives. While some of the stories they have uncovered and highlighted are familiar to Vancouverites – the founding of Greenpeace and David Suzuki Foundation, Expo 86 and the Skytrain – others are less well-known to younger generations.

One defining moment in Vancouver’s green history took place in the 1960’s. Over forty years ago, the Governments of British Columbia and Canada made funding available for an interurban freeway serving Vancouver and the surrounding municipalities. The freeway was to connect to the newly constructed Georgia Viaduct, in the process carving up the largely immigrant neighbourhood of Strathcona. In 1967, protests over the plan, and the lack of public consultation, were fierce; the chairman of the city planning commission resigned, the plan was scrapped, and the viaduct was the only piece of the freeway to be constructed. Thanks to that decision, huge swaths of Chinatown, Gastown, and Strathcona retained a character that would have otherwise been lost.

While most residents of Vancouver are at least somewhat aware of this part of the city’s history, many will not have heard of Mary Lee Chan. Mary, whose mother immigrated to Vancouver from China in 1879, was at the forefront of these protests, helping to found the still-active Strathcona Property Owner and Tenants Association. Just a few weeks ago, Mary and her husband Walter were honoured with a mosaic and plaque at their house on Keefer Street, presented by Vancouver Heritage Foundation. Individuals like Mary Lee Chan, and the issue she fought for, are what makes up the heart of the timeline project.

That said, our aim is not to smugly pat ourselves on the back, nor stop at celebrating those individuals, organizations, and institutions that made Vancouver the city it is today, however worthwhile that may be. The lessons that can be learned by looking back are valuable not only in planning for the future of Vancouver, but also for cities across Canada and the world. What does it mean to be green? That depends on what kind of city we want to live in. For environmentalists it can mean sustainable resource development planning or district energy systems; for residents it can mean bike lanes, expanded transit services, or preservation of heritage buildings; for municipal government it can mean a reduction in GHG emissions and an engaged citizenry. For Canadian cities, asking how they define green in their own way will be central to moving to a sustainable future.

No matter what “green city” means to each of us or our governments, we all have a role to play in making it happen. If Mary Lee Chan and residents of Strathcona hadn’t taken the initiative to fight against the freeway in the 60’s, then perhaps there would be no Skytrain. If there was no Skytrain, maybe there would have been no Vancouver Olympics. Without the Olympics, would there have been such a push for carbon-neutral buildings? Playing with “what-ifs” may be a fool’s game, but there is no doubt that Vancouver’s status as a green city has been shaped by successive generations of socially and environmentally sensitive individuals.

We hope that this timeline project will be a living document that will grow and evolve not only as a resource, but also as a teaching tool. Students, professors, civil-society leaders, activists, business owners, politicians, and voters alike are all reflected in the green history of Vancouver; undoubtedly they will all play a role in its green future.

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