At Board of Change, community hears that Vancouver's push to become world's greenest city in 2020 is gaining traction

Photo of Vancouver deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston and the city's director of sustainability Amanda Pitre-Hayes at the Board of Change meeting at SAP courtesy of ©JenniferStrangPhotography.com

It’s been three and a half years since Vancouver’s deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston made the leap from the green roof of Chicago City Hall to the green vistas of Vancouver. As Mayor Richard Daley’s chief environment officer, his hand was in the greening of the Chicago city hall roof, putting bike racks on Chicago streets and attracting wind company head offices.  But he admits it was always a struggle to green the Windy City.

“In Chicago there was a really strong mayor who cared about these issues. But the rest of the city council weren’t really that committed and when you talked about carbon or water conservation with the average citizen, it wasn’t really top of mind for them,” said Johnston in an interview with The Vancouver Observer after his talk organized by Vancouver's Board of Change and held at SAP's Yaletown office.  Board of Change is a not-for-profit organizational network that exists to develop and foster a new economic model that values the pursuit of sustainability equally with the pursuit of profit.

“It’s much more top of mind here for our residents," Johnston continued,  "who are thinking about these issues and the role they play in it. Just to see the strong interest from the broader community is probably the biggest difference.”

As Vancouver pushes to become the greenest city on the globe by 2020, the trail appears to have some serious hurdles that need to be overcome.  More people are walking, biking and using public transit than any other city, urban density is up and commuter distances are decreasing. But emissions from transportation and buildings still contribute more than 85 percent of the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Emissions from light-duty vehicles has been rising and the City faces a challenge imposing its extreme green view of the world on a region and population that seems more concerned about making mortgage and car payments and putting food on the tab le.

Vancouver’s goal is to bring community-based greenhouse gas emission down to five percent below 1990 levels while building a sustainable and economically vibrant community. It’s an ambitious plan that sets Vancouver apart from other municipalities and government, particularly the one in Ottawa. It’s also a plan that will requires an even greater commitment from citizens and the business community.

Vancouver is now 19 months into Mayor Gregor Robertson’s favoured project, the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan (GCAP) - a roadmap to create the greenest city on earth by 2020. Last October city council was provided an update. In the report, the Green Team says, “The City is making good progress towards achieving GCAP goals and targets, with 125 projects underway. However, the City can’t achieve these goals by itself.” The problem in Vancouver it seems is a lot of talk from citizens and businesses, but not enough action.

“The City is doing a lot,” says Johnston.  “We will not achieve our goals to hit the targets in the plan without a groundswell of interest from the business community, the non-profit community, residents, schools, there’s a role for everyone to play, which is why we rolled out the Greenest City grants and are trying to find ways to support the leadership in the community to do this.”

It’s also why Johnston and the City’s director of sustainability Amanda Pitre-Hayes were reaching out to a packed room of people in a downtown Vancouver office building Thursday night. Reducing building emissions is a key component of the Greenest City Action Plan. The presentation and discussion was hosted by the Board of Change, an organization that brings together business people integrating sustainability into their business practices. For Johnston and Pitre-Hayes, the group is an ideal target for a City trying to heave more people on-board the green hay wagon.

“It’s a chance to talk to businesses in the community that are interested, or working on it (green agenda), give them an update of what we’re doing and talk about areas where they can focus on,” says Johnston.

Business software company SAP, Concert Properties and many other downtown businesses have embraced the green challenge, reducing their ecological footprint through comprehensive recycling campaigns and commuting options. But to make a serious and necessary reduction in overall city emissions, and to reduce waste, more companies and more citizens need to be involved.

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