Vancouver Greenest City Initiative

An interview with Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer, Planning and Environment, about the Greenest City Initiative.

by Stephanie Orford

“Environment cannot be a box that we open when we have the time and the money and the will,” VancouverCity Councillor Andrea Reimer told Watershed Sentinel. On the cusp of the 2010 Olympics, the international pressure on Canada to put an end to our greenhouse-gas-emitting ways is greater than ever.

The municipal government of Vancouver wants to be in the vanguard, and has developed a plan to build Vancouver into the greenest city in the world by 2020. The plan includes creating environmentally sustainable jobs and economy, greening public spaces, and safeguarding human health.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and a team of experts, including outspoken scientist and climate change expert David Suzuki, developed the Greenest City Initiative to make this dream a reality. Robertson’s council, which assumed office on December 8, 2008, kick-started the Initiative in February 2009 with 44 Quick Start Recommendations. These were goals they wanted completed, or at least in the works, before the 2010 Olympics hit Vancouver. According to a progress report issued in October, 30 of the Recommendations are underway.

The leftover 14 Recommendations include creating a public bike sharing system, changing garbage collection to be bi-weekly, and enacting a “right to know” bylaw about toxic substances. However, Reimer assures Watershed Sentinel that these issues will not be swept under the rug when the Olympics end.

According to the full report, Vancouver’s ecological footprint is almost four times its sustainable size; in other words, if the whole world were entirely populated by people living the Vancouverite lifestyle, they would need the land area equivalent to three to four Earths to sustain them. The Initiative aims to change the infrastructure, economics, and mindset to make Vancouver a one-planet city.

A Vancouver School Board trustee from 2002 to 2005, and the first Green Party member to be elected in Canada, Reimer recalls that even before Robertson was elected as mayor, he had asked the audacious question, what if Vancouver could be the greenest city in the world? “I loved it because it’s such a beautiful expression of where we could get to,” Reimer says.

At the same time she concedes, “Ten years is not a lot of time to change a billion-dollar operation with 610 thousand residents and thousands of businesses – to move this giant ship in a totally different direction. And quickly.” To steer the ship, the Council formed the 16-member Greenest City Action Team in February 2009. Vancouver needed a plan tailored to its specific resources and limitations.

Locally appropriate solutions

Reimer emphasizes that many green technologies are not well suited to Vancouver. “We have a ton of solutions, but they tend not to look like the same type of solutions that much of the United States is talking about, because they have a very different geography there.” Wind power, for example, makes much more sense on the Prairies than it does here, where wind is gusty, irregular, and prone to wearing out turbines much faster.

Here, locally produced technology that’s suited to our environment, like hydro electricity, which currently supplies 94 percent of Vancouver’s electricity, makes more sense. Reimer cites other solutions such as geothermal energy for new buildings (although it is expensive), and burning sewage gas instead of natural gas for heat. The Olympic Village’s Neighbourhood Energy Utility is the only such heating facility in North America. The Action Team envisions building one for every community.

The good news, Reimer says, is that even though the plan is ambitious, many of the Quick Start goals are well underway. She lists the bike lane trial on the Burrard Street Bridge, a tripling of the pace of establishing community gardens, the summer 2009 car-free street trials, and curbside composting, which she’s confident is just around the corner in early 2010.

Not everybody agrees that these have all been steps forward, however. The Vision Council has come under fire for the Burrard bike lane trial, with criticisms that the project’s costs outweigh its benefits compared to other possible investments, such as public transit system improvements. With regard to public transportation, the Initiative report recommends a rapid transit line along the Broadway corridor, a Downtown streetcar project, and electric express buses along several main routes, among other ideas. But, like many of the Initiative’s goals, the report says funding and provincial and federal government support are crucial for the project to move forward.

Infrastructure is hardest

“The stuff related to infrastructure – buildings and roads and transit – is the hardest and the most important, because it needs to change the fastest.” The Action Team has changed bylaws and policies to require plug-in infrastructure for electric vehicles. The Initiative report says that by 2020 at least 15 percent of vehicles in Vancouver should be plug-in hybrids, fully electric, or fuel-cell-based.

However, if we’re going to get this done, we need to hurry up, Reimer says. “The natural rate of change of the building stock in Vancouver is about one percent a year, so if you only required it in new buildings you’d need a hundred years to make a total change. And we don’t have a hundred years to turn over to electric vehicles.”

The same goes for other aspects of our infrastructure, such as the energy wasted as heat that uninsulated buildings leak. “In a compact city like Vancouver, transportation is definitely a problem, but our big problem is all these old buildings.” Retrofitting old buildings will save a lot of energy, but will also take a huge effort. The Action Team goal is to reduce energy used for heating these buildings by 30 percent from 1990 levels in 10 years. To do this, Reimer says that about 33 percent of older buildings would need to be retrofitted, costing as much as a hundred million dollars.

Many of the proposed changes involve major government involvement, but Reimer says that one of the biggest contributions individuals can make on their own is to buy locally produced food. “It’s definitely an environmental issue, but it’s also a democracy issue. How much power do we have as a community if when our border closes we suddenly don’t have anything to eat?” The Initiative aims to give Vancouverites more power over where their food comes from, on top of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing local food production and community gardening is also a way of increasing community cohesion and giving people a greater appreciation of the nature that surrounds them. “It’s like a zipper that opens up to social and economic and environmental and arts and culture – it just becomes such a way to bring community together.”

What does Reimer envision as the ideal outcome of the Greenest City Initiative, 10 years from now? “It’s not just about being the Greenest City,” she says. “The Greenest City is a catalyst for creating the best city, the most cohesive, the most community-engaged city that we can have.”

The very readable Quick Start report and full Greenest City Initiative report are available online at http://vancouver.ca/greenestcity/

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Stephanie Orford just graduated from SFU with a BSc (Honours) in Behavioural Neuroscience, and is excited to help change the face of journalism.

[From Watershed Sentinel January/February 2010]

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