Vancouver Strives for the Gold as World’s Greenest City–can it become first Eco City-State?

Vancouver_Aerial.jpg

Vancouver, Canada’s new mayor Gregor Robinson is making good on his campaign promise to make Vancouver “The Greenest City on the Planet.” 

Forget trying to be Canada’s greenest city as Toronto has aspired to be, or North America’s greenest city as Portland, San Francisco and Chicago have vied for. If it succeeds beyond its plans, the Vancouver region will have the makings of the world’s first modern Eco City-State.

Mayor Robertson announced ambitious plans Tuesday at this week’s Resilient Cities conference.

Whatever the outcome, Vancouver will be transformed by the process in reputation and mindshare. This plan should provide the city of 615,000 with an opening to make significant sustainability improvements to its economic competitiveness, infrastructure and use of resources.

With the 2010 Winter Olympics coming to town next February, Vancouver will be able to use an international media platform that key sponsors such as Coca Cola and General Motors are targeting for launches of new “sustainability” products and messaging. Besides the release of GM’s forthcoming Chevy Volt, I’ve been told that Coca Cola is trying to completely reposition its brand in the face of climate change, bottled water rebellion and anti-soda obesity regulations.

As a result of such marketing, and with Olympic Village plans for operations under the Global Reporting Initiative on sustainability, the 2010 games might make history as the first international event associated with sustainability.

Corn syrupy water and automobiles aside, Vancouver is putting forward some serious plans and goals in its quest. Yesterday, I chatted with Melina Scholefield, Vancouver’s Sustainability Group manager, and learned that the city as part of its Greenest City Plan will:

  • Set up a low-carbon economic development zone to attract private equity investment in the green economy, with the goal of creating 20,000 new jobs.
  • Try to increase its walkability, bikability and public transit ridership to more than 50 percent. The city currently has a rate of about 20 percent combined walking and cycling for commuting, one of the highest such rates in North America. Boston, for example, has a combined walking/cycling commute rate of 16 percent, the highest in the US.
  • Develop its own green building standards, which are stricter and more thorough than existing standards such the US Green Building Council’s LEED rating system or the US EPA’s Energy Star rating system. The goal is to have all construction in Vancouver be carbon neutral by 2020.
  • Reduce the amount of solid waste that goes to landfills or is incinerated by 40 percent.
  • Provide all city residents with easy access to green space, so that by 2020 everyone would be within a five-minute walk of a park, beach or greenway.
  • Reduce the per capita consumption of water by 33 percent.
  • Reduce the carbon footprint of food production by 33 percent.
  • The big one: reduce the ecological footprint of Vancouver by 33 percent. This means reducing the amount of arable land needed to support each citizen from 7 hectares to 5.7 hectares by 2020.

Eventually Vancouver wants to reduce its “four planet” Ecological Footprint down to “one planet.” (Tuesday night, I gave a talk on urban resilience at the conference with the co-founder of the Ecological Footprint, William Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia: our Post Carbon Institute-sponsored talk will be broadcast on 15 radio stations and available here on an MP3 at the EcoShock radio site.)

Vancouver’s performance-based goals are impressive in that they are tangible and measureable. Having measured the sustainability performance, projects and capabilities of the largest 50 US cities in my book, How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings, I am looking forward to seeing how Vancouver will pull off developing transparent and verifiable results.

Already the city claims the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita of any city in North America, at just under 5 metric tons, with New York City being at about 7 metric tons and the US average being close to 25 metric tons. Vancouver claims 90 percent use of renewable energy, with much of it in hydropower, though I was unable to verify whether that hydropower is small-scale enough to qualify for accepted renewable energy standards, such as that used by the state of California.

Now comes the real test. How will Vancouver plan, manage, construct and fashion a more sustainable future so it can complement its already world-famous quality of life with new technology jobs and opportunities in urban agriculture and food production?

Vancouver will have to compete with clean tech clusters emerging in California, Boston, Austin and Toledo, Ohio, creating green job growth in renewables, green building and advanced materials, advanced transportation (beyond its already-leading fuel cell industry cluster), and water/ energy efficiency.

A final challenge surfaced yesterday afternoon during a panel discussion at the Resilient Cities conference with Scholefield and other members of the Greenest City Action Team (including Gordon Price, Robert Safrata, and Moura Quayle).

Vancouver’s Greenest City Plan has yet to provide details on the participation of its surrounding metropolitan area, though the leadership of West Vancouver, a suburb of 44,000 appeared to be on board when I discussed the plan with its mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones and councillor Trish Panz.

Regional collaboration will be vital to ensuring effective land use and transportation planning, not to mention scaling up regional food and regional energy production, particularly biomass, wind, biofuels and small-scale hydro power.

“We’ll start at the core with the hope that action in the core city will move the outer area along” said Price, Director of the SFU City program, in response to a question about the lack of sign-on from Metro Vancouver, a group of 22 communities in the region.

That strategy might work to kick things off. At some point soon, however, Vancouver will need to more fully enlist the metro area and the Cascadia bioregion to take on an active partnership and even select ownership of Greenest City plan elements. Mayor Robinson did meet with Portland, Oregon mayor Sam Adams, who came to Vancouver this week with a contingent to the Resilient Cities event–the two were said to hit it off well and spent much time together privately.

If Vancouver accomplishes its formidable goals, it would within ten years begin to more closely resembles the Eco City-State concept devised by William Rees.

The city would then be at the center of a regional economy capable of producing most of its own energy, along with a significant amount of its goods
, services and food, while protecting its water, wildlife, biodiversity and cultural resources. And this would be without contributing further to the acceleration of global climate change.

Call it resilience, sustainability, or just getting ready for what’s to come.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an international consultancy focused on  urban sustainability strategy and metrics.

 

Share