Is Vancouver a green city? I bet the majority of people would answer YES to this question since Van City tends to have a reputation as a forward thinking and environmentally conscious place to live. Well, the hype is validated. Vancouver was recognized as the best Canadian (and second best North American) city in the 2011 Green City Index, AND it ranked third on The Economist’s 2012 list of most liveable cities in the world, to mention just a few accolades.
Imagine my shock and surprise then, when I learned that the residents of our city still have an ecological footprint three times larger than the region can accommodate. It goes to show how much we should all be thinking about the negative impact that every day living can have on the environment! Luckily, there are many innovative ways that we can solve some of our eco-challenges and earn the title of THE greenest city in the world.
The Greenest City 2020 Action Plan that I present to you in detail in this article sets out a road map to achieve exactly that: and the best part is, YOU have the chance to participate in the process of making Vancouver super green.
The Greenest City 2020 Action Plan was adopted by the Vancouver City Council in July 2011. More than 35,000 people participated in its creation, so it was very precisely conceived and realized. The plan is based on the 2009 work of Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Greenest City Action Team, entitled Vancouver 2020: A Bright Green Future. As you will see, the 2011 action plan focuses on three main areas (carbon, waste, and ecosystems) and is divided into ten separate (yet interconnected) goals — each of which has specific 2020 as well as long-term (2050) targets. Since the plan was published, the City of Vancouver, City Council, local businesses, social enterprises, various organizations, and most importantly many of Vancouver’s citizens have been working hard on preparing for its implementation.
In October 2012, the first annual Greenest City 2020 Action Plan Implementation Update was published to evaluate progress in all ten goals. While much has been achieved, much more improvement still lies ahead. While looking this information over, it becomes quite obvious that we all have an important role to play. Vancouver will not become the greenest city in the world if its inhabitants do nothing to support these ten goals over time. Hopefully, this article will provide you with a couple of easy ideas on how you can participate and make a difference. So let’s get to work!
1. Green Economy
While it’s true that Vancouver is relatively successful as a green economy, we we have to do better. The aim of the first goal of the 2020 Green Action Plan is “securing Vancouver’s international reputation as a mecca of green enterprise.”
- Double the number of green jobs over 2010 levels by 2020.
Double the number of companies that are actively engaged in greening their operations over 2011 levels by 2020.
If everything goes as planned, our economy will get a significant boost from fulfilling this target and we can look forward to many new green jobs. According to the recently released implementation update, during the year since the project was launched, several positive steps have been taken. Amazingly enough, more than 1,300 of Vancouver’s businesses participated in making our city a greener place by improving their operations. The first annual Vancouver Cities Summit, a discussion platform for businesses and urban leaders to exchange creative ideas for a sustainable urban future, took place in the city in February 2012. The summit was quite a success, as it attracted 500 participants from ten countries.
What you can do:
Vancouver, in cooperation with the Vancouver Economic Commission, has been working to achieve a more competitive and innovative economy — by supporting green business opportunities and social enterprises. So if you’re a business owner: work on your own sustainable business plan. As a consumer, you might want to only use the services of companies that act green and not let businesses that don’t respect sustainability profit.
2. Climate Leadership
Vancouver has the smallest per capita carbon footprint in North America today. While that might feel like a huge achievement, the reality is that we have to do more. So brace yourselves: Eliminating dependence on fossil fuels is what the second goal of the 2020 Green Action Plan aims to achieve.
Reduce community-based greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent from 2007 levels.
New green jobs, lower energy costs, better air quality and improved health for citizens are among the expected results of this particular goal. Some progress towards a better climate has been achieved since the official introduction of the action plan, including the new Climate Change Adaptation Strategy.
What you can do:
Believe it or not, dangers to your health increase with a worsening climate and global warming. So kill two birds with one stone and think about walking or biking to work instead of taking a car and contributing to pollution. Or re-think whether or not it's truly necessary to keep all the lights in your home on if you're not in the room. How about energy-efficient electronics and appliances? Do you recycle? Give both of these a shot. We can all contribute to a better climate easily; we just have to investigate where we can do more consistently.
3. Green Buildings
An increasing number of buildings in our city can be labelled green and trust me: this number is going to be rapidly increasing in the coming years. Vancouver wants to be the world leader in green building design and construction, the third goal of the 2020 Green Action Plan shows.
Require all buildings constructed from 2020 onward to be carbon-neutral in operations.
Reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in existing buildings by 20 per cent over 2007 levels.
Better climate adaptation and better water conservation are in my view, good enough reasons to fight hard to reach these targets. Recently, positive action has been taken to achieve fulfillment of this goal such as the Business Energy Advisor Program as well as a reported increase of 46 per cent in private Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design projects.
What you can do:
One of the best ways to be effective is to give plenty of thought when planning to purchase or build a house in the near future. Think about the way it’s being built, and how using green technology can save you money in the long run. Also, I said it before, but stay focused on reducing energy usage. Just keep the lights off when you go out of a room, unplug your electronic devices when you're not using them and always look for energy-efficient products.
4. Green Transportation
Car owners, listen up! I know you love your cars. I love mine as well, but I'd gladly walk now and then if it means I can leave a better planet for my kids and future grandkids. A nice walk, bike ride, or even public transit can make for a fun family outing with the kids, so give it a shot.
Make the majority of trips by foot, bicycle, and public transit.
Reduce average distance driven per resident by 20 per cent from 2007 levels.
People downtown are definitely feeling the action plan regarding this goal with the introduction of more major bike lanes and an impressive rise in bicycle use in Metro Vancouver (up 26 per cent since 2008). Additionally, the city is supporting an Integrated Transportation Plan, investments in transit infrastructure, and more.
What you can do:
Park the car and take a bike, walk, or use public transit every once in a while. Take a breather from the hectic pace of life and just enjoy the bike or bus ride. The change of pace can be a refreshing way to live in the moment, especially if you’re usually sitting in the office all day. If you really have to use a car, try to make it efficient — take your neighbours if they’re going the same way. Using one car is better than using two!
5. Zero Waste
Remember: no waste is good waste. We have to do everything in our power to achieve zero waste.
Reduce solid waste going to the landfill or incinerator by 50 per cent from 2008 levels
Lower greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, better quality of water, more green jobs, and the conservation of natural resources are just a few of the many benefits of this initiative. As Vancouver and its citizens work hard, the situation has improved. Since 2008, waste going to landfills went down by 4 per cent. I go to the recycle bins all the time down at the landfill center and am always surprised how many people are taking the time to recycle items that might otherwise end up in the dump.
What you can do:
Reduce, reuse, and recycle! To achieve zero waste, the first step you should start off with is to do as much recycling as possible. Check out the Zero Waste Network website for useful tips on how to contribute to reducing waste. While this is a U.S. website, it can be of great help to Canadians who have decided to live a more environmentally friendly life. Further to, the very best thing is to be aware of what kind of products you are BUYING that will require recycling. When you can, think about packaging and write companies whose products you love but who have packaging you can't support!
6. Access to Nature
Vancouver is famous for it's public access to waterfront space. And our parks board is one of the best around - evident in the beautiful green spaces in our city. Unfortunately, not everyone in Vancouver has good enough access to green spaces. That's one more thing that policy makers are trying to change with these initiatives.
All Vancouver residents live within a five-minute walk of a park, greenway, or other green space by 2020.
Plant 150,000 new trees by 2020.
Achieving this goal would be hugely beneficial for all of us. Trees not only equal oxygen (hooray!) but would also noticeably improve our urban environments, the quality of public spaces, the air we breathe and our overall quality of life. The walkability to green spaces in Vancouver has been improved recently and there is a new urban forest — both of which are signs of progress.
What you can do:
While people tend to say they want to be as close to nature as possible, when they’re forced to choose between a new park and a new shopping mall, they tend to opt for the latter for convenience sake. Get back to your nature and engage in discussions about how to improve everyone’s access to green spaces. Share them with your fellow citizens and city representatives! And above all, try to enjoy what we already have! Use Vancouver’s existing green spaces to the fullest!
7. Lighter Footprint
Do you know your carbon footprint? I was shocked when I found out how badly I was doing, even though I’m trying to live green. To achieve a “one-planet ecological footprint”, as Vancouver aims to, many of us need to change our habits pretty drastically. Start now!
- Reduce Vancouver’s ecological footprint by 33 per cent over 2006 levels.
There are many benefits we can enjoy from a reduced carbon footprint: a better local economy, better health, and lower emphasis on consumption are among them. To moderate carbon footprint levels, Vancouver launched the Greenest City fund, and it has been creating a range of opportunities for Greenest City Scholars.
What you can do:
Calculate your carbon footprint online. It’s important to know where you stand. Disappointed? Don't fret; at least you realized your lifestyle might be hurting the environment. Improve your life in the areas you know are the most ecologically dangerous. Calculate your footprint again once you've made some shifts and bask in your own improvement!
8. Clean Water
The quality of drinking water in Vancouver is undoubtedly better than many other cities, but our city aims to have the best drinking water in the world.
Meet or beat the strongest of British Columbian, Canadian, and appropriate international drinking water quality standards and guidelines.
Reduce per capita water consumption by 33 per cent from 2006 levels.
Fulfilling this goal will obviously bring us water of higher quality, improved water conservation, new green jobs, and more. In 2011, our drinking water succeeded in meeting (and even exceeding) British Columbian, Canadian, and international water quality standards. All Metro Vancouver residents must also have noticed the newly adopted seasonal water rates, due to which the cost of purchasing water in drier months is now higher.
What you can do:
We’re all responsible for the quality of water in our area, whether we realize it or not. There are many things we can do to improve the current situation.
Let’s start with something easy. Do you fertilize? Fertilizers (and other polluters) can be easily washed away and worsen the quality of our water. If you can’t do without, try to use zero-phosphorous fertilizers. For more tips on how to improve your private well water quality, check out this article.
9. Clean Air
One of the biggest negatives about living in a big, busy city is all the dangerous gas, dust, and dirt that we breathe in. Thousands of cars and manufacturers don’t contribute to clean, breathable air. Vancouver is a pretty busy city...think about what we're breathing in.
Always meet or beat the most stringent air quality guidelines from Metro Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and the World Health Organization
The immense benefits of cleaner air are obvious. It positively influences people’s health and quality of life. Vancouver has taken some action to make our lungs happy: this February, an $800,000 electric vehicle charging infrastructure trial was launched, with a plan to install 67 electric vehicle charging stations around the city by the end of 2013.
What you can do:
Again, one of the best ways to contribute to solving this problem is giving your car a little rest. Start using a healthier and more environment-friendly means of transit at least once a week! If you can’t give up your comfortable car from time to time, you’re not going to convince anyone that you genuinely care about more breathable air. Electric cars are another possibility if you can’t use your feet or a bike. Trust me, you might just fall in love with long walks or bike rides!
10. Local Food
So many people are dependent on products from supermarkets without even realizing there are much better options. Tomatoes don't have to taste like paper people! (I miss the tomatoes of my youth). Do we really want to be supporting low-quality produce and meat (when it's cheaper) if we can have fresh, delicious goods delivered direct from local producers? Vancouver aims to become a global leader in urban food systems, so let’s all work on achieving that.
Increase city-wide and neighbourhood food assets by a minimum of 50 per cent over 2010 levels.
I would greatly appreciate easier access to healthy, local food. It's hard to eat right on a budget. Our health could benefit greatly from fulfilling this goal. Increasing the number of farmer markets and community gardens is jut the beginning of what our city will eventually achieve by helping us grow and have access to more nourishing food. The Vancouver food strategy is a great step that needs our help!
What you can do:
Start buying products from local producers! It might be easier to go to the supermarket and get frozen, pre-prepared meals, but nothing can compare to the amazingly delicious fresh goods many of our local producers can offer. We are so lucky here compared to other cities in Canada - our food options are amazing. You heard me... we're spoiled. So take advantage!
Overall, so far this plan has had quite a positive reception. Many seem to be thrilled that a noticeable effort is being made to make Vancouver as green as possible. Nothing is perfect, however, and I need to point out some of the weak points of the strategy. The perhaps greatest issue is the unclear implementation and financing of this ambitious plan. When the plan was published in 2011, the budget for its implementation had not been discussed at all, which is strange, considering how huge of a project it is. As Jordan Clark notes, the strategy is “almost lyrical” in rhetoric, but the practical part is lacking.
Similarly, political commentator Kathryn Marshall writes that Mayor Robertson
“seems to pin his hopes that green investment and green jobs will magically sprout as a result of his plan.”
Marshall also seems to think that the city has taken it too far with being super green, and the result now is some sort of “eco-utopia.” One might carefully argue that too much of a good thing might not be effective. The plan might be a little too ambitious for some; and critics fear the outcome of pushing ahea could be disastrous for the lower classes. As Clark points out, besides being the greenest city in the world, Vancouver could easily become one of the most expensive cities... a reputation we seem to already have earned as when compared to our Canadian compatriots.
Perhaps the real question needs to be about value, and true cost. What are we willing to invest in a sustainable future? What do you think? Email me your thoughts and ideas.