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City View

Vancouver's segue from sustainability to resilience

Vancouver has a long history of environmental activism, and the city has made major strides in improving urban sustainability. Now, it's working on resilience.

Vancouver has a rich history of homegrown environmental activism: In 1971, Greenpeace was founded there after a small group of activists set sail to the Amchitka island off Alaska to try to stop a U.S. nuclear weapons test. And in 1990, Vancouver became the first city in North America to attempt to address climate change when it published its "Clouds of Change" (PDF) report — with an aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through density and better development.

Pioneering solutions for what many people hadn’t yet even recognized as a problem, Vancouver struggled to translate its initial climate action ideas into action.

"We argued a lot; there were doctrinaire leftists and rightists but we all had a common goal: To see if a city like Vancouver could change and make a difference," Gordon Price, one of the report’s co-authors, reflected in a 2013 blog post. "But in fact, we made very little difference ...  Virtually every one of the 35 recommendations got glowing acceptance comments from the powers that be, but little was implemented."

But Vancouver learned from its first foray into climate change action — its contemporary sustainability strategy, The Greenest City Action Plan (PDF), has proved much more successful.

Public engagement forges a modern sustainability strategy

Recognizing the importance of securing multiple stakeholder buy-in to the successful development and implementation of sustainability policies, Vancouver spent years consulting with experts and everyday citizens alike to develop the Greenest City Action Plan. This plan established 10 goals to be achieved by 2020, including: increasing green jobs and the number of companies actively engaged in greening their operations; reducing community-based greenhouse gas emissions; and increasing the number of green buildings.

"We spent a number of years developing a plan — we brought in an external advisory committee called the Greener City Action Team — and it was academics, it was business, it was students … it was a little bit of everything to help give us some focus for the plan," Doug Smith, current acting director of Vancouver’s Sustainability Group, told GreenBiz.

The city had over 35,000 residents participate in the consultation program, which ensured that a diverse array of citizen stakeholders’ views were considered.

"Then we took their ideas internally, worked on it with staff and then put it up to the public and had a huge consultation program around the Greenest City Action Plan." All told, he said, the city had over 35,000 residents participate in the consultation program, which ensured that a diverse array of citizen stakeholders’ views were considered.

Progress on the sustainability front

So far, it seems to be working. In a 2015 update (PDF), Vancouver announced that it had achieved 80 percent of the "high priority actions" identified as most necessary to achieve the Greenest City targets. The city cut greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent across the city, an 18 percent decrease per capita since 2007.

Vancouver passed one of the greenest building codes in North America, and homes built in the city will use 50 percent less energy than those built elsewhere in British Columbia. The city also established a $2 million Greenest City Fund in collaboration with the Vancouver Foundation to support community-led projects to green Vancouver.

"Lots of good history of being environmentalists here … and so a lot of our policies and programs — even now that we’ve plucked a lot of the low-hanging fruit and have been very aggressive with some of our new measures — are still getting pretty broad support not only from the residential sector but across the business and political spectrum as well," said Smith.

How Vancouver got half its people to walk and bike

In addition to traditional public transit such as bus and light rail systems, Vancouver embraced policies aimed at making moving on foot or by bike "safe, convenient and enjoyable." In 2015, Vancouver announced that it had achieved its goal of having 50 percent of all trips being made by sustainable transportation — walking, biking and mass transit — five years early.

Granted, Vancouver began with some advantages: the city already enjoyed a "bike culture" and its design was advantageous to further promoting biking. Likewise, Vancouver is one of a handful of North American cities that does not have a major highway cutting through its core — thanks to public protests of freeway construction in the 1960s.

"All of the city’s streets are continuous — there are arterials, secondary arterials and residential streets and they all crisscross the whole city with few cul-de-sacs or dead ends," said Smith. "We were able to create a network of really nice bike routes in the local streets just one block off the arterial. So as a bicyclist, you could make it anywhere in the city and not see a truck."

While calming the residential streets for biking was relatively easy, tackling the busier streets in the downtown core proved more challenging.

"We started off with bike lanes, and then realized that most of the bicyclists in Vancouver were pretty hardcore cyclists — whether there’s a bike lane or it's hardcore pouring," said Smith. "And we needed to attract the next level of cyclists — people who weren’t hardcore and people who were afraid of cycling in traffic."

That’s why the city built AAA ("all ages and abilities") bike routes, protected bike paths in the downtown core. This meant stripping parking in front of businesses, putting concrete planters as barriers to traffic and giving the cyclists their own dedicated space.

"It was very controversial when we first started doing it," said Smith. "The businesses freaked out, a lot of residents freaked out. But within about two years the business realized this was actually attracting more people to the businesses."

Rather than chasing people away away — as some business owners feared — the bike lanes began attracting more people to businesses downtown. Yet another example of how the more sustainable choice can be the better choice for economic development. Building on this success, Vancouver is aiming to achieve a 70 percent sustainable transit rate by 2040, said Smith.

From sustainability to resilience

Vancouver may be making steady progress on the climate change mitigation front, but it’s only now beginning to look at adaptation. As a coastal city with its most valuable real estate situated on a peninsula, Vancouver is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and other climate change impacts.

"Where we’re just starting to prepare, and we’re probably going a little bit too slow at this point, is about climate adaptation," said Smith. "We do have a climate adaptation strategy ... one of the first ones in North America … and it’s really helped us set the pathway of what to do."

In 2012, Vancouver launched its Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (PDF), which recommends nine primary actions and over 50 supporting actions that the city can take to incorporate climate change adaptation measures into new projects and daily operations for all city business. It’s intended to guide the way Vancouver builds and maintains its streets, sewers, building infrastructure, parks and green spaces to ensure they are resilient to climate change.

After publishing the plan, the first thing the city did was conduct an updated coastal flood risk assessment — primarily looking at sea level rise, which buildings were most at risk and how to protect them. Subsequently, Vancouver raised its flood construction levels and updated its flood plain.

Earlier this year, Vancouver was selected as a 100 Resilient City — a $164 million effort founded by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2013 to unite and support 100 cities from around the world that are committed to developing resiliency strategies.

Earlier this year, Vancouver was selected as a 100 Resilient City — a $164 million effort founded by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2013 to unite and support 100 cities from around the world that are committed to developing resiliency strategies. As a member of the 100RC Network, Vancouver will gain access to tools, funding, technical expertise and other resources to build resilience to address social, economic and environmental challenges — and also will be able to appoint a chief resilience officer to lead the development of a citywide resilience strategy.

"There’s no shortage of plans," Smith said, "but I think what the chief resilience officer will be able to do for us is actually — if you think of all the plans as being pieces of a pie on a pie chart, between a lot of the plans are some gray areas … and the resilience officer will look at how to fill in those gaps."

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