A new era for urban sustainability
// Yette Gram

The City of Vancouver is known for many things: as the site of the 2010 Olympics; as a city beautifully placed between the mountains and the ocean; as a city of crazed hockey fans; and as 'Hollywood North'. In 2009, Vancouver's mayor Gregor Robertson began working to have Vancouver be known for one more thing: he wanted Vancouver to become the “Greenest City in the World” by 2020.

That may seem like a lofty goal, and it is, but it is also a goal that is worthy of being pursued. As we have seen this year with the late start to summer, the flooding in the prairies, and the droughts in Africa, climate change has already begun to affect our city, as well as the rest of the world. It doesn't stop at climate change, though.

We are using up oil, wood, fresh water, and other crucial resources at unsustainable rates, and it is only a matter of time before we deplete them completely. Peak oil has already been hit, which means we have used up about half of the world’s supply of oil, and it will only get more difficult (and more expensive) to get. As for water, only 1% of the fresh water in the world (about 0.007% of the world's total water) is accessible for human use. Unfortunately, much of that water is being contaminated by agricultural practices and pesticide use, through domestic and industrial consumption. Deforestation is also running rampant, particularly in places such as the Amazon rainforests. With the loss of such resources, not only is the natural world as a habitat for all creatures lost, but we also lose the ability for our society to function in the way we have become accustomed.

Those of us living in the city stand to lose the most when our lifestyle catches up to us, as it is in cities that the natural cycle of life has most been compromised. Here, most of the soil has been paved over and very little grows, in comparison with rural areas. Even less of the organic waste produced in cities makes it back to the soil, which contributes to our problem to not being able to feed ourselves. Vancouver Island, for example, grows enough food to feed itself for only three days without outside help. With the arrival of peak oil, it is important to question what will happen when we no longer have enough fuel to ship food.

Thankfully, there is a growing movement both in Vancouver and in cities across the world toward environmentally friendly and sustainable lifestyles. Urban farming is spreading; alternative transportation and energy options are have been invented and are becoming more accessible; and waste and carbon footprint reduction have become a very real topic of conversation for all levels of society.

Hundreds of blogs, websites and email lists dedicated to sustainability and environmental issues have sprung up all over the Internet, and books with topics ranging from gardening to how to build your own windmill have begun to fill the shelves of book stores and libraries. There are so many environmentally-oriented organizations that there are now even organizations with the purpose to help the others network and work together. Because of the mostly grassroots nature of these resources and organizations, much of the same work is being done over and over again, in slightly different ways. Though it is important for things to be taught in a variety of manners so that many different people can learn about them, it is also important to analyze the effectiveness of these attempts.

Robertson's “Greenest City” plan is one way the many interested groups in Vancouver are coming together to make the change they are all fighting for. Working together, they hope to make Vancouver a leader in the global shift. The plan was put together with the help of community leaders and experts, as well as everyday Vancouverites, coordinated by city staff. They came up with ten areas to work on to help us reach our goal of “Greenest City”. They cover economy, climate, buildings, waste, transportation, lightening our carbon footprint, clean air and water, and local food. “Vancouverites want to live in a city that is vibrant, affordable and sustainable,” explains Robertson. “We cherish the extraordinary beauty of our natural surroundings, celebrate our diversity, and are working to build a smart and green future.”

The plan was passed before council in July, and is currently in the implementation phase. We have already seen some of the results of the Greenest City plan, such as the new bike lanes downtown, and several new farmers’ markets appearing around town. There has been both enthusiasm and resistance every step of the way.

Other efforts toward making Vancouver green include a campaign to promote tap water and discourage the use of bottled water, which both drains on our water resources and causes waste and pollution due to discarded bottles and the bottling process. Maps were made that show the various places in the city where tap water is available for public use, and where available, they give access to the fundamental human right of safe drinking water to our city's poorest: the homeless. Community gardens and urban farms set up in the Downtown East Side and across the city have similar goals of empowering marginalized and disadvantaged people to grow fresh, healthy produce for themselves.

Over the course of this semester this column will monitor Vancouver's green initiatives and opportunities, from the results of the “Greenest City Action Plan”, to work by not-for-profits and individuals to help make Vancouver more sustainable. The Green plan has a lofty goal, and this column will analyze and critique whether or not it is being implemented properly. Whether or not the city continues to be as supportive of environmental issues in the future, the people of Metro Vancouver are pushing for change on their own. There is no choice but to step up and steer the world in the direction it needs to go, starting with our own city.

For more details about the Greenest City plan, as well as council reports, shorter term actions and
other information visit www.talkgreenvancouver.ca.

// Yette Gram

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com