Greenest City Scholars

Aug 01


We began only three months ago, and now our time at the City has come to an end. We’ve talked to many City staff, read countless reports, hosted several socials, and from all of that produced ten bodies of work that will hopefully have some impact on future actions that will help bring Vancouver closer to becoming the Greenest City.

We’d like to thank you for following our adventure at the City, and hope that you were able to take from this blog new knowledge, new passion and new motivation about how your actions are part of the Greenest City Action Plan.

The 2011 Greenest City Scholars

The University Sustainability Initiative, the creator of the Greenest Scholars program, will be hosting an event at UBC this fall for the Greenest Scholars to share stories of the their experience. Details to follow.

Jul 28

Overcoming The Myth of Infinite Water

I was warned. Before I drove my pickup across the continent to move here last August, I was warned that if I wanted to enjoy my life in Vancouver I should get used to rain and lots of it. It took a few months, but I soon understood what I had signed up for. And now it seems our summer has been hijacked by the prior nine months.

Regardless of the anomaly, the data is still irrefutable. It typically rains 4.5 times as much in November as it does in July. Summer is but one of the four seasons, but here in Vancouver, accounts for only 8.6% of the annual rainfall. Because of this and the fact that the three summer months are time for peak residential water use, our city has enacted the recently publicized lawn watering regulations. Slowly, but surely, the City of Vancouver is growing closer to the goal it set for itself, to reduce per capita water consumption by 33% by 2020Due primarily to water conservation regulations, including the summertime lawn watering education and regulation program, mandated low-flow water fixtures for new construction, and a recently approved mandate to incrementally implement water metering in all new residential construction, 21% of the 33% reduction will, by all estimates, be accounted for.

Accounting for the remaining 12% reduction can be achieved through the widespread use of rainwater harvesting (RWH) and reuse techniques. If all residential structures were to implement RWH to supplement their potable water use, it could account for an average monthly reduction of water consumption by nearly 20%. Despite reaching this numbered goal, harvesting rainwater can achieve two important and practical goals.

First, the use of rainwater can divert some of the highest quality drinking water in the world used to perform non-potable tasks as washing clothing, flushing toilets, and ground irrigation of lawns and gardens. Second, it can help perform a lesser known task – it will help divert a portion of the 41 billion litres of annual rainwater runoff from directly polluting streams as well as inundating the city’s combined sewer system and polluting the region’s larger waterways during storm events.

Work has been completed to bring Vancouver closer to regulation of RWH, but guiding policies, namely those regarding defining non-potable water quality, are not yet in place. Of the various barriers, political and cultural, is the belief in the myth that Vancouverites enjoy an infinite amount of freshwater and that RWH is unnecessary. This certainly seemed true to me as I spent nearly a year here, but I have a clearer picture now.

Droughts do happen here. They tend to happen when we need water the most, to either water our prize lawns or our small plot in the community garden one block away. Due to the eventual threats posed by climate change during this half of the century - the decreased snow melt and source of our water, longer dry periods, and water demand from the increased environmental refugee population it will bring to the region - it is in the best interest of the public for this additional conservation measure begin to be implemented now.

Just 1mm of rainfall falling upon on a roof surface measuring 1 square meter in area yields 1 litre of harvested water. Where better a place to capture water where it falls free from the sky then here in Vancouver. The sooner the city mandates the use of harvested rainwater for such uses as toilet flushing and in-ground irrigation, the more secure our water future will look.

Joshua Welsh

Jul 26

What is Green?

It seems we hear the word green to describe just about everything these days, from airplanes to the NHL. What does ‘green’ exactly mean though? As a noun it can be a reference to landscaping, as in greening a public space. In the current times it has adopted a new meaning, one that aligns with a longstanding challenge that humanity is facing. It’s also a colour and I suppose that’s why green was chosen; to use a prominent colour of the natural environment we’re trying to protect, as a reminder.
As more and more companies claim to offer green products and services, the meaning becomes dilluted and can even cross into greenwashing. So we need to look deeper than just green. I think we can all agree that actions speak louder than words.

That’s what’s so commendable about Vancouver’s recently approved Greenest City Action Plan. There are three periods set forth in the plan that provide short, medium and long-term guidance. The long term goals represent the Vancouver we want in the year 2050, such as “Eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels” and “Create zero waste”. To get there we’ve developed intermediate targets as a guidepost to set the distance and direction we need to achieve by 2020. Finally, actions are identified up to 2020, all designed to make meaningful progress, with priority actions for implementation from 2011-2014. These elements combine to define a plan of tangible actions and long-term vision.
The targets set for 2020 are what make this plan meaningful and significant, as they will be used to monitor our progress. There are two important characteristics of the targets that make them meaningful. First, they are specific in that they identify a clear and tangible target. Second, each of these targets is measurable, from counting pedestrians and weighing waste to international air and water quality standards. This methodology isn’t too different from how you or I set goals for ourselves.
The targets are specific and measurable, but now we have to determine the actual values of the targets. However, some targets are easier than others. Water quality, for example is set to acheive a standard higher than any local, national or international regulation. That’s relatively easy. But others are more difficult, because the benefits may run deeper than just numbers. Food is one of those. The target is to increase the number of food assets by 50%. Great. But a community kitchen provides vastly different benefits than a seed exchange, but each counts as one. Targets like food need to be supplemented by stories and anecdotes to expand on the qualitative benefits that our actions are creating.

So becoming the Greenest City isn’t all about the numbers. There is a balance between qualitative and quantitative measuring that will take place for all of the targets, with some requiring more than others. And that’s what makes the Greenest City Action Plan so strong. It’s a comprehensive map that outlines all of the different areas that need to move forward for Vancouver to become the Greenest City, whatever that may mean to you.

Avery Titchkosky

Jul 25

District Energy: A New Approach to an Old System


What whirlwind summer it’s been so far!

It feels like only yesterday I was asking the same question you’re probably asking yourself right now, what the heck is district energy?  Little did I know I was about to embark on a mission of reducing the single biggest piece of Vancouver’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emission pie.  Any guesses on who this GHG culprit is? 

Answer: Believe it or not, it’s the very buildings we live and work in.  Buildings are responsible for producing around 54% of Vancouver’s total GHG emission!  Who knew?! 

So where are all these emissions coming from?  The posted figure shows the approximate energy profile for buildings in Vancouver.  Energy demands come in the form of:

1.       Electricity (lighting, appliances, etc.)

2.       Thermal energy (heat and hot water)

As the figure shows, the demand for each form of energy is almost split down the middle.  Because of BC’s wealth in hydroelectricity, the electric demands are mostly met with renewable energy. Thermal energy, on the other hand, is mostly produced through the combustion of natural gas producing substantial carbon dioxide emissions.  As a result, the majority of the GHG emissions produced from our buildings are attributed to our heat and hot water demands.

So how does district energy tie into this?  District energy is a centralized approach to producing heat and hot water.  Rather than having a boiler in each residence (think about that big boiler in your basement), a single large centralized plant would produce the heat and hot water for an entire block or even neighbourhood of buildings.  

This approach not only results in a greater thermal energy production efficiency, but due to the increased economy of scale, it also opens up the possibility of using renewable energy forms rather then natural gas.  This is where major GHG emission savings can be made.  As an example, the Neighbourhood Energy Utility in Southeast False Creek is producing a high percentage of their thermal energy needs by capturing heat from our sewer system. ( 

By promoting the use of renewable district energy systems to supply our buildings heat and hot water needs, the City of Vancouver can take major steps towards achieving their GHG emission reduction goals.  I’m just happy to be able to say that I’ve been able to be a part of making it happen.

Derek Pope

Jul 20

Looking to Other Cities: Los Angeles’ Bike Plan

Los Angeles’ Bike Plan is audacious, with plans to install over 1600 miles of bike paths, increase the number and types of cyclists (aiming for a mode share of 5%), and make every street safe to cycle on. For an auto-centric city where over 85% of people commute by car (compared to Vancouver’s 59%), LA’s lofty plan has the potential to drastically shift the carbon footprint – not to mention the culture – of the city.  Despite this being the 3rd bike plan LA has created (where nearly 35 years of effort has resulted in less than 400 miles of bike lane), it is easy to be optimistic about this plan; policies are highly action-oriented and include details regarding the lead department, objectives or metrics, and timelines. An interesting prioritization framework based primarily on neighbourhood income levels, as well as an exhaustive list of potential funding sources make this a particularly strong plan.

Maggie Baynham

Looking to Other Cities: Montréal’s Transportation Plan

Montréal wins points for its strong vision to “significantly reduce… dependence on cars through massive investment in various forms of public transit and active transportation”. It provides plenty of sound justification through associated benefits to environmental quality, economic vitality, quality of life, including improved health, safety and access, and social equity, since public transit serves the most people. Among other things, Montréal intends to make public transit the “cornerstone of development” for the city, double the length of bike lanes, give a bigger role to cyclists, pedestrians and transit within the street system and keep pace with innovative transportation technologies. You can tell they mean business with a budgetary timeline and breakdown of capital and operating expenses for every policy and initiative.

Maggie Baynham

Jul 18

Updating the Transportation Plan

Vancouver is currently updating its Transportation Plan, and will be seeking to achieve its Greenest City targets through the road map – ahem, bike route – it sets for itself. Those targets are a 50% mode share by foot, bicycle and transit, and a 20% reduction in per capita vehicle-km-travelled (VKT) from 2007 levels.

My job has been to review transportation plans from around North America and the world to identify the innovative strategies Vancouver might apply here. As it turns out, Vancouver is well ahead of the curve, making this a very difficult task indeed. Whether its setting a ceiling on vehicle parking or minimum requirements for secure bicycle parking in new developments, ensuring taxis are outfitted with bike racks, making special parking regulations for carshare programs, installing transit-priority treatments along transit corridors, establishing community bike share programs, or making streets a more inviting public space, Vancouver is either making progress towards or has already implemented many of the most exciting ideas from other cities.

However, in my review of Transportation Plans there were a few that stood out as models we can certainly look to as we re-examine Vancouver’s direction. These few are particularly strong in part because of their innovative ideas, but equally because of their compelling vision, well-supported arguments, and sense of accountability for implementation.

My personal favourites so far have been Montréal’s 2008 Transportation Plan, Los Angeles’ 2010 Bicycle Plan, and New York City’s 2009 Sustainable Streets Plan. In this post, I’ll tell you a bit about New York, and save the others for the next couple weeks.

New York City has long been a model of sustainability, with its incredible density, highly developed transit system, low rates of car ownership and vibrant parks and public spaces. This has recently become even more the case with the recent pedestrianization of iconic streets such as Madison Square, Times Square, and parts of Broadway. Their Sustainable Streets Plan seeks to build on these successes, as well as integrate the vision of PlanYC – New York City’s comprehensive plan to create “a greener, greater NYC”. New York considers the impact of the transportation system holistically, and includes policies ranging from recycled asphalt paving and energy efficient street signals, to the use of car sharing for city fleet vehicles and the implementation of a complete city-wide bike network.

In Vancouver, we have much to learn from the individual initiatives in New York and other forward-thinking cities. If Vancouver is to be the greenest city, we must not only commit to each individual action, but use the Transportation Plan Update as an opportunity to create the most compelling vision, supported by sound research, and the metrics and timelines necessary to keep us accountable and moving forward.

Maggie Baynham

Jul 14

The Greenest City In the News -

Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan goes to council! Exciting times in the greenest city.

Check it out here.

Jul 11

Making Vancouver a More Resilient City

Rising sea levels, increased annual precipitation and summer heat waves are all changes in climate that have been projected for the City of Vancouver over the next century.  Both the welcome changes (such as warmer, longer summers ) and those that are less appealing (such as rainier winters and less snow in the mountains) have serious consequences for the City of Vancouver and its inhabitants. To maintain the City’s character, liveability and resilience over the longer term, climate change will have to be incorporated into planning and decision making processes.

How can this be accomplished? Plenty of cities around the world are now engaging in adaptation through the design of climate change adaptation strategies that identify potential impacts and evaluate adaptation options. The City of Vancouver has recently embarked on its own adaptation journey, guided by its participation in the Adaptation Initiative coordinated by the NGO ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. Alongside other cities including Victoria, North Vancouver and Surrey, Vancouver is completing the five milestone process set out by ICLEI and is scheduled to have a draft Adaptation Strategy by the end of 2011.

Vancouver will face a diversity of challenges, from the durability of infrastructure to the health and safety of vulnerable populations. Rising sea levels mean that sea walls, dykes or simply making room for flooding are all potential adaptations for low-lying areas. Hotter summers mean that at-risk populations such as the homeless and elderly may require extra assistance accessing water or finding cool places to rest. Anticipated climate changes will tend to exacerbate existing climate variability rather than introducing new phenomena. As such, many City programs such as water conservation efforts, tree planting initiatives and flood risk management strategies are already building resilience to climate change.

Coordinating these and other adaptation actions and ensuring that a changed climate is taken into consideration within each of the City’s broader goals and aspirations remains an important challenge for the Climate Change Adaptation Team. With the help and participation of all City departments, Vancouver can become a leader in climate change adaptation, just as it is forging a similar path in climate change mitigation.


Lisa Westerhoff

Jul 06

Beyond the Locovore’s Dilemma…

While my Greenest City goal is ‘zero-waste’, one of my other major interests is in food systems and how they work in urban settings. The City of Vancouver has done a lot of work on this front in supporting initiatives, such as by including a local-food goal in their Greenest City 2020 Plan, which has a 2020 target of increasing food assets by 50% over 2010 levels.

To that end, I tend to get rather upset when I hear about advocates pushing for policy in the other direction, such as when I read a recent editorial in the Boston Globe by Edward Glaeser, which proclaimed that urban farming was more environmentally harmful than good. The editorial prompted me to write a response for a friend’s site, on how we need to re-imagine agriculture for the 21st century. I thought some of you might be interested in reading both, so we can continue the conversation of what food production in vibrant urban spaces should be like.

Please note - all statements and opinions are personal. Cheers,

Darlene Seto

Jul 05

Sustainability in Police Departments

When I think about sustainability, I don’t immediately think of police departments. My background is sustainability planning and I have worked for regional and municipal government as well as for the non-profit sector. Before this summer, I had never encountered or heard of sustainability initiatives in police departments. In general, my contact with the police has been minimal. The most substantial thing is that I’ve undergone background checks through the RCMP because I used to work as a lifeguard and working with children requires completing a background check (and no, I’m not ‘conveniently’ omitting any details!).

My Greenest City project is to review sustainability initiatives undertaken by police departments around the world. The Vancouver Police Department recently adopted a goal to become more environmentally sustainable as a department. While they have started several initiatives and have recorded accomplishments, they are looking to create a more comprehensive sustainability strategy and want to know what other jurisdictions were doing.

My supervisor and I didn’t expect to find a lot. What I did unearth surprised me. Below are select paragraphs from the final report that I am beginning to write. I have to say that one of the coolest things that I found is that there is an organization called the International Association for Law Enforcement Planners (IALEP). Every police department has staff working on research, policy and planning and many departments in North American are plugged into IALEP. Being an urban planner, it was delightful to not only find fellow planning folks at the VPD but a whole network of planners that I didn’t know about!

Police Sustainability Around the World

An Internet search identified eight police forces in the UK that have publicly accessible sustainability policies, plans and reports online. One police department responded to a survey circulated via the International Association for Law Enforcement Planners (IALEP) listserve. A scan of North American police department websites revealed that several Canadian agencies are working on sustainability projects. A targeted survey contacted 35 Canadian and 57 American departments and one Australian agency. Responses were received from 27 Canadian and 29 American departments for a response rate of 75% from Canadian agencies, 51% from American agencies and 60% overall. A response was also received from the single Australian department. Several of these departments were interviewed by phone in order to gain more detailed information about their sustainability efforts. This survey excluded the Vancouver Police Department.

The leading police agency in the world with respect to environmental initiatives is the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). The Service established its environmental program in 1991 and has won numerous awards for their work. In addition to expanding the scope of their work to include social, economic and environmental impacts in their 2010-2013 Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy, the MPS is also taking national leadership in policing sustainability. Most if not all forces in the UK have created or are in the process of creating sustainability policies and plans, as national legislation requires public sector organizations to assess, measure and minimize their environmental impacts.

Police environmental initiatives are less uniform in North America than in the United Kingdom because of the lack of national legislative requirements. Instead, the responses from survey participants suggest that departments often adopt sustainability goals and actions as partners and contributors to their municipality’s city-wide sustainability commitments and plans.

21 of the 27 departments (71%) surveyed in Canada are working on environmental projects or initiatives. Among the respondents, the Calgary and Ontario Provincial Police Departments have the most comprehensive sustainability initiatives in Canada. The Calgary Police created an Environmental Management Program this year and is in the process of becoming ISO 140001 certified. To support the Ontario Government’s Green Strategy, the Ontario Provincial Police recently developed a departmental Green Strategy.

18 of the 29 agencies (62%) that responded from the United States are undertaking sustainability projects or initiatives. Among those surveyed, the Dallas Police has the most comprehensive environmental initiative of those surveyed. In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency and the City of Dallas entered into an agreed upon consent decree to enhance the City’s environmental stewardship. The Dallas Police was one of the first departments that began implementing the City of Dallas’ Environmental Management System by becoming ISO 140001 certified.

The Victoria Police is the single Australian department that was contacted through the targeted survey. The Victoria Police initially began working on energy reduction initiatives in 2005 to comply with state requirements. In 2008, it voluntarily broadened its work to other sustainability areas and created an Environmental Sustainability Branch. The agency is taking state-wide leadership in sustainability. It has been working with the Department of Sustainability & Environment over the last several years to develop a state-wide environmental data management system that will allow comparison of environmental performance across the State Government.

Environmental work within the Victoria Police started in response to the State Government establishing mandated energy reduction targets for all departments. It is likely that other Australian departments are undertaking environmental work under similar circumstances. However, the lack of publicly accessible online information, lack of contact information for these departments and short time frame for conducting this survey prevented further study. This is an area for future work.

Polly Ng

Jun 22

Viva Vancouver!

Vancouver is celebrated for its livability but the Greenest City Action Team wants to push this further by making walking, cycling and transit the preferred transportation options. A large component of this goal is transforming the public realm to make it more appealing and enjoyable. Why not reclaim the streets for pedestrians and cyclists just as cities like Copenhagen, New York and San Francisco have done?

In the last couple of years the City of Vancouver brought us the Summer Streets and Rediscover Granville programs – removing vehicular traffic from the streets to literally open them up for community activities and social interaction. This summer these concepts are returning revamped as Viva Vancouver with active and passive programming along five downtown blocks of Granville and seven other sites across the city. Viva launches this weekend – Saturday June 25th – with a Red Bull skateboarding show and Latincouver on the following Sunday. Check out our facebook page and look for the website to launch soon. Watch for Viva transformations throughout the rest of the summer.

My work as a Greenest City Scholar involves developing a monitoring plan that better accounts for the qualitative experience of users traversing Viva Vancouver streets this summer. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl’s public space, public life methodology has recently been adapted to North American cities in order to comprehensively evaluate the design and use of urban public spaces. Now as Vancouver vamps up the innovation of their public realm initiatives, the city must also add new methods to their toolbox for proper evaluation.

Tate Francesca White - Green Mobility Goal

Jun 21

Vancouver Sun op-ed: GC Scholar improves environmental awareness of Chinese Community -

It came to the attention of the folks at the City of Vancouver recently that when they tried to engage ethnic communities in making Vancouver the greenest city in the world, sometimes they were not speaking their language. Literally.

Click here to view full article.

Jun 17

The Greenest Cities

Think Vancouver is alone in its quest to be the greenest city in the world, well think again. There are a number of cities – both large and small – that have adopted some very substantial sustainability policies, goals, and targets. So, if Vancouver wants to earn that greenest city title we’ll have to keep the amazing momentum going. Fortunately for us, our greenest city initiative is doing just that; barreling forward with the action plan and finding new and creative ways to green our city.

But, if you’re concerned at all about all that stiff competition facing Vancouver maybe you should check some of those other cities out. San Jose has a fantastic Green Vision ( that comes close to rivaling Vancouver’s GCI; the Greater London Authority has a responsible procurement policy (, and was the first City to adopt such a policy; Toronto has a Climate Change, Clean Air and Sustainable Energy Action Plan ( that has been around since 2007; New York includes a number of sustainability-related goals and targets in their 2007 PlaNYC ( aimed at making a ”Greener, Greater New York.”

While all great policies and plans, none of them are quite as strong as Vancouver’s. Still, all these initiatives get one major point across: if Vancouver is to be the greenest city in the world we’ll need to keep up the hard work and keep sustainability a priority, not only for the City and its projects but for all Vancouverites too.  

Nouri Najjar
Green Economy Goal

Jun 10

Anonymous said: I'm the Director of the Global Reporting Initiative in the North America. GRI is the most widely used sustainability (the broad definition - not just environmental) reporting framework in the world. More than 70% of the world's largest companies report their sustainability performance using GRI, which allows all of us to better compare and contrast the standardized information they report through the Guidelines. Many of the companies listed on the GRI Reports List (Google and download the sortable spreadsheet) are suppliers to cities and are already reporting their footprints - environmental, social and governance. In addition, universities, non-profits, government agencies and even cities are reporting using the GRI Guidelines, but reporting in North America lags the rest of the world.
How do we fix this?

Thanks for the message. That’s a tough question. In your opinion is it a lag on behalf of the policy makers in North America to address citizens’ concerns about sustainability or is it a lag on the part of citizens? There are a lot of municipalities in North America taking some pretty big strides to make a sustainable shift in their regions, but reporting may be more of a federal or provincial mandate. Perhaps we need more direct federal requirements for sustainability reporting? In your experience what level of government in Europe initiates the reporting requirements?

Cheers, Nouri