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Is Vancouver About to Become the Greenest City in the World?

The city has made a rapid transition: It draws 90% of its energy from renewables, has a booming bicycle culture and a very popular progressive mayor.

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Robertson recently enjoyed a sweet victory with the addition of a bike-and-pedestrian lane to a major city bridge. While most of the media, business groups and politicians denounced the plan -- predicting it would pave the way for his defeat in the next election -- the new lanes, once opened, did not disrupt traffic, and the public responded enthusiastically. Three out of four residents in a recent poll support redirecting money from road expansion projects toward better public-transit systems and alternative transportation.

Vancouver voters also seem to favor the mayor's compassionate, yet urgent, approach to homelessness and his goal to eliminate it on city streets by 2015. Within weeks of his election, he coordinated with the province to create 200 temporary shelter beds and organized the Homeless Emergency Action Team made up of city, provincial, nonprofit and private sectors representatives tasked with finding immediate solutions for homelessness.

After three months, five emergency shelters were providing beds and a warm place to stay for more than 400 homeless people. And while new high-rise shelters are in the works, problems persist, and some residents who live near shelters are upset by drug activity, fights and their flower beds used for defecation. For the most part, the city's efforts are seen as a success, and there are dramatically fewer people are sleeping on the streets.

Meanwhile, at a greater cost than anticipated, the deep greening of Vancouver continues unabated. Host to the Olympic Winter Games in 2010, the city has constructed a nine-block green Olympic Village, where 10,000 athletes will stay and which will become green condos after the games.

The U.S. Green Building Council has awarded the Olympic Village a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification for its green initiatives. Half of the buildings will have green roofs, meaning they will have plants growing on them, providing insulation and reducing the energy needed to heat or cool them.

Environmentalist David Suzuki, who warns that climate warming could eliminate ice skating, cross-country skiing and low-elevation downhill skiing by 2050, has partnered with Vancouver to reduce the size of the 2010 Games' carbon footprint. With careful management of the environmental impacts, Suzuki estimates carbon offsets will neutralize 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide produced at the 2010 Winter Games.

Examples include the Olympic Oval (speed-skating venue), featuring a roof from salvaged pine-beetle-infested wood; heat for the Athlete's Village provided by a municipal waste-water treatment system; and a Buy Smart program that weighs sustainability and aboriginal participation in procurement (the Squamish First Nation will create 138 handmade drums as athlete prizes).

For one- and two-family dwellings, Vancouver already has the greenest building code in North America. New homeowners now stand to save up to 30 percent on their energy bills, use less water and have healthier places to live.

Grants and incentives are available to residents planning the renovation of an older home, and rebates and financing options are provided for home improvements involving the addition of weather-stripping, efficient water heaters, windows and doors.

Moving closer to being a bike- and electric-vehicle-friendly city, free parking is provided for all electric cars and scooters, all new single-family homes and off-street bicycle storage rooms are required to have dedicated electric plug-in outlets, and electric vehicle plug-ins will be provided in at least 20 percent of the parking stalls in new condo/apartment buildings.

Vancouver has incentivized an increase in hybrid and energy-efficient vehicles in taxi fleets, and along with BC Hydro, the city signed on with Mitsubishi for tests of the world's first production-ready, highway-capable electric car. A public bike-sharing program and more bike lanes will soon be unveiled as cycling has increased 180 per cent in the last 10 years.

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