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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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Just as American television chokes with scare ads attacking Canada's health care system, it was time to check if Vancouver, British Columbia, once ranked by The Economist as first in quality of living, was still pointing the way to the future.

From the airport all along Granville Street, Vancouver's longest artery, my eyes kept searching for urban blight, some garbage or a little graffiti -- but there was none. Moving through the ethnically diverse neighborhoods, no litter could be spotted on the streets and sidewalks.

Suddenly, the sunlit skyline of downtown Vancouver revealed itself at the horizon. With gleaming glass towers, snow-capped mountains, huge parks, and wide beaches, the city appears like a Manhattan reborn in a New Age.

This is not to say it's a city without problems, or that it doesn't have its own share of the poor and homeless. But Vancouver's dynamic young and idealistic mayor, Gregor Robertson, won election in December promising to solve these problems and ultimately make Vancouver the greenest city in the world.

These aspirations may be what makes Vancouver the most futuristic, particularly in light of the intensifying climate crisis. The normally private and interview-averse scientist James Lovelock, who gave us the Gaia Hypothesis (earth as a living organism), is now declaring the game basically over when it comes to escaping the worst scenarios of climate change.

And NASA climate scientist James Hansen just got himself arrested with young activists of Rainforest Action Network to protest coal mining.

The realization that many of the ways we produce our lifestyle are not just injurious to the earth, but literally suicidal, grows apace. All issues, all questions, all policies and all actions may soon be viewed through the lens of this looming crisis.

Given the grim publicity pointing to the unexpected direness of the issue, it makes sense that cities of the future will anticipate pending changes and at the very least put the brakes on needless damage without delay.

Long arguing for the inevitable decentralization of political power, B.C. professor Warren Magnusson has promoted the idea of "radical municipalism," that global cities will open the political space for new forms of social and political life.

Reading that as an opening to a new ecological space, it may well be one of the strategies that give us a fighting chance when larger political entities, provinces, states and nations, are too slow to act decisively.

With growing economic ties to Asia, Vancouver is already developing its own foreign relations with other nations and major cities. Birthplace of Greenpeace, and a leader in hydroelectrics, Vancouver draws 90 percent of its power from renewable sources and is now preparing to use wind, solar, wave and tidal energy to significantly reduce fossil-fuel use.

The mayor wants Vancouver to be the North American hub for green jobs, for sustainable industry and to "capitalize on what is now globally a seismic shift toward a green economy." Robertson envisions the city attracting new green businesses that will "thrive as they roll out their goods and services to other cities who are playing catch-up."

Other cities in North America racing to be the world's greenest include Toronto; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Santa Monica, Calif; Austin, Texas; and Chicago. According to the Vancouver Sun, Vancouver is catching up fast to Toronto and San Francisco but is still well behind Reykjavik, Iceland; Copenhagen, Denmark; Stockholm, Sweden; and Amsterdam, Netherlands when it comes to its shade of green. London; Sydney, Australia; Barcelona, Spain; and Bogota, Colombia are also in the competition.

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.

Other green initiatives in Vancouver include installing LED lights in all 670 traffic signals; new rapid-transit service and Sky Trains connecting the city to the airport and surrounding areas; and the construction of a model sustainable community in a formerly industrial area called Southeast False Creek. Even part of the City Hall lawn has been converted into a community garden to grow local food to be donated to providers in Vancouver's inner-city neighborhoods.

Robertson's efforts, while still relatively tame, are only a prelude for his plans to completely and radically revamp the energy and consumption patterns of the city. But bike lanes, green roofs and electric outlets are significant building blocks to creating the necessary culture of sustainability so that more profound changes find sufficiently wide support.

He is also seeking funding partners, including other governments, private donors and businesses to invest in the city's eco-transformation.

Roberston points to the old polluting power plant that lights up Vancouver at night and vows it will soon give way to a renewable-energy facility. The mayor convincingly walks his talk -- his other car is a bicycle, and he likes to spend weekends with his wife and teenage kids in an off-the-grid cabin without a driveable road on nearby Cortes Island.

In contrast, even the city's newest luxury hotel, the Loden, is working on a host of environmental initatives and energy-efficiency measures for its 14-story hotel, featuring a curved glass facade designed as an allusion to the nearby ocean waves. The elegantly shaped contemporary green building makes abundant use of glass, natural stone, wood and copper.

So what about health care in Canada? Despite U.S. GOP rhetoric to the contrary, none of the Democratic plans now on the table call for a Canadian-like government-run health care system. But even that would be an improvement over the heath care debacle in the U.S.

Polls suggest Canadians love their health system -- they spend about 55 percent of what Americans spend on comparable health care, and they have longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates.

Life in Vancouver looks bright -- for human and planetary health -- and it's getting brighter all the time.

Allan Hunt Badiner is a writer, activist and editor of three books: Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology; Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics; and Mindfulness in the Marketplace: Compassionate Responses to Consumerism.
 
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