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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.

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.

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