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Photo Tour: What Will It Take To Make Our Cities 100% Green?

Vancouver, BC is pioneering the most aggressive urban sustainability project in North America. So -- how's it going?
 
 
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Photo Credit: Sven Eberlein

 

The last fifty years have witnessed a steep worldwide increase in the percentage of population living within cities. Home to over half of the world’s population on only two percent of the earth’s land cover, cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions.

A recent UN report warns that urban areas are set to become the battleground in the global effort to curb climate change. In other words, cities and human settlements, if done right, are the places that offer the greatest opportunities not only in reducing greenhouse gases but in creating the kind of infrastructures that enable large numbers of people to live in balance with the earth's ecosystem. 

vancouver_08While rapid population growth continues to be one of the biggest challenges for cities in the world's poorest countries, the issue for most cities in wealthier countries with slowly growing or even declining populations is a disproportionately large per capita environmental footprint.

For example, the City of Vancouver, B.C., often touted as one of the greenest cities in the world, has an environmental footprint that's almost four times the sustainable level. That means that if everyone on earth lived as Vancouverites do today, we would need three to four planets to support that level of consumption. Still: the City of Vancouver, with its rich history of far-sighted urban planning, serves both as a model for other North American cities of how to incorporate sustainability into all city operations as well as a reminder of how steep a climb it is for a city to become truly sustainable.

On a recent trip there to discuss the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative (IEFS), an innovative vision for an ecologically-restorative human civilization as well as a practical methodology for assessing and guiding progress towards the goal, my daily commute from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood where I was staying to various engagements all across Vancouver highlighted the ongoing struggle between sustainable ideals and the realities on the ground.

Eco-Density and Neighborhood Energy Utility

My destination on the first day is a talk at the downtown convention center by one of the world’s great theorists and authors in ecological city design and planning, Richard Register. A walk across Cambie Street Bridge from the South False Creek neighborhood (more on that later) to the downtown peninsula affords a first impression of Eco-Density, an initiative adopted by the City of Vancouver to use density, design, and land use to help reduce their carbon footprint and expand housing choices while keeping it one of the most livable cities in the world.

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The idea of living in highrises may not be everyone's dream, especially for Americans who are used to expansive spaces and long distances, but aside from the fact that these long distances between basic services and the massive amounts of energy it takes to sustain such a set-up are slowly dismantling the American dream, density, if done well, can actually be quite enriching. Brent Toderian, Vancouver's former Director of Planning, aptly coins it The Power of Nearness, and a look across the bridge gives voice to the idea that living close together can be quite appealing if the setting is right.

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Next stop is the much heralded Neighborhood Energy Utility (NEU) underneath the southern end of Cambie Street Bridge. The first utility of its kind in North America, NEU is an environmentally-friendly community energy system that recovers raw sewage from the urban wastewater system underneath city streets, and through a heat exchange process captures thermal energy that is then delivered in the form of hot water via a pipe system to approximately 6,600 units (over 10,000 people) in the Southeast False Creek neighborhood, including the Olympic Village.

 
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