[This six-part series was written in 2007 and is set in 2030. It describes one scenario of how Vancouver became a One Planet City—a city that uses only its fair share of Earth’s resources. Read the first three parts here, here and here, respectively]
Reclaiming streets for farming and parks was really made possible through some wonderful changes in how Vancouverites move around. First, of course, the new centres mean that nearly 50% of people do not need to leave their neighbourhood for shopping or work. New road charges that were implemented in 2011—and regularly increased—shifted cost-effectiveness onto active transportation and transit.
Finally, the fees for residential street parking sealed the deal. A single-issue party challenged municipal elections and nearly brought down the incumbent government, forcing them to deal with the issue after they squeaked out a victory. Running under the banner ‘End the Great Land Give-away,’ the new party pointed out that a car parked on the street sits on top of $40 000 dollars of real estate, which is a ridiculous subsidy for the one-third privileged enough to own a car. These two measures—parking fees and road charges—led to a nearly 25% decrease in car ownership. The insecurity of fuel supplies, with the accompanying wild swings in prices, did much of the rest, and a federal carbon plan delivered the final blow.
Transit has been one of our world-class successes. The neighbourhood centre program lightened the burden on the transit system by keeping a lot of jobs within walking distance. Moving the bulk of daily trips to active modes allowed the system to respond more effectively to trip demand from lower-service areas, which allowed us to increase service in the single family neighbourhoods as they began to intensify.
Our early conversion to rail-based electric streetcars has paid back in energy savings many times over. Noting the trajectory of steel prices, we planned ahead and bought huge amounts of steel rails and rebar in the 2008/09 fiscal year, slashing construction costs over the next decade. This was jokingly called ‘playing the Stockpile Market.’ The streetcar program itself finally came to life after Council had a showdown with the Province. A bi-partisan Council coalition threatened to swing municipal voters against the Provincial Government in the next election unless TransLink committed to a broad streetcar network.
A simple building energy efficiency program cut another 10% of our GHGs, while a very comprehensive home energy retrofit program gave us a further 10% reduction—and all this happened before we even touched our new-builds. Adopting the 2030 Challenge, with its goals of carbon-neutral construction by 2030, was the impetus, though it quickly expanded beyond anyone’s expectations.
Once the requirement for real carbon reduction was in place, it levelled the playing field and forced everyone; architects, engineers, developers and bureaucrats to deal with the new paradigm. Architects and engineers quickly realized that reducing carbon was not that hard, and the work was a lot more interesting.
Facilitated by workshops on the meaning and goals of sustainability, the building industry started looking beyond carbon. By 2017 Vancouver had three ‘Living Buildings’ that generated their own energy, collected water and managed their own waste, with eight more Living Buildings in various stages of construction.
Now, of course, all new buildings are built to the Living Building Standard, and we are seeing some areas approaching Living Neighbourhoods. The richness and diversity of these neighbourhoods is truly spectacular. With green walls and roofs, balcony gardens, bio-swales and garden plots, it’s, it’s not surprising that the first thing visitors comment on is the vast amount of greenery in our city. The second thing they notice is the sound of birdsongs.
The results achieved by the Living Buildings, and some of the better efforts beforehand, forced the city to rethink Vancouver’s 100 Year Plan. We found ourselves easily using less than our outdated projections of energy, water consumption and wastewater volume predicted. This allowed us to shift some of our infrastructure dollars to ecostructures.
Neighbourhood energy generation
Retrofitting sewage pumping stations with methane digesters was one of the most notable new programs. Rather than pumping sewage out to a treatment facility, we intervened at several major pipe nodes throughout the city. The methane that resulted was burned in Combined Heat and Power plants, and the digested sludge was spread back on urban mulch crops and orchards.
A UBC Doctoral student, researching the initiative, found that as the percentage of organic food eaten in Vancouver increased, the amount of heavy metals and persistent toxins in our sewage decreased, making it even more attractive as a fertilizer.
Another major shift in infrastructure occurred with the lowering of streetlights. Because light obeys the Inverse Square Law, a streetlight that is half as tall uses one-quarter the electricity to deliver the same amount of light. Some areas required additional streetlights spaced more closely together, but even with the added costs for new light standards and installation labour, the City is saving 35% on its streetlight electricity bill.
While retrofitting streetlights we also took the opportunity to address light pollution. Modern lenses and shields significantly reduced glare for drivers and residents by keeping the light focused where it needs to be, on the roads and sidewalks.
And it wasn’t just Vancouver’s human residents who benefited. Decreased light pollution causes less confusion for other species, especially during times of migration, so we really cut back on the amount of light permissible on the edges of our biodiversity nodes. The enclaves of dark sky are very beneficial for nocturnal animals and help create a balance between city and nature.
Eventually, we also started delaying the ignition of street lighting, which emulates a natural dusk. This saves a tiny percentage of electricity, but helps maintain natural Circadian Rhythms and gives the feeling of a more natural city. Mimicking natural cycles of light and dark has also helped cut down the incidence of sleep disorders in Vancouver. In a final streetlight development, engineers tuned the light sensors to respond to moonlight by dimming or shutting off. This cut our power bill still further and has made the city even more beautiful on a moonlit night.
Of course, all of the high-tech streetlight modifications could never compare to the feeling created by a Starlight Neighbourhood. The residents of these experimental streets lobbied to have street lighting removed entirely. The result is amazing, a peaceful oasis in the hustle-bustle of urban life. The first two Starlight Neighbourhoods had a tough fight against misconceptions from planners and the police department but they managed to build an agreement to simply switch the streetlights off as a limited-time trial, and, if the trial was successful, to remove them at a later date. Crime has actually gone down, as have accidents involving cars and cyclists or pedestrians.
Join me next time when we look at garbage and compost.
He has consulted for the City of Vancouver. BC Housing, Industry Canada and private sector clients, and taught Sustainable Design. While researching behaviour, one of his pilot projects increased recycling and composting by 250%.