City of Vancouver

Meg Holden
Urban Studies and Geography, Simon Fraser University

January 3rd, 2013

Case Summary

The City of Vancouver is the largest municipality in British Columbia, with a population of 603,500 (as of 2011). Located in the southwestern corner of the province, bounded to the west and north by Burrard Inlet and to the south by the Fraser River, a major shipping route, the City is the population and business centre of the metropolitan Vancouver region. Zeroing in on the specific approach that the City of Vancouver has taken to addressing the challenge of climate change within this overall sustainability and liveability approach, the following case study examines the city’s policy and related initiatives to address climate change, from the origins of this action in 1990 to the suite of alternatives underway at the present in 2012.

Origins of the City of Vancouver‘s Climate Leadership

The City of Vancouver is an early innovator with regard to addressing climate change. Most directly, one can trace the policy history to the 1990 Clouds of Change report, spearheaded by then‐Councillor Gordon Price. Reaching further back, however, we can also include in this history of forerunning climate policy the provincial 1972 Agricultural Land Reserve Act, the 1973 Choosing Our Future process, and the civic struggle to stop freeway expansion along the downtown waterfront through historic Chinatown in the late 1960s. Other, even more contextual, factors include the availability of relatively abundant hyrdo‐electricity in Vancouver as throughout BC, creating the conditions for Vancouver’s status as having the lowest GHG emissions of any city in North America, at 3.7 t based on preliminary 2010 data (BC Ministry of Environment, 2012) compared to the Canadian average of 16.3 t per capita (World Bank, 2008 data), and its temperate climate, which limits the need for both heating and cooling throughout the year. These factors were cited as part of the “just good fortune” components of Vancouver’s leadership status with regard to climate action. They also created a sense, when the Blue Ribbon panel convened to craft the Greenest City Plan, discussed below, that global climate change leadership was an attainable goal for Vancouver.

Critical Success Factors

Vancouver’s Suite of Climate‐Related Policies Since 1990

The city’s physical, technological, planning and policy preconditions for climate change action result in Vancouver’s status, overall, as a mature city in the North American context vis-à‐vis its approach to climate change policy and action. Across the political spectrum from right to left, Vancouver politicians express comparable commitments to environmental, sustainability, and climate change commitments; it is difficult to imagine an electable leader who did not share in this culture. Nevertheless, the 2008 election (and re‐election in 2011) of Mayor Gregor Robertson from the Vision Vancouver party, a centrist party which was also new at the time of Robertson’s election, is considered key to the current phase of climate policy in Vancouver, given that the Mayor’s election platform held two promises: to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020; and to eliminate homelessness in the city concurrently with this timeline.

Influence of Senior Levels of Government

The City of Vancouver is signatory to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities‐led Partners for Climate Protection and the BC Climate Action Charter, and is a member of the UN Climate Neutral Network, working toward carbon neutrality. As part of the carbon neutral government mandate, overseen by the BC Climate Action Secretariat, municipalities including Vancouver are given assistance and incentives to track their emissions for the province‐wide standard Community Energy and Emissions Inventory. At the same time as these various and significant synergies exist between the city’s climate action initiatives and provincial level policy and plans, there are also examples in which the City can be seen to be gathering authority and voice from a policy stance which is counter to policy at senior government levels. One such example is the mayor’s outspoken opposition to additional oil pipelines through Port Metro Vancouver in Burrard Inlet, despite the Province’s failure to oppose this move (Robertson, 2012). Another example is the use of the unique (in the BC context) authority held by Vancouver in its enabling legislation, the Vancouver Charter, to supplement the Provincial building code with more stringent energy and environmental regulations. As a result of this flexibility to innovate, the City has made continual, progressive steps in consultation and concert with the architecture and development communities locally to set one of the most aggressively green building codes in North America, from the 2005 Green Building Strategy to the 2011 Carbon Neutral Building Strategy.

Greenest City Action Plan and Process

The Greenest City Action Plan was initiated in 2009; the plan sets 15 targets in 10 long term goal areas for the city toward becoming “the world’s greenest city by 2020.” It was passed by Council in July 2011. The Greenest City initiative began with an external Blue Ribbon panel, which was assembled by the mayor and tasked with researching the most important areas for Vancouver to make progress toward climate and environmental improvements, to find leading bechmark cities globally to track Vancouver’s progress against in each of these areas, and to set a target for progress commensurate with global leadership in each. The Blue Ribbon panel released its first report of 44 “Quick Start” action items in 2009 (City of Vancouver, 2009). Leading cities noted in different areas of the report include: San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland; Chicago; Stockholm; Edmonton; Toronto; Victoria; Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Council approved this report within two months, and the City followed this up with an extended and sophisticated planning process, led by a temporary Greenest City office, featuring an existing city department taking ownership of each of 10 key goal areas, with the outreach and support of an external advisory committee for each and the larger scale, technologically‐enhanced public engagement process called Talk Green To Us, in order to refine the targets, build an understanding of the gap between the status quo and target attainment, and specific practical steps needed. The City reports that external advisory committee membership ranged from 10‐35 members in each of the 10 goal areas, representing key stakeholders from academic, business, nonprofit, and government sectors, and that over 100 organizations advised on the Greenest City targets and actions, while the Talk Green To Us online forum generated over 3000 registered users and 726 unique planning ideas. At events that included Pecha Kucha, an Ideas Slam, Open House and Greenest City Camp, they reached another 3730. Vancouverites at public events in 2010. All told, the City estimates that input to the planning process was received from over 35,000 people (City of Vancouver, 2011).

Some view the key innovation of the Greenest City in process terms: there are high expectations related to both quantity and quality of public engagement in Vancouver planning practice, and this bar was met and exceeded during the Greenest City process via expanded outreach, new innovations in online dialogue as well as a variety of face‐to‐face public meetings. Others see the focus on early actions, through the Quick Start report, benchmarks against world‐leading cities in different dimensions of activities, and on measurable targets with regular progress reporting, as key to an increasing sense of accountability and transparency in City activities. Beyond these key features, the demonstration effect of the Greenest City Plan is considered its most important effect, within the city, the province, across Canada, and farther afield: “I think the work that we did serves as a really useful moral for other Canadian cities, and beyond that North American cities, who are interested in pushing the envelope in terms of aggressive environmental action on a long‐term scale.”

Progress and Risk to Date

Organization of climate change within city structure/support dwindling

In early 2010, the City’s Sustainability Group reported that approximately $1.3 million ($390,000 Sustainability Group operating budget resources and $910,000 in leveraged external resources) were dedicated to initiating work on the Quick Start action items from the end of 2009 through early 2010, and this during the hectic time when the City was in the final stages of preparations and the hosting of the January 2010 Winter Olympic Games (City of Vancouver, 2010). In 2012, two new permanent positions and one 12 month temporary position were added to the Group in order to assist in maintaining the momentum on meeting GCAP targets. The City notes that the distributed organization of the implementation of the Greenest City Plan, with a different department taking responsibility for progress toward each target area, and with the Sustainability Group acting as secretariat, means that over 60 city staff are actively working on implementation.

This model of distributed leadership, and an allocated or shared responsibility for understanding, learning and action across the City organization, fits with the Sustainability Group’s understanding of its own purpose within the City. At the same time, numerous City staff share the sense that the same energy and resources are not being dedicated to implementation of the Greenest City Plan as were dedicated to crafting the plan, and no shared responsibility model can make up for this shortage of person‐power.

On October 16, 2012, the first annual progress report for the Greenest City Action Plan was released. The report notes that 125 projects related to Greenest City goals are underway and progress can be noted, but also makes the sober avowal that “there continue to be challenges in achieving what is one of the world’s most comprehensive and ambitious plans. This report seeks to be transparent about the city’s successes as well as the ongoing challenges that are faced” (City of Vancouver, 2012, 3). It does not report specifically on the distance travelled toward the targets. Noted progress includes numerous networking, relationship‐ and capacity‐building forums, such as the hosting of the first annual Cities Summit, “an international summit for business and urban leaders to discuss and design creative, practical solutions for a sustainable urban future” (City of Vancouver, 2012, 7); classrooms and forums organized by the Campus‐City Collaborative; the Business Energy Advisors program which provides free audits and advice on energy efficiency upgrades to business; and a food strategy planning engagement process. New policy initiatives noted in the implementation update include the 2011 Higher Buildings Policy, the city’s first pedestrian safety study, the introduction of a new car sharing service, a fast-tracked home deconstruction (as opposed to demolition) permitting process, curbside compost pick‐up for single family and duplex homes, new minipark, community garden and treeplanting programs, water metering requirements for new building and seasonal water pricing.

Emerging Opportunities and Constraints

New Partnerships and Exploring New Ways of Working

City Hall is actively experimenting with a range of new modes of partnering formally with major city institutions, all related to the pursuit of Greenest City goals:


  1. In 2010, the City signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of British Columbia (which lies outside the City’s jurisdiction) to create a Greenest City Scholars program, placing UBC graduate students within City departments as interns on Greenest City implementation projects, and providing UBC with wood waste for biomass‐based fuel and power at the UBC campus;
  2. In 2010, the City entered into a ‘Conservation Collaborative’ with BC Hydro, an agreement to partner on matters of energy efficient planning and infrastructure, which has included to date an electric vehicle charging pilot (an $800,000 commitment for 67 charging stations, with additional partners the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Governments of Canada and B.C.) and investment in climate change and district energy planning and policy in the City;
  3. In 2012‐2015, the City and the Vancouver Foundation created the $2 million Greenest City Fund, a community grants-°©‐making initiative intended “not only to help Vancouver become the greenest city by 2020 – our aim is to accomplish this dream by supporting ideas generated and implemented by the community” (Vancouver Foundation, 2012);
  4. Launched in 2011, the Campus City Collaborative is a community‐university engagement initiative between the City, the Vancouver Economic Development Commission, and the six higher education institutions which operate in Vancouver, to work toward attainment of the Greenest City goals, and the goal of fostering green enterprise in particular. The group organizes classrooms under the banner of City Studio, with the tag line “the city is the classroom.”


There is considerable excitement about the potential of these relationships to generate momentum in climate change action community‐wide. Expanding its low‐carbon district energy potential is considered a key place for the City to enter into new forms of partnerships. The City’s first renewable district energy system was built for the Southeast False Creek (SEFC) neighbourhood, which began its life as the Athletes’ Village for the 2010 Winter Olympics. This sewer heat recovery sysetm is owned and operated by the City and is one of only four similar systems worldwide. In moving forward toward more low‐ carbon district energy systems citywide, however, the City recognizes the need to work with energy company partners, in contrast with its approach of going‐it‐alone in Southeast False Creek. The district energy expansion plan entails seeking partnerships with existing institutions operating fossil fuel based district utilities: Central Heat, a utility which provides heat to a cluster of about 200 buildings downtown, Vancouver General Hospital, and BC Women and Children’s Hospital, all of which could be converted to a renewable district energy system whose service area could also potentially be expanded (as the SEFC system was expanded to include Science World in 2011); a recently completed master planned development on the Fraser River, the River District, is another future location for low‐carbon district energy. Together, through seizing opportunities like these, the City estimates it will be able to reduce GHG emissions by 120,000 t by 2020.

New Policy Areas/Avoided Areas

Vancouver has used its building policy as a regulatory tool to ratchet up building practice toward increasing levels of energy efficiency and environmental performance in the past decade. The 2005 Green Building Policy introduced LEED equivalent performance standards for buildings taller than 4 storeys, and a LEED Gold standard, as well as a 30% premium over Model Natural Energy Code for Buildings requirements for energy performance, for all large civic buildings. This created a city‐wide standard for development, based upon the City’s experience with the Green Building Strategy for the Southeast False Creek development in 2004. Also beginning in 2005, the large sites redevelopment policy, part of the EcoDensity initiative, mandates all development and redevelopment proposals on all sites over 2 acres to conduct a feasibility study that identifies low‐carbon technology options for supplying the development with renewable energy, as well as considering other green and sustainable building and infrastructure criteria. This policy is currently under review in order to provide a more flexible tool to identify the highest priority sites for low‐carbon development. Requirements also exist for energy efficiency features of all new homes, with increasing standards such that by 2020, all homes will consume up to 33% less energy and that by 2030, all new homes will be carbon neutral. The Higher Buildings Policy, passed in 2011, mandates a 40‐50% reduction in energy use compared to standard practice, and excellence in architecture and green building design, for additional building height allowance on new developments. New buildings currently under development as a result will include features such as renewable energy systems, living walls, onsite water and wastewater treatment, rainwater collection and solar energy collectors. An energy efficient home renovations policy has been drafted, but is currently shelved, although the City has released a series of guidebooks for home owners interested in pursuing this.

A Green Operations Plan and Corporate Carbon Strategy are underway. Having already completed energy efficient upgrades to all of its own facilities, resulting in a 25% decrease in GHG emissions based on 1990 levels, and targeted that all new city facilities will be built to a carbon neutral standard by 2020, the City is now making strides in reducing the impact of its fleet, paper procurement, computer procurement, and food sourcing, and changing staff behaviour to encourage active commuting and decreased waste, among other initiatives.

Vancouver is the first municipality in BC to have a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, passed in 2011. This new piece of policy is seen as a breakthrough and a new commitment to ongoing learning and adjustment within the city government and amongst the citizenry regarding long‐term thinking and planning sensitivie to the need for resilience in the face of climate change. The policy takes a physical infrastructure focus, particularly with regard to integrated stormwater management, urban forest management planning, and projections of sea level rise and implications for the city’s land base and prominent amenities such as the seawall. A dedicated climate change adaptation planner is housed within the Sustainability Group. It is still early days for seeing actions result from this new realm of activity. In October 2012, City Council passed a new policy establishing Neighbourhood Energy Strategy and Energy Centre priority areas (Downtown and the West End, Broadway Corridor, Cambie Corridor, Southeast False Creek, Northeast False Creek, River District) and a common and expedited process for developing Neighbourhood Energy Utilities to serve the energy needs of these areas. If Vancouver made an early mark for itself by considering transportation hand‐in‐hand with hand use in urban development in the 1970s, the prospect of neighbourhood energy planning entails the integration of energy considerations simultaneously, and brings on‐line other infrastructure questions related to sewers, water, and waste management as well, toward a more fully integrated planning and development process. The City’s practice with regard to integrated energy and green building planning is not without its flaws in recent attempts. Decisions made based on green building strategy, for metering of energy usage from the NEU in SEFC for example, were not considered in a completely integrated manner with the energy utility technology decisions, although from the consumer and citizen’s perspective, both work together to result in utility bills that have shocked low‐income residents. As part of a means to prevent this kind of problem from being perpetuated into the future, the Sustainability Group has prepared a new strategy for communicating with and educating the public about different district energy technology options and trade-offs with concerns including cost, environment and local liveability, jobs, and emissions reduction protential, the use of which they hope will facilitate implementation of new projects and technologies (Compass, 2012).

Trade‐Off with Affordability

Explicitly and implicitly, the policy agenda around affordable housing is being constructed as existing in a parallel or direct contradiction with Greenest City policy. This reflects a change from the approach taken during in the development of the City’s EcoDensity initiative in which the promise was that environmental improvements could be made to urban form and residential density in particular that would simultaneously benefit housing affordability. Instead, even members of the Blue Ribbon panel for the Greenest City Action Plan assert that the trade-off between green progress and affordability is real and direct, even personally: “I don’t know if it’s an unintended consequence but one of the elephants in the room is that if you continually make Vancouver a more and more beautiful place to be then you certainly are exacerbating the affordability problem. As someone who would like to have a residence in Vancouver and cannot afford one, I can speak openly about that.” Staff in the Sustainability Group recognize the looming need to address affordability considerations within their planning, as the housing affordability policy agenda grows in significance citywide. Staff point to the complex nature of urban land economics in Vancouver and state: “to blame sustainability initiatives or to really finger them as being the main culprit in the affordability crisis would be a bit disingenuous.”


The City of Vancouver embeds a long-standing political and popular culture of awareness of and attention to the risks of climate change and an overall ethos and identification with environmental urbanism. This classifies Vancouver as a mature city in climate change leadership terms, but one in which the wisdom and consistency of the “virtuous cycle of green” policy that is also inclusive and attentive to the needs of all city residents is being put to the test. There is no question that Vancouver has earned its model standing and that climate initiatives of recent years, including the Greenest City initiative, represent valuable lessons for other cities across North America. At the same time, a quantum leap remains between the trajectory of Vancouver’s progress to date and outcomes of urban sustainability full stop. Seeing the benefits of actions taken now will take time: “in many ways, tackling climate change at the municipal level means changing the very skeleton or infrastructure of the city, the transportation network, the buildings, and those are things that can’t change overnight.”

Resources and References

Research to prepare this case study was based on primary data obtained from nine interviews with the following actors in the City of Vancouver’s climate change action agenda: three City staff members, one City councillor, two members of the Greenest City Action Plan Blue Ribbon panel, one environmental nongovernmental organization staff member, and two energy company staff members.

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