Vancouver: Green building as urban policy strategy

June 01, 2015 Julia Affolderbach

Based on input from the expert workshop in Vancouver, we have focused our research on a number of micro case studies including Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan, Southeast False Creek/Olympic Village and the University of British Columbia. One perspective we have adopted as part of our research is to understand green building through urban sustainability policies that seek to respond to climate change but also include aspects of city branding and marketing as part of broader, global and competitive sustainability discourses. Using the City of Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan (GCAP) and based on document analysis and interviews, we seek to reconstruct the development of the GCAP and assess the role of the GCAP as part of the city’s sustainability transition, and how green visioning and marketing can contribute or divert from the plan’s objectives.

Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan is a politically motivated strategy with the ambitious goal to turn Vancouver into a world leading green city. It consists of 10 goals that are sought to be achieved through identified mid-term (2020) and long-term (2050) targets to be measured and monitored through quantifiable proxies specific to each of the targets. The GCAP illustrates how green policies are used to both draw on and speak to local constituencies, as well as a global audience by framing the ‘green city’ both as a local process and globally competitive positioning.

Development of the strategy was led by a blue ribbon task force, the Greenest City Action Team (GCAT), consisting of academics, civic and environmental leaders and industry representatives, which commenced work in Feb. 2009 and delivered its recommendations later that year through the ‘Vancouver 2020 a bright green future’ report. The GCAT identified 10 sustainability goals based mainly on an evaluation of best policies and best practices used in leading green cities around the world which are grouped into three areas: zero carbon, zero waste and healthy ecosystems. Nine of the goals were chosen based on the international scoping and global rankings while the tenth goal, local food, was at the time identified as unique to Vancouver.

Not only were the target-oriented objectives of the GCAP largely informed by international scoping of best practices and standards, the goal to ‘out-green’ other cities was identified as a motivation in discussions with respondents involved in the implementation of the GCAP. At the same time, the GCAP draws on residents’ views, both through public engagement and participation during the development of the strategy and the implementation of the objectives. Targets involving green jobs, transportation infrastructure and increased citizen involvement resonate with locals and emphasize municipal empowerment while at the same time they seek to address a global audience through a language of superlatives.

While the focus on global positioning and leadership may be criticized as transforming urgent sustainability challenges into urban marketing and branding strategies, the pursuit of global leadership can offer a number of ripple effects beyond greening rhetoric. For the GCAP, these include setting precedent cases that prove that innovative approaches and regulations can work, provision and sharing of specific know-how, data, experience and establishment of collateral knowledge networks and opportunities for co-learning as well as transferable models and tools, in particular, Vancouver’s procedural and participatory approaches (for example, most recently Vancouver’s City Studio).

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