Mayor Roberton's Green Dream is Just That

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This Op/Ed was published in the Vancouver Sun October 27th, 2009

By Daniel Fontaine and Mike Klassen

For Vancouver city council, green has become the new black. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s ten-point plan for becoming the world’s greenest city was rolled out recently like it was the new Ten Commandments.

And as with Moses, who brought his tablets down from Mount Sinai after a long absence, the Mayor’s handpicked team of advisors has held their meetings out of public view. Now what should Vancouver residents make of the plan developed by the Mayor’s team without their input?

First of all, we must be patient for any results. No short-term performance indicators are provided, and the success of the plan is to be measured in 2020. That’s four elections from now, for those who are counting. Critics are already asking why there are no one, three or five year targets to judge the plan’s merits?

Gregor Robertson has set out some formidable objectives. For example, he proposes that twenty thousand jobs in green-oriented businesses can be created – that’s 2000 new jobs annually within city boundaries.

To put that into perspective, top videogame producer Electronic Arts Canada has just 1600 employees at its Burnaby studio after 27 years in business. Vancouver would need a dozen companies the size of EA Canada in full swing within 10 years to reach the Mayor’s jobs target.

In recent years large enterprises have either left or, like Microsoft, avoided Vancouver for lower cost jurisdictions and more available space. Even the local companies that Robertson’s plan cites as green leaders – Xantrex Technology, Ballard Power Systems, Powertech Labs & Day4 Energy – have their operations in Burnaby, Surrey or the North Shore.

It’s a reminder to us that Vancouver cannot make itself greener in isolation. A regional strategy involving other Metro Vancouver cities is more likely to succeed.

There are few businesses that will voluntarily cut into their bottom line just to be in Vancouver. Without a level playing field across the region, asking businesses to pay for costly energy retrofits like the Mayor’s plan suggests, may risk a further exodus to the suburbs.

It was Gregor Robertson who pressed for, and received changes to the Vancouver Charter by the Provincial government to allow the city to take on a greater portion of the financing, and financial risk, of the Olympic Athlete’s Village.

Now the Mayor is proposing another Charter change to allow the city to get into the business of financing green start-up companies, and carrying the costs of energy upgrades on private buildings.

Robertson’s “On-Bill Financing” concept could involve Vancouver in risky financial partnerships, to the benefit of the “green” industries he courts.

It begs the question – should Vancouver city hall also act as a bank? We’ve just seen a mere $60 million shortfall threaten a property tax increase of over ten percent. Considering that a whole new bureaucracy would likely have to be set up to vet the start-ups, thousands would be spent before a single green widget is produced.

The real power city councils have is around land use, yet Gregor Robertson’s plan makes little mention of how zoning can help to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. He proposes “low carbon zones” on some of the city’s limited, and most expensive, industrial land on the False Creek flats.

Some of us remember the doomed Tech Park planned for the flats during the dot-com bubble. Is the exuberance for green more of the same?

There are good ideas within the document, most that we’ve heard before. For example, metering water usage in Vancouver homes has been floated for years, and it’s long overdue. Vancouver experienced near-drought conditions through the spring and summer this year, so it’s a pity the mayor and council didn’t use the opportunity to create water conservation consciousness.

The plan proposes 150,000 new trees planted in the city. Where they will all go is not clear, but don’t be surprised when the tree on your boulevard is removed, that two replace it. Proposals for district energy systems, long discussed but never realized, are also welcome changes.

And what of EcoDensity, the city’s policy framework for sustainable development shaped over two years of public consultation and five nights of council hearings?

Because of its association with the previous city council the term gets a single grudging mention in Robertson’s hefty 72-page proposal, yet EcoDensity is the one green concept we are most known for abroad.

It is a reticence to take on Vancouver’s real environmental challenge – the inefficiency of single-family neighbourhoods that make up 75% of our landmass – which suggests the Greenest City plan might be more about optics than outcomes.

How about setting aggressive targets for population growth around our city? By doing so, there’s no reason Vancouver cannot remain a more populous city over Surrey in the coming decades in spite of projections.

And the environment also wins, because you’re reducing the pressure to pave over land better suited to farming or left in its natural state.

We’re sure that the Mayor wishes to create a greener Vancouver. Now the challenge is to take the discussion out of the boardroom and back into our communities. Only with the input of our citizens can we build a truly resilient city.


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Mike Klassen and Daniel Fontaine are urban affairs commentators at CityCaucus.com

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