Green City

Just when you are getting frustrated and discouraged by the lack of vision and action on the part of politicians on climate change, they totally surprise you.

Guess what? There are two amazing projects going on right now in my city!

The first one is a long-range environmental plan called the “The Way We Green“, which will be put in front of city council for approval by early 2011. The proposal defines specific objectives to accomplish in the following 7 areas:

  1. Energy & Climate Change
  2. River Water Supply & Quality
  3. Food Security
  4. Air Quality
  5. Biodiversity / Healthy Ecosystems
  6. Waste Management
  7. One Planet Living

I am so excited by this plan. I had no idea that our city was so progressive. We have always been top notch in areas of recycling, but a bit behind the times when it came to things like urban sprawl and efficient public transportation. The fact that this plan could change all that is so inspiring and refreshing and just what I needed to see.

One of the areas of this plan that I am most happy about is the creation of a Food Policy Council for the city. I know that many Canadian cities have this already, so I am glad to see that we are finally getting one too. I am hopeful that this will encourage new ventures of local food production, and increase the food shed of the city and surrounding area. I would love to see a day when local food is widely available and readily accessible by all.

The second development is a big one. Huge. Have you ever sat there and daydreamed about what sustainable green living would look like in the future? What kinds of homes would we live in, how would we transport ourselves, how would our energy needs be met? Due to the massive infrastructure changes that would be required, sometimes I think that this really is only a dream (but one worth having). Perhaps my children or future grandchildren would live in different types of homes and use energy differently, but can I expect to see these kinds of changes where I live in my lifetime?

In short, YES!

There are plans underway to redevelop the city centre airport lands into an environmentally sustainable community to house over 20,000 people in a carbon neutral environment, with no cars. Just think of the urban sprawl that will be averted! Five companies from around the world, including the US, Netherlands, Sweden, Canada and the UK, submitted proposals for the vision for this space. These proposals are now up for display and comment at City Hall and online.

I went to City Hall last week to take a look in person. The displays were amazing. I came away so happy, so excited about what was in the realm of possibility for my city. My favourite proposal, by Perkins + Will of Vancouver, includes these features:

  1. Renewable energy production to power the community and still have enough left over to export electricity to other parts of the city
  2. Urban Farm and greenhouses for local food production
  3. Extensive water recycling system
  4. World class green space and park
  5. Large hill with views of downtown, used for tobogganing in the winter and music festivals in the summer
  6. Cross country skiing circuit
  7. Ice skating rink
  8. Large water feature with a 1 kilometre rowing course
  9. Several community gathering areas
  10. 4 community neighbourhoods, with green “fingers” reaching in from the large central park
  11. Links light rail and bus transit, no cars
  12. Cycling and hiking route that connects the community to the city’s river valley park system
  13. Residential buildings that feature lots of windows and solar panels
  14. Commercial areas to provide services to residents, as well as local jobs
  15. 4 schools – 2 elementary, 1 junior high, 1 high school

Take a look at the master plan! Can you see how the plan plays homage the former runways, respecting the history of this space in the design? 

I think this is a beautiful model of sustainable development. I really feel that this submission, more than any others, celebrates my town as a winter city, and provides many venues for an active social and community gatherings. I was also so pleased to see that it goes beyond net zero, and incorporates local food production as well! If this is built, I would love to live there!  Here is their video submission:

My second favourite submission was from KCAP of the Netherlands.  Their video was fantastic:

If you live here too, you have until February 28th to submit your comments on each of the submissions online. I did this last weekend. The city will be choosing a winner in a few months, and then will embark on a 15 month process to consult with the public and refine and develop the plans. They expect to break ground in 2013.

Bring on the green!

What do you think of these developments? What exciting things are going on in your city?

Bus Ride

Transit bus
Image via Wikimedia

If you have not already noticed, I am worried about climate change.  Everyday I learn more, read more, hear more; every day I am more worried.  It seems crazy that we have gotten ourselves into this situation, and even more crazy that most of us are content to sit idly by while it happens all around us.  However, I do understand why people choose to be bystanders – I was one of them only months ago.  What could I do?  How could I make a difference?  These bad things are going to happen regardless of what I did.  All I could do was just watch it unfold and hope for the best.  Right?

Well, maybe, maybe not. 

Maybe not.

I can do things to effect change in my own life.  I can inch things forward, little by little, by adding my voice to the thousands that are already on the cause.  I can “be the change you want to see in the world”.

It is pretty hard to openly complain about the BP oil spill or the Alberta oil sands, and still jump in my car every time I want to go somewhere.  But it is just so easy to jump in the car.  But how can I complain about oil and still be a rampant user of oil?  It is a double standard and I know it.

But it is hard.  I wrote before of our car culture and its hold on North American society.  I live in a city that is especially spread out, almost the worst urban spawl in Canada according to a recent study.  This makes it difficult to get around without a car.

I was thinking about it, and there are four main areas where I use my car:

  1. Work
  2. Shopping (for just groceries due to my current shopping ban)
  3. Friends and family gatherings
  4. Family activities (for example, my kid’s swimming lessons)

Where could stop using my car?  By far, the easiest to tackle is going to work.  There is a bus that goes through my neighbourhood that heads straight downtown and can deposit me one block from my office. So, beginning in 2011, I have committed to taking the bus to work.

I have not taken the bus in about 10 years, so this was a really new way of transporting myself.  After about 5 weeks, I am happy to report on my experience:

The entire trip takes about 35 minutes, as compared to about 15 minutes by car.  This includes walking 10 minutes in my neighbourhood, and another 5 minutes downtown to my office.  I am enjoying the bit of exercise this provides each day (30 minutes total).  I especially enjoy walking home at night in the quiet streets of my neighbourhood.  I reflect on my day.  I notice how the snow beneath my feet sparkles in the street lights.  I pass by houses, looking warm and cozy inside. I look up at the stars.

However, I am especially enjoying my time spent on the bus.  For the most part, I read.  I seem to never have enough time to read everything I want to read, especially now that I am greening my life from top to bottom.  I have all sorts of books out from the library right now, ranging from gardening, to preserving food to making homemade cleaners. I want to soak up as much information as possible.  My daily bus ride gives me time to do this.

I also enjoy making new connections with strangers.  This may sound odd, I know.  But I have made a commitment to strengthen my everyday connections.  I want to be part of the of glue that holds us all together; so that we can better realize our shared humanity, our shared stake in this world.  So I have conversations.  I recently talked to one man who lost his house in a fire.  I talked to another woman who I happened to work with 10 years ago.  I often talk to the people waiting at the bus stop in my neighbourhood.  I think it is healthy to connect with others, to not just live our separate lives in our separate cars. 

All in all, it has been a good experience.  I will gladly continue to take the bus.  I have even started taking it for other types of trips as well.  It does take longer, yes.

That’s okay.  It gives me more time to relax, reflect and read.

Car Culture


Image: EA / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

North American cities are built around the automobile, with few exceptions.  Where I live, everything is spread way out, and the city has a relatively large geographical footprint. Plus it is cold.  It is hard to commit to walking or biking when the temperature gets below -15 °C (5 °F).  So people mostly drive.  Everyone drives here.  Even those who cannot afford a car, have a car.  Without a car, you feel trapped.

We live in such a car culture.

Lately, I have been rethinking this.  It started when we all heard out the massive BP oil spill in the gulf.  Everyone blamed BP.  “Plug the hole already!” we cried.  As hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil continued to spill into the ocean, we got angrier and angrier.  But then we started looking at ourselves – BP is only out there extracting that oil, because I drive, you drive and we all drive.  So aren’t we also to blame?

I recently went and saw an amazing art exhibit called Burtynsky Oil. Edward Burtynsky is a world renowned photographer. His exhibit led me through a visual journey of oil extraction, oil refinement, car culture, and the waste left behind. He offers up images of things we know about, but don’t really see in our day-to-day lives. Have you ever wondered what a million discarded tires look like? How about a collection of oil filters, or car engines? Have you ever seen an aerial view of a tailings pond, or an oil field? What about the circuitry of our freeways? His images are massive, and overwhelming. When I walked out of the exhibit I felt emotionally exhausted. I just wanted to curl up somewhere and process what I had seen.

But people love their cars. They spend lots of money on them. They insure them, maintain them, gas them up. For some, they are a status symbol. For others, they are convenient people movers. Those that live deep in the suburbs spend an hour or two in them per day, so they want them to be nice. For many families, a large percentage of income is spent on their cars.

Cars can also be very frustrating. They are big pieces of mechanical machinery that most of us do not understand. When they break down, it is expensive and annoying. For example, we got stranded with the kids on Christmas Eve, because our van would not start. We got stranded today; because our annoying van would not start (it now has a new battery). Just this week I unknowingly drove my husband’s car on a low tire, and destroyed the tire. We just got it fixed today. My sister was without a car last week because her tires deflated. Last month I went down to the parkade after work and was greeted with a flat tire. That was fun – trying to change a flat tire in a skirt and heels. My other sister recently got rid of her lemon-y vehicle because it was such a “piece” (her words) and she could not take it anymore. When she went to go deliver it to the dealership, guess what? The damn thing would not start. My other sister hit a guardrail two weeks ago in blizzard conditions and crunched the back corner of her car. In addition, she cannot open her trunk for fear it will not close again. It is all so annoying and frustrating and expensive. Why do we do it?

I don’t know. Our cities are set up wrong. The further out you go, the fewer things you can get to without a car. We don’t have great transit, and here at least, transit is looked down upon. Why take the bus when you could drive?

Hello… have you ridden the bus lately? I used to, back when I was a student and did not have a car. It was actually nice. I will go so far as to say relaxing. Coffee in one hand, reading material in the other, and perhaps a little snooze mixed in there as well. Why did I trade that all in for rush hour traffic?

Let’s face it, cars and transportation make up a huge chunk of total CO2 emissions. HUGE. We cannot reduce the emissions to the extent we need, without reducing the driving. We have to reduce the driving.

So how about you – are you also in a love-hate relationship with your vehicle?