Vancouver: A Sustainability Geek's Dream

Top five ideas to borrow from up North

Editor’s note: During our three-week “Escape to Vancouver” campaign to increase the readership of Sightline Daily, we’ll be running a short blog series spotlighting Vancouver, BC, and its contributions to Cascadia. Clark Williams-Derry weighs in first.

Vancouver with mountainsAs you should know by now, we’re offering an all-expense paid trip to Vancouver, BC, as a sweepstakes reward to one lucky reader who gets their friends to sign up for a Sightline Daily email (and if you’re not subscribed, you can also win by signing up now).

If you’re a foodie, you’ll be in heaven—if my experience is any guide, the mealsalone will be worth the (low) cost of admission.

But if you’re a sustainability geek—and I know you are—there are some extra special reasons to visit Vancouver. The metro area is the home of dozens of great ideas, policies, and practices that cities all around Cascadia (and beyond) should consider emulating.

So, to pique your interest, here’s a sampling of five sustainable wonders from Vancouver that are worth checking out on any visit…

  1. Living tall and skinny: 

Downtown Vancouver has developed a housing style all its own, characterized by tall, slender towers of condos and apartments. It’s more than a fad—it’s a genuine urban sustainability solution. Tall-and-skinny towers house people efficiently (and pleasantly!) in a relatively small area, which helps curb sprawl. And they let lots of folks live close to jobs and stores, which helps cut down on driving—reducing air pollution and climate-disrupting emissions from vehicle tailpipes. Last I checked, traffic volumes in downtown Vancouver had actually fallen of late, even as the center-city population skyrocketed. The credit, or much of it anyway, goes to the city’s efforts to create neighborhoods where people don’t have to drive to get around. The tall-and-skinny style also helps retain an appealing streetscape for pedestrians. Many of the skinny high-rises are set back a bit from the streetline, so buildings rise only a few stories where they meet the sidewalk. To a person out for a casual stroll, many streets still retain a sense of human scale, despite the height of the towers.

To be sure, the downtown Vancouver style isn’t the only way to create appealing urban density. Still, Vancouver’s solution works well, and the city’s had no trouble attracting residents to carefully planned highrise housing. So it’s no wonder other cities are looking at Vancouver as a model for revitalizing their downtowns.

2. No highways:

Check it out: there are no high-speed freeways in city limits. The city of Vancouver resisted the highway building binge that marred just about every other major North American city over the past 50 years. Despite what a highway-centric culture might predict, the lack of a highway has been a big boon for the city, reducing suburban flight, preserving an intact downtown, reducing the incessant car traffic that can make pedestrian life unbearable.

Other West Coast cities have tried to emulate Vancouver’s example. San Francisco has now demolished two stretches of urban highway, and Portland did the same with a waterfront highway in the 1970s. Seattle’s considering doing the same with the Alaskan Way Viaduct through downtown. The highway-free city used to be the norm; now there are signs that it’s coming back into vogue.

3. Farms near the city:

Granted, a lot of the farmland close to the city is occupied by hothouses—hardly sustainable agriculture. Still, it’s possible to stand on working farmland no more than 5 miles from downtown Vancouver, which is the densest urban center north of San Francisco. (Try that in Seattle.) Much of the credit goes to a province-wide farmland protection policy. No US city has a farmland protection policy that’s as strict or effective.

We can only hope that the policy stays intact. There always seems to be some sort of political attack on it, from folks who want to pave farmland for housing or commercial development. That’d be a shame: there’s so little farmland in BC’s lower mainland that every acre is important.

4. Refillable beer bottles:

Admittedly, this is small beer compared with the other items on the list. But it’s still pretty cool: Greater Vancouver’s brewers reuse their glass containers. It’s a bit of a throwback to the old days, when virtually all bottles were reused. But BC brewery’s refilling and recycling system is thoroughly modern enterprise, collecting well over 90 percent of all glass beverage containers. It’s a decent energy saver—and more importantly, a reminder that the prevailing culture of disposability doesn’t have to affect every part of our daily lives.

5. Transit galore:

Person for person, transit ridership is over twice as high in Metro Vancouver as in greater Portland and greater Seattle.

Vancouver’s got commuter rail (the sky train), and some pretty nice pedestrian ferries for folks getting into downtown from north of the Fraser River. But the buses are still the workhorse of the lower mainland’s transit system, accounting for three-quarters of all transit boardings. You can even take a public bus to nearby ski slopes (check out the #232, #236, and #247). Of course, you may not even need transit to get around, at least in downtown. Biking is convenient and rentals are plentiful; and it’s a great city to walk in as well. I’ve spent a couple of delightful weekends in the center city without stepping in a vehicle at all.

Ok, I admit it, I’m starting to sound a little like carnival huckster. (I swear, there were no kickbacks from the Vancouver tourist promotion board!) But I’m being perfectly sincere:  if you’re into sustainable cities, Vancouver’s got a lot to offer.  And the price of admission is pretty cheap. How ’bout it—are you ready to tell your friends about Sightline Daily?

Mountain photo courtesy of Stephen Rees under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. Sungsu says:

    Overall a good description of the positive aspects of sustainability in Vancouver. Here’s a few clarifications for your readers.1. While downtown Vancouver and various pockets have density, sprawl is occurring in the suburbs, unfortunately.2. Technically, a very short stretch of Hwy 1 runs through the northeast corner of Vancouver.3. The provincial government wants to pave over some farmland for highways (South Perimeter Road).4. The refillable beer bottles are for all beer produced in Canada, not just B.C. Imports get recycled (we hope).5. The SkyTrain is really more like the new light rail in the Seattle area than commuter rail. There is a heavy rail commuter train called the West Coast Express that is more like the Sounder service. The pedestrian ferries that link to downtown are the Seabus that cross Burrard Inlet (not the Fraser River) and the small ones that cross False Creek.

  2. Erin says:

    Vancouver may be “sustainable”, but only so long as no one peeks outside the city limits…For all of this supposed green “enlightenment”, B.C. has been ransacking their forests, rivers, and oceans to an extent far worse than anything I’ve seen in Washington or Alaska. (and I’ve walked through all three). Many Canadians I’ve met seem to think of themselves as greener than their U.S. neighbors, but they don’t deserve the credit as long as they continue ignoring all the egregious damage taking place outside their urban centers.

  3. Sarah says:

    I live in Vancouver and it is increasingly unaffordable. Unfortunately despite all of the high rise development, vacancy rates are lower than in any other city in Canada. The number of homeless people has risen dramatically over the last 10 years, and efforts to create affordable housing have been weak at best. Although Vancouver has a downtown that is dense and allows people to walk to work, much of the city is still zoned for single families and amenities are sparse. Buses are overcrowded and unreliable. It can take up to an hour to travel 15 kilometers by bus! Most of the cycling infrastructure was developed 10 years ago and there has been little progress in the meantime. I would argue that Vancouver has the luxury of being placed in a beautiful, clean and green environment, but given the wealth and natural assets of the city, we have done a very poor job of encouraging sustainable development. Even more discouraging, the city’s record on dealing with social issues and inequality is downright embarrassing.

  4. Darcy McGee says:

    Downtown Vancouver is so dense with people, businesses can’t afford to be there. Surely employment is considered a portion of the sustainability equation?The Downtown Eastside offers up the country’s poorest postal code. I don’t consider the easy availability of heroin part of a sustainable city. Those tall towers in the neighbourhood isolate the residents from the street level almost completely, letting them conveniently ignore the problem rather than build a community.Bike routes are in disrepair. When they exist they’re not bad, but they’re only maintained as an afterthought.Still, I wouldn’t live anywhere else.Except Portland.Maybe Seattle, for the right job.Or San Francisco, if only for the exercise all those hills would give my thighs (and the fact that living without a car would be even easier, with less rain than my glorious city.)Yes, you read that right. It’s mine :) But I share well.

  5. Darcy McGee says:

    P.S. Transit in this city is absolutely horrid, unless you live downtown. Bigget black mark against us. I hardly notice since I cycle most everywhere, but when I take transit it’s like a black art.

  6. Clark Williams-Derry says:

    Agreed, Darcy. Downtown Vancouver’s become something of a victim of its own success—so many people want to live there now that it’s a lot less affordable than comparable cities. I’m not 100% sure that I agree about the city limits. First off, I don’t think Vancouver itself is “sustainable.” Not yet, anyway. But by the same token, even Vancouver’s suburbs turn out to be more sustainable than comparable suburbs of Seattle and Portland, at least by some reasonable and comparable measures. And transit—agreed, Vancouver’s not perfect!! Yet going by the numbers, its transit service is far better utilized than in Portland & Seattle. In my view, that’s more due to other factors—such as compact neighborhoods where transit is convenient—than to the transit service itself. Still, Metro Vancouver’s transit stats stack up very well with the comparable figures for Seattle and Portland.

  7. Darcy McGee says:

    I’ve got limited experience with Seattle transit. I’m spending next week there, but I’m downtown for work so probably won’t need to use it much. (Unfortunately I’m driving down. Timing didn’t allow me to use the Amtrak route.)People seem to think BART is a good system in San Francisco, and it seems to be the only west coast public transit system that people respect. New York, Boston, Toronto, Chicago: all these cities have good transit with higher levels of usage.The “city limits” problem isn’t unique to Vancouver, and I wouldn’t unfairly malign the city for it. There will be a toll on the new Port Mann bridge, and that’s going to have an effect on daily commuters. (I only hope that the Campbell government doesn’t do something daft like create a “frequent user’s discounted toll” since, you know, the point of a toll is to discourage frequent users!)

  8. Chris Bradshaw says:

    Your mention of returnable beer bottles attributes too much to Vancouver. The credit goes to most Canadian provincial governments which control that market much more than in the states and have a returns policy that is well above 90%. In Ontario, we now pay deposits on all wine bottles as well. But ironically, you return them for the deposit not at the provincial (monopoly) liquor stores, but to the (private-sector) beer stores. The matter of energy-savings comes into play when the return of wine bottles is to a site where full bottles are not available. It adds to energy costs of driving.BTW, your reference to the body of water that the “pedestrian ferries” fly was wrong: the body of water north of downtown Vancouver is the Burrard Inlet; the Fraser River passes south of Vancouver, where it meets Richmond.Chris Bradshaw

  9. Terry says:

    Erin’s comment on sprawl in the suburbs does not recognize that Metro Vancouver (including the suburbs) is growing in a more compact form than most other metropolitan areas – a low ratio of land absorption to population growth.

  10. Terry says:

    Correction, sorry Erin, that was SUNGSU’s comment.

  11. Erin says:

    I wasn’t commenting about suburban sprawl. I was commenting about the vast areas of BC that are nowhere near Vancouver. BC is doing far worse to its “wilderness” lands than either Washington or Alaska – through clearcutting, mining, river damming, salmon farming, etc…If Vancouverites are ignoring (and probably profiting off of) the horribly unsustainable practices in the rest of their province, how “green” can we call the city?

  12. Michael OHare says:

    One more thing that helps Vancouver – the beaches. I think great public spaces help a city and you are particularly blessed inVancouver.

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