Apr 03 2012

Green Roads and Risky Paths

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The following article was published in Granville Magazine September 11, 2009.

Vancouver’s politicians have room to push green agenda

So much for sticking to sewers and potholes. Vancouver’s activist city council is spending political capital on some big green challenges that lots of folks think are way beyond our politicos’ pay grade. We’re going to see a more big-government approach to these issues – and that’s a good thing if we’re going to fix them.

Local government activism is what’s needed when environmental issues of global significance are already hitting home. “A lot of what’s being called for in terms of the green economy involves local land use, local transportation options, regulation of local industries and stimulation of other activities in cities, so local government will be a big player in this,” says SFU Director of Urban Studies Anthony Perl.

That sustainability challenges like climate change and resource depletion are global in nature doesn’t let local governments off the hook

to focus on sidewalks and animal-control bylaws. Voters will demand local actions to prevent or diminish local symptoms of global problems.

For instance, Perl notes how higher travel costs from steeper energy prices are already cutting deep into the number of tourists from cruise ships visiting Vancouver’s downtown. Thousands fewer tourists are visiting our shops, restaurants and service providers. He suggests the city might provide incentives for new kinds of local-focused economic activities if that industry shrinks long-term.

Realistically, the city can’t “create” new industries for Vancouver’s downtown. But to the extent that the city planned its downtown development, incorporating a reliance on tourism, with its requisite infrastructure aided by big bucks from the Province and feds, the city will need to start planning now about what kinds of businesses might replace that hub, and how to provide incentives for them. Voters would surely be surprised and disappointed if Vancouver’s local government didn’t take an active role.

How has city council been flexing its muscles already on green issues? For starters, there is the controversial Burrard Street Bridge bike lane experiment. City council sidestepped the vocal motorists and businesses concerned over the Cambie-fication of Hornby Street, who wanted the trial stopped before it began. We’ll see if this trial really does pressure our commuters to get out of their cars, as council hopes.

Bold moves are also happening behind the scenes to make this city ground zero for the mass consumer electric-car revolution. City Hall has been in talks with major car companies including giants like Mitsubishi to make Vancouver the test market for the new generation of electric cars. To this end, the city pressed ahead with mandating an electric-car-charging infrastructure in new multi-resident developments, making Vancouver the first in North America to do so.

Then there’s the city’s drive toward a plastic bag ban, still a fairly new idea in Canadian cities. The city asked the province last year to give it authority to ban the distribution of plastic bags. So far, there’s nothing to show for it, so city staff will be going back to council with options very soon.

“Plastic bags are a visible sign of our throwaway society and this issue has garnered attention worldwide,” notes the city engineering department’s manager of solid waste management, Chris Underwood. Metro Vancouver has committed to 70 per cent diversion of solid waste from landfills and incinerators by 2015. Again, reaching council’s goal will likely mean moving ahead with a local solution.

Regardless of the city’s progress on green issues, many voters will still judge city councillors on how well (or poorly) they’ve addressed traditional issues like public order, homelessness, the Olympic Village development, or taxes. But so long as voters are also aware of how our city’s local solutions to global environmental challenges pay dividends in livability, council can and should continue to move boldly on its green agenda.

“You could actually question whether the city is being bold enough,” Perl says. “We haven’t seen people marching on city hall with flaming torches. I don’t think we will.”

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