“Greenest City” mostly greenwash

by Elizabeth Murphy

photo of Elizabeth Murphy

• The City of Vancouver’s Greenest City policy update was presented to council in July. Although there are some successes in the plan, the majority of the city’s development policies are greenwash and are actually increasing the city’s environmental footprint rather than reducing it.

For example, the weekly food scraps pick-up has diverted some landfill to compost, which is a positive thing. However, demolitions of mostly older character buildings increased to over 1,000 last year, with about 100 tons per average 2,200-square-foot house going to the landfill. During the first six months of this year, the city approved an all-time record of $1.12 billion in building permits Most of those permits will require the demolition of an existing building, leading to another record year of demolitions.

In addition to building material waste, each demolition usually results in clear-cutting the lot of mature trees and landscaping with a further net loss to the urban forest canopy.

Key findings and analysis in a report by Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservations included the statement: “Building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality.” In our climate type, it takes 50 years for a new, single-family home of similar size to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate impacts related to the construction process. And it takes 80 years to overcome urban village mixed use redevelopment.

Further, the city’s environmental footprint is increased by the systemic bias toward new towers. Glass wall and concrete construction with elevators is the least energy efficient form of development. Vancouver is now ninth in the world for cities with the greatest number of skyscrapers, which is shocking given that Vancouver’s population is listed at 616,537, making it the only one of the top 10 cities with fewer than 1.6 million.

What has not been given enough consideration is how the adaptive reuse of existing houses with secondary suites, lane houses and infill can accommodate growth. For example, the increased population from 1941 when the West End was mostly single-family houses to when it was substantially built out to apartments in the 1991census was only 70%. This growth could easily have been achieved through adaptive reuse and shows what could be possible in other neighbourhoods.

Instead, Vision’s Greenest City has incorporated and rebranded the NPA’s EcoDensity, which favours tower forms of high density. Adriane Carr and the Green Party of Vancouver understand the limits to growth while Vision ignores this fact, as they ramp up unlimited growth to reward the support of partners in development.

Bike lanes are not Vision’s initiative, though Vision has rebranded bike lanes as its own. In fact, bike lanes have been part of the city’s transportation plan since 1995 under the NPA. Fred Bass, a former COPE councillor, was the early champion of bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge, well before Vision. Bike lanes are not a significant issue in this election; the pace, scale and form of development in the city and affordable housing are the big issues.

Governance through branding and spin is not a sustainable practice. The city has a global reputation as a leader in community planning. We should get back to the proven practices of honest community involvement in neighbourhood planning and incorporate real sustainability principles rather than greenwashing.

Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and a former Property Development Officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing & Properties Department and for BC Housing. info@elizabethmurphy.ca, www.elizabethmurphy.ca

6 thoughts on ““Greenest City” mostly greenwash”

  1. Elizabeth, I’m particularly interested in your response to Chris’ inquiry:

    “She has a point that there is an environmental cost to demolishing older buildings, but what is the alternative? Population control by stopping immigration and limiting pregnancies? Or sprawl into the suburbs? Vancouver has a number single family, low density neighborhoods that aren’t sustainable. They aren’t affordable and they require cars to access. ”

    -Brad in suburban sprawl

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  3. Actually, Chris’s comment that the headline is misleading is not correct. What is misleading is Vision’s PR spin machine that promotes Vision as a progressive green party when in fact they are the main developers’ party in the city that is increasing the city’s ecological footprint rather than reducing it.

    In the last election I ran at the last minute with only six weeks to campaign over which we raised $40,000 compared to Vision’s $2.5 million. Yet I managed to get 20,000 votes, almost half the votes necessary to be elected.

    At the beginning of the article I admit that there are some successes in the Greenest City plan. But these are vastly outweighed by the damage that Vision is causing to the city.

    The alternatives to demolishing older more affordable heritage/ character buildings and replacing them with more expensive energy intensive new construction, is to adaptively reuse and upgrade these buildings, providing more secondary suites and infill, and adding new incremental developments within the scale and character of existing communities.

    This is not to say that there shouldn’t be any new towers built, but if they are built, they should be appropriately located based on community supported planning. If towers are built it should be because the housing choice is appropriate for that location, not because it is green which it is not.

    New construction and tower development is also more expensive and not more affordable than the older stock on a square footage basis. Lower costs with new construction are only achieved by being smaller, which is not generally appropriate for families.

    Since you bring it up, I live in a heritage building that I restored and has been converted from a single family house to four family sized units on one lot. This was achieved with community support when third-party appeals were still city policy in 2003-2004.

  4. The headline is a little misleading. This article has nothing to do with the greenest city plan, which tackles everything from carbon emissions to water consumption. Elizabeth Murphy has been railing against development since she ran for city council last election. Her bio fails to mention she finished a distant 23rd. She has a point that there is an environmental cost to demolishing older buildings, but what is the alternative? Population control by stopping immigration and limiting pregnancies? Or sprawl into the suburbs? Vancouver has a number single family, low density neighborhoods that aren’t sustainable. They aren’t affordable and they require cars to access. Elizabeth Murphy herself lives in a mutli million doar home in West Point Grey.

  5. I agree with Elizabeth’s sentiments about the future of Vancouver and its thrust towards “Vision’s Greenest City”. Certainly, the description gives one an image of Canadian habitation embedded in a tropical-like setting. But perhaps we are deluding ourselves and the real meaning in the minds of Vision’s peers is simply concrete and asphalt lubricated by the circulation of “green” dollars ($20 bills fit the image).

    But if the outcome of Visions’s vision is not “sustainable”, as alleged, then what will our city look like at the end of what should otherwise be a “sustainable period” of, say, 30, 40, or 50 years? Are there any examples of other cities that we can point to? If painful consequences are to be expected, then where will the pain be felt? An economic implosion perhaps?

  6. If Vision really wanted to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world they would amend the building code to forbid the following: glass curtain buildings, air conditioning, unshaded windows and electric heating. The setback around buildings would be required to be green space (not luxury townhouses) and all apartment buildings would require secure bike parking.

    Of course none of these aspects would appeal to buyers of luxury condos, the developers that cater to them, nor Vision who cater to the developers. The energy wasting monstrosities that are permitted and encouraged under Vision’s leadership are anything but sustainable, and do nothing more than set Vancouver back into the dark ages.

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