GG2010: Vancouver’s Brent Toderian & the next Vancouver

(Yes, this is just a little bit delayed. Life gets in the way sometimes)

Although most Vancouverites couldn’t pick him out on the street, Brent Toderian, the City of Vancouver’s Director of Planning, is amongst the most influential people shaping their city (and indeed, through the recently in-vogue Vancouverism, shaping cities far beyond even the Canadian borders). On Thursday morning he came to Gaining Ground to share some wisdom and talk about the future of planning Vancouver.

Introduced as being from a “mind-numbingly dull & boring profession”, he led off by saying that he wanted to “deliver gorgeous public places” and that although he collects flack for using words such as gorgeous,¬† “people in positions like mine get to decide what is flaky.” Beyond the quips, Brent had a serious message about sustainability and planning, claiming that there are too many easy (and unworkable) solutions in North America then publicly wondering if livability was enough.

So what is the next Vancouver? The 1970’s brought streetend views and the 80’s view corridors and the 90’s a streetscape with high towers. That future is bundled up in EcoDensity, described as “density done well”, which Brent said needs three critical components: movement (of people and goods), high design quality, and amenities. Given how controversial EcoDensity is

Beyond EcoDensity, he emphasized that the need for industrial hasn’t gone away and, if a city isn’t careful, it can end up with no “job space” whatsoever, which is one of the reasons the city recently protected some commercial space downtown, a move that wasn’t universally popular.

In parting, he said that “being the greenest city just isn’t enough”. Probably a good thought.

GG2010: Roger & Sara talk Metro Van vs CRD

Early yesterday morning two speakers with similar jobs but in very different regions stepped up to the podium to share just how different their regions, separated only by the Salish Sea (nee Georgia Strait) are tackling climate change and all the other attendant challenges these growing regions face.

Metro Van’s air quality head, Roger Quan, led off, talking about how the then-GVRD had being “doing climate change before climate change was cool”, talking about air as “our common ground” and how their mandate to control various aspects of air quality — which they have done for over 15 years — directly led in to the sustainability initiatives that the region has embarked on since then. Roger explained that part of the challenge lies in how little of the region’s emissions the region actually has control over. The two biggest sources of pollution are under the mandate of local councils or other agencies, namely transportation (controlled by Translink and the local councils) and buildings (controlled by local councils), leaving Metro Vancouver to “work around the edges”, as it were. What they control is a great deal of the utilities in the region, and are thus looking at heat recovery for their sewers and hydro from the Capilano reservoir, for example. They also do lot of advocacy work, both to senior levels of government to ask them to speed up the process and to local businesses on how to become sustainable faster. With the organization of regional district itself, they also try and model sustainability, having set a “shadow” price on carbon of $25/tonne and are working on embedding a sustainability lens in all the work they do.

The CRD’s Climate Action Coordinator, Sarah Webb, then brought the perspective of the capital region. Unlike Metro Vancouver, the CRD lacks the large utilities under their control, so more of their work is focused on the advocacy side, adding that they need to push local councils to make some of the hard changes they have yet to do. Partly the CRD can do this by adding capacity, both with systems and with people, of which Sarah is one of them (the other side of her office is a half-time person, so she lacks people power). But what does Sarah see as critical to allowing the climate change goals to be met? Vision of the possible, management processes and other systems, people (and champions), money, and possibly most critically, time to “steer the ship’s course”, as she put it.

With the loss of the regional districts major planning powers in 1983 and the challenge that they are only slowly regrowing that capacity and regulatory ability, both Roger and Sarah pushed how the regional districts can bring people to the table and be good models of what needs to be done, especially for mildly-reluctant councillors and mayors. And while neither regional district has the power or people required to do job, they can leverage other divisions within their districts (such CRD Planning’s Pedestrian & Cycling Plan) or other organizations within the region (such as Translink in Vancouver). Hopefully it will be enough.

GG2010: A morning of important people

Day one of a conference is usually the time for the big speakers to come and tell us about their grand ideas and successes and Gaining Ground is no different. As Mark Holland remarked in his opening comments, this is a fairly unique conference in that we don’t “disappear into a big building and come out when the sun has gone down”, rather we are spread across four venues and our lunches are out in the wider community, as places such as Steamworks or Wild Rice. It is a nice refreshing change, because SFU’s brand new campus in the Woodwards building is very shiny and new and it is easy to forget we are on the borders of the Downtown Eastside.

The host mayor, Gregor Robertson, led the day off, talking about the various accomplishments the city has seen through since the last Gaining Ground in 2009, including changes to the building code, a massively successful transportation plan for the Olympics, new electric car charging stations (they are planning for 15% of the fleet by 2020), and various green jobs initiatives, including one in the Strathcona neighbourhood. At that he had to run off to council, where they are deciding the fate of the proposed Hornby St. separated bike lane.

Easily the most dynamic speaker of the morning was Jared Blumenfeld, now of the US EPA, late of the San Francisco Dept. of the Environment. He had the whole audience laughing, talking about how we got to here (The Inconvenient Truth, the hockey stick graph, peak oil, BP spill, etc.). He had a few pithy comments, calling all the greenwashing “greeningless” and of the climategate scandal, where there’s a t-shirt, there is a problem.

One of his key points was the drivers of change need to be cities. While India and the US may disagree on climate change and how to tackle it, the mayors of New York and Mumbai have some pretty similar interests. One example he mentioned was the banning of phalates in the US, which went from a municipal ordinance in San Francisco, to California state law, to federal legislation, all in the space of 6 months. What was amazing is that both the city and state got sued because they didn’t have the right to ban it, but did it anyway.

The presidents of SFU and BCIT were up next, talking about the many things that both institutions can do. What grabbed was the Translink RFP out for a gondola (ala the Portland Aerial Tram) up Burnaby Mountain and Don Wright of BCIT pointing out that sustainability includes housing costs, and if those aren’t brought under control, all the others gains will be for nought as the young move away or become car commuters and change their views.

So far, so good. This afternoon is filled with various workshops and salons, which should be interesting.

Preston goes to a sustainability conference

That Preston Manning, late of the of the federal Reform party and more recently of the Fraser Institute, would show up at a sustainability conference is a bit of cognitive dissonance. After all, his old party barely believes in anthropogenic global warming and is a whole-hearted supporter of Alberta’s oil sands, a major cause of Canada’s rising emissions. But come he did, to talk about reconciling environmental and economic viewpoints, largely from a Christian perspective. Along side him was Paul Williams, Executive Director of the Regent College Marketplace Institute, and two gentlemen from¬† A Rocha, a Christian sustainability outfit.

The talk was well attended, surprising given it was running into the teeth of Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth Discipline – the Eco-pragmatist’s Manifest talk, a far more likely speaker and topic at a sustainability conference. I wonder how many people were here because they just wanted to see what Preston would say and how any actually were here because they believed in what Preston said or did. The room seemed evenly split between the suits and the hippies, so I suspect it was a bit of both.

Up first was Paul, who laid out the ground work, basically as thus: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Or stated differently, our economy is going great but we are driving off an environmental cliff and here are the two different stories in each city. He then invoked some stereotypes in telling his story, as seen from the table below:

Economic Enviromental Christian
Assumptions free choice of individuals & firms ecological damage, human economy breaching limits command (but failure) to steward Creation in community
Purpose happiness through wealth creation as success sustainable balance of ecosystems, survival (restoration) maturation of right relationships, Shalom
Practices maximization of profit/growth, consumption minimization (of harm & damage), conservation worship – god, people, creation – cultivation
Virtues efficiency, diligence, selfishness, greed efficiencty, care, anxiety, blame thanksgiving, generosity, creativity
Unit of Measure money resources/energy relational
Policy Paradigm market deregulation state regulation local market scope

It certainly is a neat little table, but I think large parts of it are wrong. Take the statement that the core assumption of economic development is liberty. Why is this wrong? There are the stellar examples of mainland China (or Korea and Taiwan to a lesser extent earlier in the 20th century). None of these economies sought out liberty in any sense, yet all strove for standard, 20th-century economic development – growth of GDP, productivity, etc. And all three succeeded, without much (initial) political freedom.

But at the core, I think he does have some good points. He did point out that there is no reason why the units of measure between the envirnomental story and the economic one need to be separated. In fact, for most of human history they were. (Insert conspiracy about abandoning gold standard here).

And while his ideas about thanksgiving being a good counter-point to the commercial consume message might be good, I think narrowly defining the Christian message as the one between the two “extremes” does a great deal of disservice to everybody. But he did give a great deal to think about and presents some interesting challenges to people of faith and not.

Up next was Preston, described as “one of Canada’s great political visionaries”. He digressed slightly at times, but overall he stuck to three core ideas: the need to create and manage non-political forums, the need to mediate between interests, and lastly but most importantly — at least in my mind — the need to model reduction.

It turns out Preston is actually pretty moderate when it comes to the oil sands. Just take at a look at what he has said: National Post story, Saskatoon Star Pheonix story. Guess being out of power, as it were, allows you to speak more freely.

Back to the idea of reduction. He said that people of faith should work on the demand side, because lots of work already being done on the supply side, with little done on the demand side. An example: electrics cars are great, but nobody is asking if a car is really needed. And faith can play a central roll here: jesus teaches accumulating spiritual wealth than real world wealth. (Luke 12:15 NIV – Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” )

Sadly I had to leave right as Preston ended (he had a much shorter talk than Paul) because I am up tomorrow at 6am to help volunteer for the conference. Hope to see you all there.

Thriving within Limits: Ecologically informed economics and the
sustainability o cities