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Sunday, November 13, 2011 - Page updated at 09:30 p.m.

Vancouver, B.C., works to be greenest of all

By Craig Welch

THE GIANT pink delivery tricycle pulls up before glimmering glass office towers.

It's a normal Wednesday in downtown Vancouver, B.C. Morning rush hour is just picking up steam. Mercedes and SUVs whiz by on the street. Pedestrians in sharp suits and expensive haircuts race along the sidewalk to work. A few look up from their smartphones to see what someday may be the new normal: Cyclist Robyn Ashwell opening her trike's oversized cargo container to retrieve a cardboard flat of fresh fruit — a special drop-off for one of the tower's businesses.

"You should have seen it yesterday," says the recent Simon Fraser University graduate. Ashwell shuts the lid on the trike's half-full delivery box. "It was completely packed with food."

This is the first stop of the day for a new business that may represent the city of the future.

Vancouver recently announced its desire to become the world's greenest city by 2020. As such, Western Canada's urban hub has set ambitious goals to turn itself into a living laboratory for all things sustainable. The city is moving to reduce solid waste by 50 percent, cut residents' carbon footprints by a third and dramatically increase public transit, walking and bike use. It is packing citizens in more densely, trying to encourage more locals to grow food and generally urging lighter living on the land.

Downtown hotels for years have even raised their own honeybees.

Ashwell's Shift Urban Cargo Delivery fits right in. Started by a few college students last spring, Shift makes commercial-scale freight deliveries of up to 600 pounds of goods using pedal power with an electric-motor assist. The business model is deceptively simple: As the city rapidly adds bike routes and cuts parking and vehicle lanes to drive commuters from gas-guzzling cars, delivery by specially made giant tricycles can be more practical and convenient. In just a few months (with the help of several grants), this small delivery co-op is already making money and has contracts with an organic grocery service and an office-supply outfit.

"We're basically looking to completely change the way distribution takes place downtown," says Loretta Laurin, another Shift founder. "Most downtown deliveries aren't that big, and we can use bike lanes, pass traffic and park virtually anywhere. It makes sense for so many reasons."

That Vancouver city officials view young businesses like Shift with pride is no surprise. Vancouver's mayor and City Council increasingly are under fire for the lightning pace of change in their city — and for their seeming imperviousness to opposition. To the city, Shift is confirmation that new civic policies are speeding Vancouver's evolution to a cleaner, greener metropolis.

But how significant is this transformation, really? Is it a revolution or a mix of faddism and savvy marketing? (Save the Planet with rooftop honeybees!) Is this city's single-minded mission a form of global leadership or, as some residents charge, just plain arrogance? How transferrable is the city's experience to metro areas in other countries — to Seattle, for example, with its own history of and desire for green governance?

These are complicated questions whose answers may appear simple. But they're not. At least not yet.

"I'm both somewhat skeptical of these kinds of initiatives but also recognize they can actually make a difference," says Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor and director of the urban issues program at Simon Fraser University. He was appointed to the panel that ultimately helped set Vancouver's 2020 agenda. "We don't mine coal here. We don't drill for oil. But, of course, we are a port city and we funnel through huge amounts of fossil fuel. Does that count? How? These are big, important questions.

"Nonetheless," Price says after some thought, "focusing too heavily on caveats tends to trivialize initiatives that can have pretty profound impacts."

THE CITY is certainly making an impression.

To see just how creative it has gotten in its grand experiment, there's no better place to start than the sleek new building hidden under the Cambie Bridge, which leads to the skyscrapers of downtown.

On a sunny morning, a few hours after Ashwell's delivery, Chris Baber, the shaggy-haired manager of the city's False Creek Energy Center, wrenches open the building's heavy back door, releasing a faint whiff of poo. No wonder. Down a short flight of stairs, a series of pipes carries a river of human waste.

More than half of Vancouver's share of the greenhouse-gas emissions that fuel global warming are still emitted by its buildings. That's why the city wants all new construction by 2020 to be carbon neutral. That requires a push toward energy-efficient construction. But it also may require cleaner energy, period. One step toward that goal: micro utilities like this one.

Such so-called district energy projects are common in Europe. A few are even being considered in Seattle. But this particular design is the first of its kind in North America and only the third such utility in the world. This station uses pumps to capture heat energy coming off untreated sewage before the waste is funneled back to a treatment plant. That energy, in the form of hot water, is then piped into a nearby neighborhood where it provides heat and hot water to 1.8 million square feet of homes and businesses. Eventually it will heat more than three times that much space: Think 7 million square feet, all warmed by waste.

"And it's pretty cost-competitive with electric heat," says Baber.

But those big numbers bely the fact that this still is just a tiny step. And it cost $30 million to build. Like much of the latest rendition of Vancouver's green movement, this utility was developed in the frenzied months leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics. The system heated the village that housed the Games' athletes — a village that itself became a financial fiasco, with city taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars in unsold condos. That period also saw construction of the continent's largest living roof — 400,000 native plants on six acres atop the Vancouver Convention Centre. And it saw completion of the Canada line, a 12-mile rail link from the airport to downtown that helped fuel a 31 percent increase in public-transit use last year. While that figure included ridership during the Olympics, use is up even more this year.

That, city leaders say, is one of Vancouver's distinct advantages. The Olympics provided the money and momentum to overhaul an already thriving city. It also propped up the city when governments around the continent were laying off workers and struggling to plug budget holes.

"In Canada we weren't hit by the financial crunch as severely as the States," says Amanda Pitre-Hayes, Vancouver's director of sustainability. "And we were more buoyant than other regions in Canada because the timing of the downturn coincided with the Olympics."

But to say Vancouver's progress results solely from the Olympics would be a misreading of its culture and politics.

For even within the eco-conscious region of Cascadia, where green-minded Portland and Seattle compete for attention, Vancouver operates on a different plane.

BY ALMOST any measure, Vancouver is already pretty green. In part that's because it's had to be.

The city's population is nearly identical to Seattle's — slightly more than the Emerald City's 618,000 souls, according to recent census figures. Both are hemmed in by water. But Vancouver crams all those people into a mere 44 square miles. That's exactly half the land area of Seattle, and a natural barrier to sprawl and excess road-building.

"Forget climate change for a minute," says City Councillor Andrea Reimer. "We have some very practical challenges. We have 650,000 people. By noon on a weekday we have 1 million, counting commuters. We have to move all of them around, plus all the food and goods in one of the smallest, densest cities on the continent. That's required us to make certain choices. Like building up instead of out."

Vancouver is also more culturally diverse; fewer than half its residents speak English at home — "I would be hard-pressed to find someone here who didn't know how to eat with chopsticks by the time they were 6 or 7 years old," Reimer says. That changes the way residents relate to their city. Many immigrants are second-generation residents from places used to smaller, tighter quarters — and less tied to suburban-style amenities, like cars.

Still, to really understand what sets Vancouver apart, one stop has to be Oak Street and 70th Avenue West.

Just after rush hour on a September morning, trucks and cars idle at this unspectacular corner. To the north, Oak Street resembles a suburban boulevard, with a gas station and Starbucks not far ahead. The only thing that makes this intersection important is the fact that it exists at all. It's where B.C.'s Highway 99 becomes a city street, marking the northern end of an international freeway that extends south to the U.S. all the way to Mexico. In fact, if you drive on Interstate 5 straight north from Tijuana it's the first city streetlight not part of a border crossing. It means there is no highway running through Vancouver.

"It's what really makes us different from Seattle, Portland and most other cities," says Price. "Vancouver is an early-21st-century version of the pre-car-dependent city. It's still fundamentally organized around trolley lines. We've accommodated the car without having to be car-dependent."

Some in the city believe that fact has helped empower politicians of all stripes to fight car-based growth. Certainly the city's greenhouse-gas emissions were the lowest per capita of any major North American city as far back as 2006. Today, more than half of the city's taxi cabs already are high-fuel-efficiency vehicles like Toyota Priuses. All that has helped earn the city accolades. The Economist magazine, for example, for a decade (until this year) had named Vancouver the most livable major city in the world.

"Ever since we said no to the freeways, we've taken a counterintuitive approach to traffic," says Vancouver's director of planning, Brent Toderian. "The city's gotten better and better at it, and keeps getting more attention and credit, which residents enjoy. Success sort of begets success."

In fact, people who live in Vancouver generally seem proud of their city's green reputation. But that hasn't made the city immune to the same strife that hits other cities, including Seattle, that push against cars.

HIGH-END CLOTHING retailer Mike Brascia, dapper in suit and tie, hugs his chest tightly and scowls at the bicycles zipping past his downtown shop. The city recently replaced parking and car lanes with separated bike lanes on Hornby Street, the site of Brascia's Tailors and Menswear.

"No question," Brascia says with unrestrained bitterness. "Yes, I feel the consequences. There's no place to park! I moved down here to be near the guys in high-end suits. But those guys want to drive to my store. And I'm paying the price."

Just as it has in Seattle, no change in Vancouver has caused as much uproar as the addition of miles of new bike lanes. Angry meetings have followed studies and counter-studies by retailers. The battle has raged for years. When, in the 1990s, Vancouver officials added bike lanes on a bridge for a six-month test, outraged motorists helped kill the pilot project the first week. In the mid-2000s, a similar plan nearly brought down the city government. In 2009, the city finally added the lanes for good.

"All the data said if we can get more people on bikes, the traffic will actually move faster, so we did it," Reimer says. "But there was this big, emotional lead-up to it. It was the top news story for days on end. I think there were nine news helicopters hovering above that day." Now, people seem to forget the bridge once had no bike lanes, she says.

That success boosted city leaders' confidence, making it easier to add the lanes to places like the street in front of Brascia's shop, but Brascia and some of his neighbors remain livid. "It's like they don't care what we think," he fumes.

City planner Toderian sees it differently. He says Vancouver's leaders increasingly follow their own path, even in the face of public opposition. Where politicians in American cities ignore grass-roots uprisings at their peril, "at the end of the day our politicians often say, 'I'm smarter for listening, but I don't agree.' "

He says it's an issue of leadership. "We often get asked about the details of Vancouver city building policy — our legislation, our tools, our techniques. But I say it starts with vision and will. That's been true regardless of changes in our City Council. There's been a great consistency because of our people."

Of course, the legal setting matters, too. Where the Declaration of Independence describes the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," the introductory paragraph of Canada's 1867 Constitution Act urges its parliament to seek "peace, order and good government." Canada isn't nearly as litigious and doesn't have the same concept of property rights. In the 1970s, when British Columbia was rapidly losing agriculture to urban development, the province permanently made millions of acres of farmland off-limits to development. The region is comfortable using regulation to force social change.

For example, in its drive to substantially cut the waste it sends to landfills, Canada and its cities and provinces increasingly make industries take responsibility for disposal of the products they sell. That means citizens can simply drop unwanted goods off at facilities paid for by their manufacturers. Within the next few years, these "product stewardship" programs will not just be available for televisions and computers, but for packaging, carpets, furniture and textiles, small appliances and pretty much anything with a battery or an electric cord.

Not in Washington. Here, the Legislature recently passed a new program for computers and televisions, but attempts to do more have repeatedly stalled in the Legislature. Ditto in Congress.

"In Canada and Europe, the policymakers come up with what they think the solution is, then consult with industry, then pass the law," says David Stitzhal, coordinator for the Northwest Product Stewardship Council. "Here, the lobbying power is so profound and potent that you never get public policy that's made without disproportionately heavy industry influence."

VANCOUVER STILL faces its share of problems. Even city officials concede the city struggles to remain an affordable place to live. The average home-sale price this year hovers above $750,000. Homelessness has long been a problem.

It's also not clear how close it will come to reaching all its goals. Even some of its champions have their doubts.

"We are not going to be the greenest city in the world by 2020," says Price. "The northern Europeans will have something to say about that. But, depending on how you define it, we stand a reasonable chance of attaining that title in North America."

Regardless, the city has already achieved a measure of success. It continues to get attention around the world for its efforts to be an eco-leader. And it's inspiring a new generation of innovators. Just ask the owners of Shift Urban Cargo Delivery.

In the few months since the tricycle business has gotten started, its founders — mostly in their 20s — say they've received calls from others around Canada and the U.S. who want to start similar businesses in their own cities. The enthusiasm has motivated these entrepreneurs to start thinking about their next step.

"The technology is still in its infancy," says founder Laurin. "So we're looking into the possibility of developing our own line of trikes. We think we could become a manufacturing company."

Craig Welch is The Seattle Times environmental reporter. He can be reached at 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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