Cities’ Climate Innovations Are Driving the Next Urban Transformation

By Sadhu Johnston, City Manager, Vancouver, British Columbia

Sadhu Johnston is the City Manager of Vancouver, British Columbia

Earlier in 2019, Vancouver’s city council declared a climate emergency and adopted a new set of climate-action targets that pushed its already aggressive goals to a new level. In response to the urgent need to hold global warming to below 1.5°C, the city set a new goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.

There’s much more going on here than radical climate action, as vital as that is. As Vancouver and other cities invent and implement ways to decarbonize their systems and strengthen resilience to climate change, we are reinventing the basic model for urban development that has prevailed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800. In fact, we are transforming urban design and life in cities, and Vancouver’s new City Plan will fully embrace climate and equity as core principles.

As Peter Plastrik and John Cleveland explain in Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities (Island Press), the many urban climate innovations underway carry big new ideas about what cities are and how they should work. And these ideas are replacing ideas that propelled the development of the modern city model we all know.

Vancouver is one of 25 global cities covered in Life After Carbon. The authors detail how these “climate innovation laboratories”— from Austin, Copenhagen, and Cape Town to Melbourne, Mexico City, New York, and Shanghai — have initiated wave after wave of locally grown climate innovations that leave no urban system untouched. These cities, they report, “have come to understand themselves, their place in the world, in a new way and act boldly on their changed awareness.” Their efforts have required remarkable creativity, political courage, and resources. Their work has also spurred collaboration among government departments, and between government and the private and civic sectors.

Plastrik and Cleveland have worked in and alongside many of these leading-edge cities, have written insightful reports about cities’ climate innovations, and were instrumental in the formation of two important city networks: the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. But Life After Carbon provides more than a survey of urban climate innovations. The authors illuminate a compelling thesis of change that is happening on the ground, not just in theories and elusive visions. They identify four transformative ideas that are embedded in urban climate innovations and show how these ideas are being applied worldwide:

  1. Carbon-Free Advantage. Cities are employing their unique advantages to turn the emerging renewable-energy economy into urban wealth and jobs. The idea that cities can drive economies through innovation and clusters of businesses is new; it overturns the idea that cities are simply supposed to provide entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations with low-cost labor markets and public power and transportation infrastructure.
  2. Efficient Abundance. Cities are more efficiently using energy, materials, natural resources, and space to generate a new kind of urban abundance. In the 1800s, consumption of goods and growth of economies were considered the primary standards for abundance, and cities were designed to promote consumption. Today, though, ideas about abundance are starting to shift. Abundance is now signified by long term sustainability that is comprehensive, not just economic, and widely shared rather than possessed.
  3. Nature’s Benefits. Cities are restoring and tapping the power of natural systems to enhance and protect urban life. By contrast, the previous urban model swept away natural habitats and species, engineered control over waterways, consumed vast amounts of natural resources, and dumped enormous amounts of waste, while inhabitants lost direct connection with the natural world.
  4. Adaptive Futures. Cities are cultivating the capacities of inhabitants and core systems to adapt to new requirements, especially those of climate change. Urban planning previously involved decision-makers imposing their will for control and economic growth on nature and society. Today, climate risks force cities to think differently about the future because it has introduced the potential for disorder and shocks unlike any cities have faced. Planning is coming to focus on resilience, sustainability, and equity rather than control. There is now more awareness that cities must build broad social consensus for change.

The framework in Life After Carbon rings true for Vancouver. Ours is a relatively young city, established in the 1860s with sawmills cutting some of the world’s largest trees into lumber. When a fire in the 1880s swept away what had been built, a modern city rose from the ashes. It had electricity and water systems, and streetcars. It was the western terminus of the new national railroad system, and a port for shipping wood across the ocean. In other words, Vancouver started out as a modern city exploiting local natural resources in a globalizing economy. It has since grown into a city with 640,000 inhabitants in a metropolitan area of 2.5 million, heavily dependent on burning fossil fuels to power vehicles and heat buildings.

By the end of the 20th century, city leaders and residents realized that the city’s future well-being did not lie in doing more of the same. In a radical change in the city’s thinking, we committed to becoming a green city, a renewable-energy city, an economically competitive city, and an equitable city. It’s a clear vision built on different ideas about what a city can and should be.

These commitments to action have helped drive Vancouver’s economic growth. We have partnered with entrepreneurs to develop a fast-growing, job-creating “green economy” business sector, and we are home to 23 percent of Canada’s clean-tech companies. Jobs and population in our community have each grown by more than a third since 1990, while our carbon emissions have decreased in that same time by about 12 percent. Vancouver has successfully branded itself as a highly desirable place for young, innovative talent to find work and build companies. A 2015 study by Brand Finance found that Vancouver is uniquely associated with being clean, green, and environmentally sustainable, resulting in a $31 billion USD brand evaluation.

Vancouver is also working toward a goal of 100 percent renewable energy before 2050. To that end, the city is reducing energy usage and switching from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and hydropower. The largest source of carbon pollution is the burning of natural gas for space and water heating in buildings, so with strong support of council, the public and the building design community, we have put in place a world-pioneering Zero Emission Building Plan for all new construction. The new building code will ensure that new buildings are energy efficient and use no fossil fuel by 2030. We built Canada’s first sewer heat recovery system, which harvests heat from a significant sewer line, enabling residents and businesses to reduce their carbon emissions by up to 70 percent. To produce our own renewable energy, we are harvesting methane from the landfill and partnering with FortisBC, our gas utility, to clean the gas and put it into the fossil gas distribution system.

Our new climate-emergency targets include ecosystem reforestation in the region: by 2030, restoration work will be completed on enough forest and coastal ecosystems to remove 1 million tonnes of carbon pollution annually by 2060. Meanwhile, the city is developing its next environmental plan, which calls for accelerating and expanding its nearer term decarbonization targets. By 2030:

  • 90 percent of Vancouver residents will live within an easy walk of their daily needs
  • Two-thirds of trips will be by active transportation and transit
  • 50 percent of kilometers driven on Vancouver’s roads will be by zero emissions vehicles
  • Embodied emissions in new buildings and construction projects will be reduced by 40 percent
  • By 2025, all new and replacement heating and hot water systems will be zero emissions

All of this work to create a new kind of 21st century city must be done with a strong lens on equity to ensure that everyone, especially low-income people and neighborhoods, benefits from these changes.

My involvement in shifting Vancouver’s thinking about its future as a city has taught me that, as Life After Carbon puts it, “transformational ideas are becoming a new standard for cities—not just a toolbox of innovations but a radically different way of thinking about, a model for, city development and urban achievement around the world.”

The framework of ideas that Plastrik and Cleveland found in urban climate innovations reveals a common ground among cities; a simplified understanding of what they share. It’s useful in several ways. Most importantly, the framework’s key ideas allow us to recognize that the real and urgent work of city leaders in the age of climate change is to fashion better cities. Better cities are economic innovation motors, ultra-efficient in all regards, fully reconnected to nature, and having the social capacity to turn climate disaster into opportunity for the entire community. Few cities have put all of these pieces together.

The framework also helps city leaders recognize that other players: businesses, professionals, community organizations, and other levels of government, are not only critical to success but are embracing these new ideas and implementing them in their own spheres. Life After Carbon emphasizes this point in its final chapters, describing the substantial range of related activities undertaken globally by non-governmental entities.

Life After Carbon presents an inspiring account of actual urban change that could not have been written just 10 years ago; there simply wasn’t enough going on then. But today, the story of cities’ transformative journeys makes compelling reading for local government leaders everywhere. As we know in Vancouver, and as other cities are showing, Life After Carbon is prescient in declaring that “the successor to the modern city is busy being born.”

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2 Comments

  1. The wheel is not an element that is in nature, gravity yes, being able to deceive the nature rolling was a challenge in all aspects of our development, transport was one of its latest and latest applications, the cost has been too much high and this advance is at the door of being our disaster if we do not react on time, before the collapse losing everything.
    This moment is a window that only the present gives us, to capitalize on an involuntary error that left us in a position to arrive where we can transcend growth and development without limits, this error gave us the understanding that we are a whole with the environment, that our Essence is more than a good of consumption and satisfaction of basic needs and that the mere fact of seeking more makes us more, finally, we are our desires, within our ignorance, where both transcendental yearnings and ignorance will always coexist.
    To make our sacrifice in the face of our progress capitalized we need to go beyond the era of the wheel, aware of who we are. In the era of the wheel the entropic wear of the friction never disappeared, this was our most important material limit that we must minimize it in all efficient technologies. Apparently, the essence of climate change is the entropy by rubbing, altering our nature, which is the main thing, the human essence, which is present in all nature, levitation. We must invest exclusively in our destiny not in maintaining our error, although this has served to grow and learn all this, our essential purpose is to transcend instead of enjoying death as an irresponsible drug addict.
    Sharing with nature from its gravity and levitate to our destiny should be the next step in the short term, a window of time that we only have now and that we must apply to achieve the necessary technology overcoming our own barrier, our limits, sharing with nature aware of who we are is the only way to grow and develop without limits. Levitating is talking with this material universe, for that we must know our nature.
    Planning is a result of seeing, planned actions are to be foreseen, to foresee is the basic principle of administration. But, love is everything.
    Levitation is pure love, it is not illegal exploitation after the wheel trick. You can, that is the existence after a past time of shooting without destiny.

    Reply
  2. Sadhu – Your leadership in Vancouver, along with the climate actions that Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco have taken over the past two decades, are creating the nucleus of a just and equitable green new deal for the west coast and a model for the rest of the world.

    Reply

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