Vancouver's Green Olympics: Exceptions that Change the Rules

The Vancouver Olympics are in their second week and the media has loved the "green" flavour of the games. The stunning new LEED certified athlete's village and convention centre have been the centerpiece of what is being touted as the most sustainable Games ever.

Grand claims like that always make me a bit suspicious. What's one green-roof on a convention centre (even if it is the size of four football fields) if the rest of the city just keeps chugging along the same as always?

But for Vancouver, these two super green developments are icons of a larger shift. Rather than being exceptions that prove the rules of unsustainable urbanization, these are exceptions that have helped change the rules.


Super-Green Eye Candy
Both developments have received glowing coverage. The LEED platinum convention centre has North America's largest non-industrial green-roof complete with honeybees. The building's underwater foundations have been engineered to act as an artificial reef. The centre also processes its own black water and uses a seawater heat pump to regulate indoor air temperature.

The mixed-use athlete's village reads like a green builder's fantasy with district energy and local renewables, grey water systems and a net-zero building. Inhabitat has dubbed it the world's greenest neighbourhood, the Huffington Post loves it, and it is one of only two LEED platinum neighbourhoods built so far.

All too often spectacular projects like these can distract attention from the fact that all around them the rest of the city continues on unchanged. In Vancouver, the real success of these developments is that they have helped drive the city's green building policy in ways that are transforming the city as a whole.

Changing Policy to Change A City
Just before the start of the games a new municipal policy was passed requiring all developments applying for rezoning to meet LEED™ Gold standards by early 2011. That success didn't come out of nowhere, and Vancouver’s Director of City Planning Brent Toderian has a post on Planetizen about the process that has got Vancouver to this point:

"We enjoy a rare talent-level of local architects and developers here when it comes to green, partially I think because our constantly rising bar has encouraged constant learning and improvement of skills, but ... in fact, many developers have been voluntarily out-performing the policy since 2008, going for Gold early."

Green buildings have been part of the Vancouver's sustainability strategy since 2007 when it adopted ambitious targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. That same year council also committed to have all new buildings in the city be carbon neutral by 2030. Since then, as part of the much publicized ecodensity project, the city has worked with the public and developers to identify and remove barriers to green buildings in zoning and development bylaws.

They've included new requirements for charging points for electric vehicles, and begun working with the design community to promote passive design principles that build efficiency directly into the shape of the building itself (see the policy .pdf). On the residential side there is a Green Homes program, introduced in 2008, whose requirements and by-law amendments are expected to cut energy use in newly built one and two family homes by 33%.

Exceptions that Change the Rules
None of these changes are as captivating as staring out over the new convention center's green roof, or strolling through the streets of the Olympic village. But rewriting the underlying rules that govern how Vancouver is built will have the greater effect. As flagship projects, the Olympic developments have helped make those reforms possible by embodying the city's commitment to sustainability, and catalyzing support for a deeper shift in the direction the city is taking.

Internationally, these two mega projects are seen as a symbol of the Olympics. But locally they are icons of a virtuous cycle of voluntary actions and municipal regulation that has allowed Vancouver to begin the processes of truly becoming a bright green city.

We are now all waiting to see how the city will take the next step, and move from regulating new construction, to the much bigger challenge of retrofitting what is already there. Who knows, maybe something like Portland's Clean Energy Works is waiting in the wings...

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1 Response to "Vancouver's Green Olympics: Exceptions that Change the Rules"

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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