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The Great Canadian Cleanup

Mayors paint towns green

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The Great Canadian Cleanup

We thought we'd take a look at some homegrown green innovators in cities across Canada. Starting with Vancouver, we've profiled some of the greenest mayors.

With climate change back in the public mind following the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last month, we thought we’d take a look at some homegrown green innovators in cities across our country.

Starting with Vancouver, the Olympic city, and working east, we’ve profiled some of the greenest mayors and their penchants for making green changes both in their own lives and in the lives of their citizens.

Vancouver, BC
Vancouver is aiming to become the greenest city on the face of the earth by 2020.

Behind such lofty branding stands a politician who is staking his reputation on beating out some pretty stiff competition, particularly in Europe.

Mayor Robertson
Mayor Gregor Robertson began building environmental credentials back in the eighties, when he got into organic farming as a prelude to establishing Happy Planet Foods, an organic juice and soup enterprise that is still going strong. Later, while serving as a New Democrat MLA, the 44-year-old Vancouver native chaired his party’s climate change task force.

Robertson won the mayor’s job just over a year ago and immediately began making the environment a centrepiece of his civic administration, appointing a panel of environmentalists and economists to develop short- and longer-term actions aimed at taking Vancouver to the number-one spot on matters green.

Says Robertson: “We’re in a time where we need big leaps and a paradigm shift, given the challenges we face.”

Green plans
His Greenest City Task Force, which he co-chairs, puts it this way: “Green is no longer the colour of sacrifice; it’s the colour of money and job creation.” Green, in a city like Vancouver where environmentalism is so close to the hearts of voters, also happens to be the colour of political wisdom.

Robertson believes his environmentalism is “an important part of why I got elected, and I will not let up on my goal to be the greenest city.”

Measures being contemplated to boost the city’s environmental standing include a plan for municipal operations to be carbon neutral by 2012.

In July Vancouver became the first North American city to mandate that a set percentage of parking stalls in new apartment and condo buildings would require electric vehicle plug-ins, and in September the mayor unveiled a new organic community garden on the lawn of city hall.

Robertson wants to see an expansion of community gardens throughout the city and more landscaping with native plants. He wants Vancouver to be the first municipality in the world to create an “edible landscaping” policy so people can nibble fruit, nuts, and berries as they stroll green areas.

Vancouver hopes to expand the parkland that currently makes up 11 percent of the city to ensure 90 percent of citizens have access to public green space within 300 metres of their home.

A plan is underway to introduce curbside composting, with regular pickups of Vancouverites’ composting material.

Robertson favours greater urban densification and would like to see housing built along Vancouver’s vast network of back lanes. He wants a green procurement policy for city hall’s $1 billion budget, green building retrofits, and an LED traffic light project.

Vancouver is making plans for a public bike-sharing system. Currently, just 3 percent of trips in Vancouver are by bike. The mayor, who owns a biodiesel-fuelled car but bikes almost everywhere including to meetings, favours a network of protected bike lanes in Vancouver such as a high-profile one unveiled in September on the Burrard Bridge into the downtown area. Next spring Vancouver will begin installing bicycle barriers on downtown streets.

Vancouver currently has the highest growth rate of any major Canadian city when it comes to public transit and is proud to boast that car use has actually declined by 10 percent in the past 15 years. Just ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics, an impressive new subway line has opened, linking downtown to the airport—a first for a Canadian city.

How close is Vancouver to its objective?

Robertson says the city already is the greenest in the Western Hemisphere, boasting the lowest per capita carbon emissions in North America. With its natural advantages—wilderness at its doorstep, no freeway in the city centre, access to clean hydropower, and a gung-ho citizenry—the Europeans had better watch out.

Cochrane, Alberta
In the tiny town of Cochrane lives a mayor with big ideas about the environment. Truper McBride, a transplant from London, Ontario, presides over his undulating Prairie community of 15,000 northwest of Calgary in foothills country.

Mayor McBride
The 31-year-old mayor, a husband and father of two, has been called “a poster boy for the changing face of Alberta.”

This, after all, is a province that, while being hydrocarbon capital of Canada, boasts a surprising number of green-minded citizens. “I think there’s a new and growing realization in Alberta that we need to work hard, perhaps even harder than others, to offset those (petroleum-related) emissions through other practices.”

“Cochrane itself is a very progressive town,” asserts the mayor. “The environment is very high on the agenda.”

McBride was elected to office in 2007 on a bright green platform and has a vision for the community that would change it from a bedroom suburb to a growing urban concern accommodating light industrial and knowledge-based businesses.

He practises at home what he preaches on council. “We’re pretty avid recyclers and have retrofitted toilets and faucets to reduce water consumption.”

McBride, who works in downtown Calgary for an information technology firm, would one day like to see a rail link to central Calgary, using existing CPR infrastructure. Right now, some 60 percent of Cochrane residents commute to downtown Cowtown, the overwhelming majority by car.

“Trains are the future for Canada. We have to go that route,” says McBride. More immediately, he’s working toward developing a rapid-transit bus service that would connect with Calgary’s light-rail system.

Green plans
Within town, McBride is encouraging bike and pedestrian pathways to woo drivers out of their vehicles. He notes Cochrane has grown out rather than up, and he’d like to see higher-density neighbourhoods.

McBride is putting emphasis on creating parkland and boat launches instead of residential development along the Bow River that wends its way through Cochrane.

The town is highly water conscious, with a website that boasts it is “a fully metered community.” Cochrane residents pay for water according to a three-tiered system based on usage. Back in 2004 Cochrane used 204 litres of H2O per person daily; that has since been cut to 150 litres.

A volunteer group calling itself Branches and Banks carries out tree planting that has left the town 30,000 trees richer than a decade ago.

Under McBride’s leadership, the town developed its first sustainability plan last May that looks ahead 50 years, drawing on hundreds of questionnaires filled out by residents and a visioning process that involved some 500. Declares the plan: “At the heart of Cochrane we value our small-town atmosphere, distinctive big hills, escarpments, waterways, and unique opportunities.”

This small Alberta town is determined to prove that oil indeed does mix with water—and with fresh air, natural habitat, and sustainable practices.

Guelph, Ontario
Back in April 2007 Mayor Karen Farbridge and her council threw down the gauntlet, committing to measures that will see Guelph use less energy in 25 years than it does today.

This, in the face of projections that the quaint southern Ontario city of 114,000 will grow by more than 50 percent in that time period.

The objective is to reduce the average Guelphite’s greenhouse gas emissions, currently estimated at 16 tonnes, by a full 9 tonnes per person. This would put Guelph, a city that claims to have invented the wire coat hanger and the jock strap, among the top energy performers in the world.

Mayor Farbridge
Farbridge, born in England and serving her second term as mayor, is not a sudden convert when it comes to going green. She earned a doctorate in biology from the University of Guelph and taught environmental policy at her alma mater.

Before getting involved in municipal politics, she was director of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (Guelph), a nonprofit environmental and social justice organization.

The wife and mother of a teenage son, who picked up the environmental bug as a youngster watching her European parents ration everything during wartime, walks the talk at home with her family. They compost, recycle, and were the first household in Guelph to install a green roof. They buy their meat and produce from local farmers.

The family owns one car and, in good weather, Farbridge uses a motorized scooter to get around on city hall business.

Environmentally, Guelph has much to protect. The historic downtown where buildings are clad in locally quarried, warm-hued limestone, is located at the juncture of the Speed and Eramosa rivers, and the city is blessed with creeks and rivers that create tracts of forested ravines.

Green plans
The city intends to realize its goal of reduced greenhouse gas emissions by way of a three-pronged approach. All new buildings will be constructed to energy-efficient standards; renewable energy (solar panels, biomass) will be used wherever possible; and several small electrical generating facilities will be built right in the community so less energy will be wasted through the transmission process.

It’s doable, says Farbridge, because the community has such engaged citizens. A late-eighties fight against a proposed incinerator in Guelph seeded their activism, she recounts. They defeated the project and then began brainstorming about the ways they could go green. “People are absolutely involved; our success has been the result of people stepping up.”

And the achievements have been impressive.

A water conservation program has resulted in Guelph using 17 percent less water than it did a decade ago, despite a 15 percent jump in population.

In 2004 Guelph had the best record in the province for waste diversion—54 percent—through recycling and composting efforts.

The city currently is aspiring to become home to North America’s first pollinators park for a declining bee population. About 100 acres in an old landfill site that is being rehabilitated will be reserved for plants and flowers that will attract bees.

No question about it, Guelph has been stung by the green movement.

Pickering, Ontario
Mention Pickering, and people are likely to think nukes. The Ontario city’s largest employer, after all, is the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, operating for nearly 40 years.

But Mayor Dave Ryan would quickly point out that Pickering happens to be the first Ontario city to establish an Office of Sustainability, in March 2007. And in 2008 his city received a prestigious award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Sustainable Community Award in Planning.

For the record, Ryan is aiming to make his city the most sustainable in North America, and has set a city-wide per capita target for 2016 of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent.

The city—60 percent of which is farmland, forested area and parks—has a population of 94,000 and sits just east of Toronto, about a 15-minute environmentally correct GO Transit trip from Toronto. It has a tranquil harbour reserved for pleasure craft on Lake Ontario’s shoreline.

Mayor Ryan
The mayor, a 63-year-old former IBM manager, moved to the municipality in 1985 and currently is serving a second term as municipal head honcho.

He, wife Anne, and daughters Laura and Colleen assiduously recycle and compost. Ryan currently is lobbying his fellow representatives in Durham region to establish a “red box” program similar to the blue box one, for curbside pickup of household hazardous materials.
The family’s appliances have been upgraded for energy efficiency, and the attic in their home has been freshly reinsulated.

Even before becoming mayor, Ryan—who at IBM had worked on environmental policy—was a member of the Pickering Waste Reduction Committee and active on a Citizens’ Task Force Against Dumps.

He notes that, all too often, his community has been used as a service centre for the big-city behemoth on its eastern flank. For example, Pickering has a large transformer station serving Toronto and major electrical transmission corridors through its terrain. Plus, the city has done battle in the past to resist dump sites being situated within the municipality.

Green plans
Due to its own industrial legacy, Pickering does have nuclear waste stored at the Pickering plant. But, says the mayor, none of this is stopping his community from being “proactively green.” Every report that gets tabled at council, he says, is required to feature a section on sustainability to ensure that environmental factors have been fully considered.

While the nuclear station predominates the town’s economy, Pickering is enacting what it calls an “EN3 strategy” to attract green-minded companies to the municipality, ones that work in the engineering, energy, and environmental fields. It’s also trying to densify its downtown core.

Mayor Ryan has not been afraid to start small. Pickering changed all the light bulbs at city hall, using ones that are more energy efficient, and municipal air-conditioning units in its recreation buildings have all been upgraded with non-ozone depleting refrigerants.

The Pickering Recreation Complex has been newly insulated to control heat loss and solar panels, plus a green roof has been installed that uses grass material to retain storm water that is redirected for use. The city has even planted drought-tolerant grasses on municipal property to reduce watering needs.

Pickering also has purchased five hybrid cars and a street sweeper with improved emissions efficiency, and the city actively enforces its automobile anti-idling bylaw.

A project announced in September will see construction by 2011 of an enclosed pedestrian bridge over Highway 401 to woo commuters, linking the city’s GO Transit station with an office tower to be constructed in Pickering’s downtown area. The site will accommodate 500 parking spots, to get citizens out of their vehicles and onto energy efficient transit. Says Ryan, “It truly is a bridge to our sustainable future.”

Montreal, Quebec
Who would have imagined that Montreal, with its long, cold winters and mountainous terrain at its centre, would become the first major Canadian city to introduce a public bicycle-sharing program?

BIXI became a reality last May and now features 5,000 bicycles and 400 bike stations. That it has become such a hit is a clear sign of the determination of this historic city to go green.

Mayor Tremblay
Mayor Gerard Tremblay, a 67-year old lawyer, Harvard MBA, and former Quebec Liberal MP, recently won a third term, presiding since 2001 over the greening of the island city.

Tremblay has introduced a transportation plan aimed at “reinventing Montreal” within a decade. It features plans for Metro expansion, bridge and highway tolls, and a reintroduction of electric streetcars that will link the Old Port with the downtown financial district by 2013. More bike paths are being created, and plans are in the works for a rail shuttle between downtown and Trudeau airport.

“By making massive investments in the development of alternatives to the car ... the Transportation Plan is calling for a major change in travel habits and behaviour,” says the city.

“Pedestrians [are] at the heart of Montreal’s priorities.”

The council is also working on an energy retrofit of the city’s Biodome and its Insectarium.

Green plans
To encourage the island’s 1.8 million inhabitants, individually, to get involved in greening their neighbourhoods, the city sponsors “eco-quartiers,” or clubs that allow residents to give flight to their environmental activism. In the city’s words, the program is meant to promote “ecocivism.”

Green roofs are being built on community complexes. Recycled plastic street furniture is finding its way onto city streets.

An electric car was purchased in 2008 for city workers. Bicycles are also being made available for city employees.

The city intends to remain literally green as well. A tree policy was adopted in 2005 to ensure protection of the city’s leafy motherlode. According to the policy, “Montreal’s trees are far more than decorative objects; they are living creatures that must receive protection and care.”

Several wind turbines have been constructed around the city, generating small amounts of power used to power park lights and pathways, and even a recycling compound.

The city is trying out a new, environmentally friendly grit to address icy road surfaces, which is less corrosive than traditional salt mixes.

It also has banned wood stove installation in new and existing homes, to lessen winter smog.
It’s not easy for a snowbelt city to be green. Kermit surely would be impressed.

Saint John, NB
When a city is labelled “The World’s Greatest Toilet,” you know its mayor has his work cut out for him.

Mayor Court
Ivan Court, elected mayor of Saint John in 2008 after serving a decade as a city councillor, is currently overseeing a long-awaited cleanup of this Maritime city’s harbour, after $80 million-plus in federal, provincial, and municipal funding was approved for the task in 2007.

Saint John has been dumping millions of litres of raw sewage into its harbour and streams daily, the contents of which comprise grit, debris, disease-causing pathogens, suspended solids, decaying organic wastes, and 200 identified chemicals.

While the Bay of Fundy city is not the only Canadian municipality to dump untreated liquid waste into its environment, Saint John is unique in that its outfalls flow into local streams, forming open sewers that run through the centre of the city. All of which has translated into third-world sanitation conditions in Canada’s oldest incorporated city.

Gordon Dalzell, of the Saint John Citizens’ Coalition for Clean Air, recounts that the sewage has been emitting “an unforgettable sewage smell, equivalent to the contents of thousands of toilet bowls being flushed. The odour, which permeates the surrounding area of Haymarket Square, is nauseating.”

Court, a retired high school teacher, in announcing commencement of the long-awaited project—a new wastewater treatment facility and additional pumping stations, declared last March: “This is momentous for our citizens.”

Green plans
The harbour project is the most high-profile, but not the only initiative Saint John is taking to become greener.

In fact, in 2008 the Federation of Canadian Municipalities gave Saint John a sustainability award for reducing its ecological footprint by 17 percent since 1996, and saving itself $5.1 million in the bargain. A new goal of 25 percent has been set for 2013.

Saint John hired a special energy manager in 1998. Energy efficiency retrofits have been carried out on public buildings, and new construction is based on the highest green design standards.

The city is designing a Green Thermal Utility to use waste heat from Irving Pulp and Paper, excess thermal heat from public buildings, and recover cold energy from Bay of Fundy waters.

It has installed solar panels on its aquatic centre, heat recovery systems in city arenas, and energy-efficient street lighting that allows for dimming in the wee hours.

An anti-idling policy has been implemented for city vehicles. Bus routes have been expanded to remove 400 cars daily from highways in and around Saint John. The city is adding bike lanes—where it had none before 2007.

Last January Court was one of six New Brunswick mayors, along with the province’s environment minister, to participate in the Mayor’s Eco-Challenge 2009, a competition to raise public awareness about climate change. The politicians spent four months publicly recording ways they tried to minimize their carbon footprint.

Saint John, its government, and its citizens are serving notice—they’re cleaning up their act.

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