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A few of days ago I arrived in Vancouver, B.C. for a week of urban planning and playing. On the official schedule are presentations about leading practices in resilient urban systems, a workshop to assess the City of Vancouver's rating in the International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) initiative, a brainstorming session to redesign the campus of the BCIT's School of Construction and the Environment into an ecocity fractal, and a weekend retreat of the IEFS Core Advisory Committee discussing the IEFS on the road to Rio.

That's quite a brainful of lofty concepts...


so let's bring this down home...


As the venerable Danish architect Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People, points out:

A good city is like a good party – people stay much longer than really necessary because they are enjoying themselves.
So let's take a ride into Vancouver and see what there is to discover...


Tuesday, February 7th

You wanna have fun while you're doing this.
-Richard Register

I arrived at Vancouver International in the late afternoon and I was hoping I'd be able to get to the place I had booked through with enough daylight left to catch a few initial impressions of this great Pacific Northwest metropolis. The connection would have to be pretty smooth for my plan to come through, and the city's transit system did not disappoint. I hopped on the Canada Line of the skytrain and in less than 20 minutes I arrived at the Broadway station, from where it was a short walk through the Mount Pleasant neighborhood to get to my place.


Vancouver has the reputation for being one of the greenest cities in North America, and from my view it was off to a great start. Not to read too much into it, but having a metro line go straight to the airport is imperative for any city worth its eco salt, and in my view it really sets the tone and intention of a place.

None of my "roommates" were home (but keys under a rock — I'm in Canada now), so I dropped off my stuff and started meandering down the hill toward those magnificent white caps in the distance.


Yup, that's a cyclist right there riding through the photo, and it immediately became clear when I had a hard time crossing the street for all the bikers that he wasn't a lone wolf braving the British Columbia winter. Granted, it was a sunny day, but as I was about to find out less than 24 hours later, it takes more than pouring rain to get Vancouverites off their bicycles. In a town that seems to have more mountain climbing stores than McDonald's you'd be hard-pressed to expect a little weather to keep the faithful from pedaling forth.


Alas, Vancouver is far from an urban utopia, and just a couple of blocks down from my idyllic home I would for the next few days run into the reality of who's still boss in the fossil-fueled North American city.


I went down Cambie Street toward the bridge that connects the south shore of False Creek where the Olympic village is located to the downtown peninsula. It's where I got my first taste of Eco-Density, an initiative adopted by the City of Vancouver to use density, design, and land use to help reduce their carbon footprint and expand housing choices while keeping it one of the most livable cities in the world.


The idea of living in highrises may not be everyone's dream, especially for Americans who are used to expansive spaces and long distances, but aside from the fact that these long distances between basic services and the massive amounts of energy it takes to sustain such a set-up are slowly dismantling the American dream, density, if done right, can actually be quite enriching. Brent Toderian, Vancouver's former Director of Planning, aptly coins it The Power of Nearness, and a look across the bridge gives voice to the idea that living close together can be quite appealing if the setting is right.


The image of people coming together, sharing space and resources, and enjoying the simplicity of walking and biking in a vibrant and verdant ecotropolis firmly ingrained in my mind, I hoofed it back to my makeshift abode on the pleasant mountain where I was greeted by a voluptuous full moon.


Wednesday, February 8th

The oldest task in human history is to live on a piece of land without spoiling it
- Aldo Leopold

I woke up to the sound of rain, and after a moment of perceived hardship my mind freed itself from the binary "good vs bad weather" constraints and fully embraced the prospects of a blissfully drizzly day. It did help to know that my destination was a talk by Richard Register entitled "Urban Sustainability: The Coming Transformation" to be held at the convention center on the waterfront. The walk through my neighborhood was luscious.


I hopped on the Canada line and in less than 10 minutes I was at the convention center where I was greeted by this little sign that gives a whole new meaning to the concept of greenwashing.


I'm just going to take the liberty here and skip ahead to equalize that sight with the most excellent SmartCar 2Go sighting I would have later that day.


I met Richard in the speaker room where we chatted for a bit and he introduced me to John Knott, the second speaker that day, a third-generation developer from the family that revitalized Baltimore’s Inner Harbor who has become well known for his sustainable developments of Dewees Island and Noisette in the Charlston, SC area.

As usual, Richards presentation was incisive yet delightfully improvisational, with lots of great visuals.


Richard said that if we want to get serious about fighting climate change we need to build ecologically healthy cities. Cities are the single largest things that humans build, inhabited by 60-80 percent of the world's population, and if designed right could run on 1/10th of their current energy.

The cool thing about Richard is that he's one of the few brainy thinker types who is also a great artist, so his presentations are always illustrated with his drawings and sketches.

This is what most cities look like right now...


People are condemned to narrow strips, with cars taking up most city space...


but if you start to shift toward density by adding more vertical space, connecting existing buildings, and taking space-guzzling cars out of the core you can create so much more space for people...


so despite the new density, and in fact because of it, you're creating a more attractive and livable urban center...


Of course, the question always arises, "can it be done?"

Let's face it, the human mind gets terribly attached to its surrounding conditions, even or perhaps especially if those conditions are unhealthy and self-destructive. Even among many "environmentalists" Richard often gets belittled as a dreamer who doesn't understand the reality of "how things are." People would rather tinker around the edges, get a few solar panels, drive a hybrid car and build an "eco-friendly" home that allows them to continue their exact same lifestyle...


than to actually tackle the root of the problem which is that the planet can't sustain the number of people on it with the current land use patterns of sprawl and disconnectedness.

It's like we're getting plastic surgery when what we really need is deep therapy.


The thing is, the change we need is not as hard and unattainable as we think it is. Richard likes to point out how quickly and easily American car manufacturers shifted towards building things other than cars with the threat of Nazi Germany looming over the world. I don't believe for a minute these companies wouldn't be able to shift toward building much-needed infrastructure for a post-carbon economy if they had the incentive. You thought Nazis were bad? Try rising sea levels and permanent drought.

The good news is that this is not just lofty theory or distant science fiction, but in fact much of it is combining ancient wisdom with modern, progressive advances. I wrote about how the City of Freiburg, Germany decided against all conventional wisdom to keep its medieval walkable core intact after WWII and is now reshaping its suburbs into eco villages. The City of Vancouver decided to adopt ecocity principles into its planning, and while far from an actual ecopolis, you can see the access by proximity principle reflected in its design.


But can it be done in the U.S., where people like it big and distant and will defend their constitutional (god-given?) right to sprawl, waste, and consume, consequences be damned?

Well, John Knott has proven that it can be done. In the second presentation of the day entitled "Urban Sustainability: The Future Is Local," John told us how he and his team were able to turn the blighted 3,000 acre Noisette community in Charleston, South Carolina...


into a healthy, sustainable, human-scale community — a city within a city — within a few years.


I never thought I would hear a developer talk about human relationships, but that's exactly how John explained his unprecedented success in getting buy-in from all the different parties — residents, the city, developers, planners, architects — involved in such a large scale change. He told the story of how he personally met with every resident, asking about their concerns, visions, worries, and dreams, and in turn told them about the rich history of the neighborhood.


John is convinced that you cannot build an ecologically healthy city without community, and to build community we have to get to know each other first. To him, anonymity is one of the most serious problems in the U.S., and in many ways it's the land use patterns of sprawl and distance that have created this anonymity. It follows then that the only way we can reverse these patterns successfully and gather the political, economic and spiritual courage to fundamentally reshape the spaces we live in is by connecting with those we share those spaces with, one by one, little by little.

As it turns out, building healthy and sustainable communities is much less about buildings as it is about the people who live in them. In order to build ecocities we need to have ecocitizens. Not surprisingly, ecocitizenship plays a huge role in the development of ecocity standards, as reflected in its socio-cultural indicators. The following day would see us working through some of the definitions of what that means and what kind of metrics could be used to measure how far a city has come in its ecocitizenry. I'll talk more about it in Part II, but here's a visual preview...


Filled to the brim with mental nutrients I decided to take a walk along the seawall, a 13.7 mile walking, jogging, cycling and inline skating path that lines Vancouver's waterfront from the convention center to Kitsilano Beach Park.


As I was strolling along, breathing in the misty winter air, I thought about spaces and how a well functioning urban organism wasn't much different from a well-functioning human mind. When our mind is constantly chattering and every nook of our head space cluttered and congested, we have no room to see the spaces between that open the window for deeper reflection into our own consciousness. Likewise, when an urban space is sprawled out aimlessly and endlessly, there is neither room for reflection nor connection. As I looked up to my left, the dense but well designed building blocks reminded me of the mind's yin — a brilliant idea, a creative outburst, a work of intense focus...    


while the beautifully vast and naturally perfect bay on my right evoked a sense of the mind's yang — a silent meditation, a sense of calm, an understanding that everything is just the way it's supposed to be.


With that little morsel of light on my soul, I got myself ready for next few days of intensive ecocity theorizing.


cross-posted at A World of Words

Part II coming soon:
- Jamming on the International Ecocity Framework and Standards initiative
- The Neighborhood Energy Utility
- How to build an Ecocity University

Originally posted to Ecocities Emerging on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 09:25 AM PST.

Also republished by J Town, DK GreenRoots, RoadtoRio, and Dream Menders.

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Comment Preferences

    •  greetings from Vancouver too. I live (7+ / 0-)

      right in the middle of all of that. And tonight I'll have dinner with my son and his wife about a block from where you are staying, after my 6 minute train ride.

      Thank you for highlighting some of what we are doing rig in our town.  Just like all cities, we still have a huge hill to climb to get it right.

      Federally, we have a gov't of far-right-wing-nuts, although they are more cleverly disguised than their counterparts to the south. So nationally, we are not doing well these days - tar sands rule!!!  But, we live on just the one planet and many of us here are working with people everywhere to do what we can.

      It seems to me the cities-working-together movement ( begun in Seattle years ago if I remember correctly ) is accomplishing more for the future than federal governments are likely to for a long time to come. Congrats on your work.   Enjoy your time here.

      •  well said, newusername (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Mary Mike, newusername, Aunt Pat, A Siegel
        We live on just the one planet and many of us here are working with people everywhere to do what we can.
        you do live in a great city, blessed with a great bioregion and so many smart and creative people that care about this world much beyond their city limits.

        Most everyone I talked to this week said they had no idea who the people were who voted for Harper. It reminded me a bit about my life in San Francisco, where it's sometimes hard to fathom that Republicans even exist, much less have so much power and impact.

        There are quite a lot of great efforts going on by cities to deal with the issues their governments aren't dealing with, and the UN is finally catching on, with their outcome document for Rio+20 full of city language. One of the biggest players in local government organization and action is ICLEI and their Agenda21 initiative. There are also many citywide efforts within different countries, like the STAR Community Index in the U.S. Our Ecocity Standards initiative seeks to integrate all these great effort into a long-term globally applicable system. The good news is that things are really happening from a city perspective, all over the world. The bad news is that there are still too many powerful forces who have too much to gain from keeping the status quo and who pay lip service to "green" ideas that tinker around the edges but are completely resistant to solutions that require bigger, more fundamental change.

    •  Wonderful! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Aunt Pat, citisven

      I live in Bellingham, just to the south across the border. What you are doing is very encouraging.

  •  wow (12+ / 0-)

    another masterpiece.

    Indeed Vancouver is a town that others in North America should emulate. It is no surprise they were granted the Olympics. Sadly, climate change meant they had almost no snow for much of that event.

    The photos perfectly capture the narrative you tell about ecocities. If only we had more of that in the US, and many years ago.

    Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

    by LaughingPlanet on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 09:37:26 AM PST

    •  Thanks LP (7+ / 0-)

      What's scary is how huge the ecological footprint still is in Vancouver and how far from being a truly sustainable place. I walked through the suburbs here yesterday (that'll be in part 2) and it's not any different than the sprawling American burbs. But you're right, Vancouver gives some really great starting points and its center city is a good model for other American cities, because it seems like a reachable goal. But the long-term vision has to be more of a European-style pattern of dense city cores and eco-villages connected by transit.

  •  outstanding my sweet friend! (6+ / 0-)

    love it, gonna come back and read again later when not in such a rush and can savor each word and pic!

    i love how people don't feel need to lock doors, the whole spirit, and architecture and beauty.

    repub'd to DK GR. :)

    Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Mohandas K. Gandhi

    by Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 09:56:56 AM PST

    •  take your time, PDNC (2+ / 0-)

      I've got to run off again, too. I don't even know how I found the time to edit my photos and put this together. I guess give a German a couple of beers and it's on for a late night. ;-)

      People are definitely not quite as paranoid of having their stuff stolen or their houses broken into up here. But I do see some of the same despair in the streets of Vancouver that I see in SF, with all its accompanying reactions (secret bathroom codes, guarding of property, etc).

      I'm not sure why there are so many destitute people in a country with a good social system, but I think it's beyond the physical security. Alcohol, drugs, depression, all symptoms of a deeper hurt that goes beyond money.

  •  This looks terrific! Thanks! R&Td (6+ / 0-)

    I'll have to read later since we're in crunch time to publish our First Nations News & Views at 3:30 PM PST today.

    It's too bad you didn't have time to visit the awesome First Nations museum in Vancouver, they have a stunning collection of totem poles and other swell stuff.

    I have some terrific photos somewhere on some external hard drive somewhere.

    Thanks for this! Be back later.

    •  I bummed about missing the museum (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Aunt Pat, navajo

      I feel like I'd want to take a whole day for it, but I've got sessions every day, so my free time adventures are somewhat sprinkled around the times and locations of those sessions. But I want to come back just to hang out, see the museums, and take some longer hikes. Looking at those mountains, my soles and my soul are itching. ;-)

  •  Greeting back! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, cv lurking gf, Aunt Pat

    Lovely Vancouver! I am NOT going to show this diary to my husband. He wants to go to Vancouver bad.

    (Ok I will show it to him really fast.)

    "How quickly these kids have affected the public dialogue. So proud of them." Clarknt67

    by TexMex on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 10:06:23 AM PST

  •  Great diary Sven (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, Aunt Pat

    I have never been to Vancouver. But it is on my list!

    Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace. - Dalai Lama

    by kimoconnor on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 10:15:23 AM PST

    •  Hey Kim (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kimoconnor, Aunt Pat

      It's a really cool place. I wish I had more time for exploring, but today I'm going to try to hike along at least part of its 13.7 mile seawall, a path that goes around half the island along the waterfront. I just started discovering some of the neighborhoods with the cool restaurants and bars, and there are cafes everywhere here. It always takes about a week to really be part of the flow, and my verdict is that the flow is really good up here. :-)

  •  Vancouver mass transit/ferries (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, Aunt Pat

    I was in Vancouver on foot a couple of years ago for about a week, and never had a single problem with using their bus system and ferries to go everywhere I needed and wanted to go. A great experience! Vancouver is a GREAT CITY! I'm glad you're enjoying it...

  •  Wonderful citisven ... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, Aunt Pat

    Thank you so much for sharing your incredible experience.

  •  Vancouver is on the right track with mass (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, Mary Mike, Ooooh, chira2, Aunt Pat

    transit. I appreciate this diary on my favorite subjects, urban planning and public transit. And also green buildings. It can be done right. Thank you for all the info and the great shots of Vancouver, BC.

    from my last visit to Vancouver,

    from inside the Vancouver Art Gallery, a former Court House (iphone shot)

    Gastown, Vancouver BC Canada
    Taken in Gastown, facing North Vancouver

    Victoria is even better, view from my window

    Conservatory of Music, centre-right, Victoria BC

    A short walk from downtown Victoria
    Bench on the Dallas Cliffs
    Bench on the Dallas Cliffs

    ❧To thine ownself be true

    by Agathena on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 11:15:00 AM PST

    •  you've got a great view, Agathena! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Agathena, Ooooh, Aunt Pat

      I'd love to visit Victoria, I've heard a lot of great things about it just this week. Thanks for the amazing pictures, it's really a photographers' paradise up here. And contrary to common belief, some of the best light for photography happens on low-light, drizzly days like today.

      •  Right citisven, the day I took that photo (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Aunt Pat, citisven

        on the Dallas Cliffs was actually too sunny for photography.

        It wasn't the rain that made me leave Vancouver, it was the traffic. But I visit as often as I can because of the culture, the galleries, the urban intensity. Those are somewhat lacking in my city.

        I really appreciate the public transit in Vancouver because it takes me to all my favorite places. But then I avoid it during rush hours, morning and evening.

        ❧To thine ownself be true

        by Agathena on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 12:12:58 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Chuckling... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      citisven, Ooooh, Aunt Pat

      Glad you're enjoying the city so much but it's not all rosy here...

      Housing prices are through the roof, and if you don't live in the city limits, but in the burbs, traffic is a nightmare (the government is in the process of finishing an expansion of a four lane freeway to make it 12 lanes).

      I used to live in a semi rural area in Surrey BC that is being developed into what is a mess; because of the recession, promised amenities are not being built; traffic is horrendous and transit in the area is laughable.

      You can read about it here

      I grew up in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver (the DES, as is know locally).  The apartment block where I grew up was recently condemned by the city after it was determined that living conditions within were unsafe.

      My family used to own that building; the person we sold it to let it run down to the point that it became unlivable.  And city inspectors did nothing for the last 20 years to force the owner to follow city bylaws, despite many complaints.

      There are many beautiful places in the city, but may I suggest you get out of your comfort zone while visiting and go down to Hastings & Main (1 block away from the headquarters of the Vancouver Police) and check out the scenery.  Hang on to your wallet though.  And don't go alone.  Drug dealers, junkies shooting up; not pretty.
      Not safe.

      The tourist attractions in Vancouver are beautiful.

      The real Vancouver?  Much like any other large city.

      Not perfect.

      •  I hear you, marigold (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Ooooh, Aunt Pat

        I've definitely seen some of the things you describe, and I'll write about them more in part 2. I went out to the BCIT campus in Burnaby, and had to walk through the suburban auto nightmare you describe. Here are some tasters, more to follow soon.



        And as I commented above,  I do see some of the same despair in the streets of Vancouver that I see in SF. Haven't been to Hastings & Main but I believe you. Long way to go, for sure, but it's good to point out the things that do work, so we can try to do more of them.

      •  oh, and nice article about East Clayton (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Ooooh, Aunt Pat

        The "Planning meets politics" issue is the one that keeps coming up over and over for anyone who is working to make cities healthier and more functional.

        okay, gotta run, lunch at Granville Island (I know, I know ;-) and then another planning meeting.

      •  Yes, Marigold, I was talking to my friend (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Aunt Pat, citisven

        in Vancouver who told me she has to stand on the bus every morning and night, on the BeeLine from Granville & W. Broadway to where she works.

        Tip to visitors: Do not bring your car, traffic is fierce and parking is minimal.

        You might say that the city was so desperate with its dire traffic situation that it was forced to push public transit. Nothing changes until it becomes critical, it seems. When Campbell was mayor of Vancouver, 1990, he said "there's a car in Vancouver for every man woman and child" so there was more of a focus on mass transit around that time. But 20 years later, I'm sure there is still "a car for every man woman and child" and then some. I lived on Kits Point and moved to Victoria in 1993 mostly because of the traffic.

        ❧To thine ownself be true

        by Agathena on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 12:05:59 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Well, Crashing Vor and I had a wonderful (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, Aunt Pat

    time there, along with another friend, just after the 2004 elections (you know, just looking - really). We wandered into the "bad" area, as we found out later back at the hotel. There may be junkies and more but they sure were polite! New Orleans is a fine place with fun neighbors who we hang with daily, but I do jump at rat-a-tat-tat/bang bang. (Of course today we did hear a brass band playing somewhere nearby.) And those mountains - great town and someday maybe we'll get back. Our trip wasn't long enough.

    "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." H.L. Mencken, 1925

    by cv lurking gf on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 11:54:04 AM PST

  •  I'd say everything I saw built (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, Aunt Pat

    in the last 80 years leaves a lot to be desired.

    Cool and hip > young people making landlords filthy rich

  •  As for the area north of Charleston (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    it would be hard not to make an improvement.

  •  Beautiful diary, sven (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    from an equally beautiful mind.

    Republicans 2012

    Keeping Millions Out of Work
    to Put One Man Out of a Job

    by smileycreek on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 12:10:27 PM PST

  •  Thanks for the great diary Sven (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    These are issues I wrestle with in my own life.  Lots of food for thought.

    "We are normal and we want our freedom" - Bonzos

    by matching mole on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 12:12:25 PM PST

  •  ahhhh sven, tonic for the soul .. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and just feel so much as if i peeking out of your backpocket here.

    Particularly interested in comments on socio-cultural indicators in view of the evolving definition of green economy in lead up to Rio

    ... agreement that any transition to a green economy should have the principle of equity at its heart. This could also include the recognition of the environment and ecosystems as 'stakeholders' in our economic system.
    Might be a good place to share here from Agenda 21

    Section I
    Social & Economic Dimensions
    Chapter 7
    Promoting Sustainable Human Settlement Development

    Human settlement objective

    7.4. The overall human settlement objective is to improve the social, economic and environmental quality of human settlements and the living and working environments of all people, in particular the urban and rural poor. Such improvement should be based on technical cooperation activities, partnerships among the public, private and community sectors and participation in the decision-making process by community groups and special interest groups such as women, indigenous people, the elderly and the disabled. These approaches should form the core principles of national settlement strategies



  •  I live near Vancouver. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It is a glorious city, of course. The traffic is a problem..... like London in the UK, Vancouver has no freeways coming into the city - just to the city boundaries. Once you enter the city you are on regular city streets. This will likely never be changed, and that is why transit is so important. It makes Vancouver more appealing without those large slashes through it like Seattle and Portland, but less easy to drive for the hundreds of thousands of commuters and visitors each day.

    I hope your weather improves for your visit - Vancouver becomes so much more spectacular in the sunshine!

  •  Wow (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Excellent diary. I love the concept of reclaiming land within cities from the streets.

    Vancouver was the first vacation my husband and I took together after meeting. We used public transport and like you found it very efficient and easy to use.

    California*, Conneticut, Iowa, Massachussets, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington. (and District of Columbia) *pending

    by cooper888 on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 01:11:09 PM PST

  •  This is a great diary. I have only been there as (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    a child when my parents traveled there. My wife and I seriously considered moving to Vancouver in 2004 when GWB won the election. I think I am too old now 55.

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