Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Green building as urban sustainability strategy

by Julia Affolderbach
The building sector has been identified as the single largest contributor to human-related greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the sector is also seen to hold the greatest potential to lower emissions based on the relatively low levels of retrofitting existing or constructing new buildings, the availability of technologies, and the need to transition towards greener energy supply and demand (see for example related earlier blogs on sustainable building and green homes). The GreenRegio research project focuses on the potential of reducing greenhouse emissions through changes in the building sector (i.e. implementing more sustainable building practices) as urban climate change mitigation strategy. Based on case studies in four city regions – Freiburg, Luxembourg, Vancouver and Brisbane – one of the main objectives of the project is to identify the reasons behind innovations in green building.
Information sign on a 'Green Building Audio Tour' offered by the City of Vancouver in its award-winning Southeast False Creek neighbourhood.
One perspective we have adopted as part of our research is to understand green building through urban sustainability policies that seek to respond to climate change but also include aspects of city branding and marketing as part of broader, global and competitive sustainability discourses. Using the City of Vancouver’s “Greenest City 2020 Action Plan” (GCAP) and based on document analysis and interviews, we seek to assess the role of the GCAP as part of the city’s sustainability transition, and how green visioning and marketing can contribute or divert from the Plan’s objectives.
Greenest city Vancouver? Vancouver's beautiful natural setting between mountains and ocean is used as one of the main arguments to explain the strong environmental commitment within the local community.
Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan is a politically motivated strategy with the ambitious goal to turn Vancouver into a world leading green city. It consists of 10 goals that are further defined through identified mid-term (2020) and long-term (2050) targets to be monitored through measurable indicators specific to each of the targets. The GCAP illustrates how green policies are used to both draw on and speak to local constituencies, as well as a global audience by framing the ‘green city’ both as a local process and globally competitive positioning.

The competitive nature of the policy and the ambition to present the city as global leader in sustainability is already evident in the development of the GCAP. The development of the strategy was led by a ‘blue ribbon task force’, the Greenest City Action Team (GCAT), consisting of leading and well-known academics, civic and environmental leaders and industry representatives, which commenced work in Feb. 2009 and delivered its recommendations later that year. The GCAT identified ten sustainability goals based mainly on an evaluation of best policies and best practices used in leading green cities around the world which are grouped into three areas: zero carbon, zero waste and healthy ecosystems. Nine of the goals were chosen based on what other cities were doing internationally while the tenth goal, local food, was at the time identified as unique to Vancouver. Interestingly, the goal to ‘out-green’ other cities was identified as a clear motivation in our interviews with respondents who are or had been involved in the implementation of the GCAP.

At the same time, the GCAP incorporated views and interests of residents and the general public, both through public engagement and participation during the development of the strategy and the implementation of the objectives. Targets involving green jobs, transportation infrastructure and increased citizen involvement resonate with local people  and emphasize municipal empowerment, while at the same time they seek to address a global audience through a language of superlatives.

A model laneway house developed to illustrate low-carbon building solutions as well as urban densification. Laneway houses are small homes that are added to pre-existing lots (usually in the backyard and opening to the back lane) that help increase density in low-density neighbourhoods without changing the existing building structure.
The focus on global positioning and leadership can be criticized for using local sustainability issues in urban marketing and branding strategies in order to advertise the city as attractive place for tourists, workers, and businesses alike. At the same time, the pursuit of global leadership can offer a number of positive effects beyond green washing. For example, our interview partners described how the ambitious goals set within the GCAP have provided precedent cases that have been used by other municipalities to implement new regulations. One other benefit relates to the provision and sharing of specific know-how, data, experience and establishment of collateral knowledge networks and opportunities for co-learning. To illustrate the point, the City of Vancouver offered a two-day workshop in May 2015 to share its experience and give practical advice to other cities on how to set up a sustainability centre based on Vancouver’s CityStudio. CityStudio is a city-led innovation hub that brings together city staff, university students, and community members to create, design, and implement community projects of all kind in support of the GCAP. The ‘art of cities’ workshop brought together teams from 8 Canadian cities that are working on building up similar initiatives to engage students and citizens in solutions to sustainability issues in their local communities.
Vancouver CityStudio's Keys to the Streets project that seeks to promote the use of public space and increase the sense of community. (Photo: Inside Vancouver)
GreenRegio is a 3-year research project funded by the National Research Fund Luxembourg and the German Research Foundation. Further information on the project and research findings from Freiburg, Luxembourg, Brisbane, and Vancouver are available on the project website.

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