Vancouver: Creating the world's greenest city

Urban infrastructure resilience is not simply building to resist and withstand extreme weather. It's about more than large construction schemes such as flood barriers, or soft engineering like afforestation and wetland restoration.

Aerial view of the city
Aerial view of the city

Resilience is also about formulating and implementing policies - developing schemes and systems working with, rather than imposing, administrative structures, communities and existing infrastructure and environments.

Following on from ICE's State of the Nation 2014 report, which highlighted the increasing importance of planning for infrastructure availability, this Vancouver case study examines how policy is developed and resilience is planned and delivered in cities around the world. It is the second in a series of studies, which also focus on New York and Rotterdam.


Flood events are increasing in frequency and intensity in many cities around the world, with coastal cities at river mouths particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events and sea level rise.

Located on the Fraser delta with the river to the south and the Burrad Inlet of the Pacific to the north, Vancouver is a young city, incorporated in 1886. Since then it has experienced considerable residential development. In 2011 it had a population of just over 600,000, an increase by about a third in 30 years.

With 13,590 people per square mile, Vancouver is one of the densest cities in Canada (by comparison Glasgow has roughly the same population with a density of 8,500 per square mile). The city was also recently rated as having four of the ten most expensive areas for real estate in Canada. Despite these pressures, it regularly comes near the top of polls of the world's most liveable cities.

City of Vancouver is one of 23 local authorities that comprise the region of Metro Vancouver. While the city has 27% of the Metro population, it comprises just 4% of its area. Metro Vancouver's services include water, waste disposal, air quality and some housing. Among the city's responsibilities are neighbourhood planning, roads and transport, and waste collection.

Vancouver city saw a series of storms in winter 2006, which badly affected the Stanley Park area. But otherwise, it has experienced less recent extreme weather events than might be expected for a city of its location and topography.

Nevertheless, with climate change, such events are likely to increase in frequency and intensity. In the short-to-medium term, Vancouver is expected to see wetter winters, drier summers, with an overall increase in temperatures resulting in an increasing number of extreme weather events. In the longer-term, flooding caused by sea level rise is the major risk, with one assessment ranking Vancouver as the tenth most vulnerable city in the world.

The City of Vancouver Council has developed as its centrepiece environmental policy, the Greenest City Action Plan (GCAP). Launched in 2010, it has the ambitious goal of becoming the "greenest city in the world by 2020". GCAP is primarily about climate change mitigation but is balanced and strengthened with the city's 2012 Climate Change Adaptation Strategy.


Vancouver is a fairly low-lying coastal, river delta city that has developed relatively quickly in comparison to Canada as a whole, leading to both an increase in population and population density. The threat of rising sea levels, as well as more intense storm surges, makes the city and surrounding areas more vulnerable to adverse conditions.

However, Vancouver has experienced few extreme weather events and while there is undoubtedly a risk of flooding both from sea and river, it remains unlikely it will see the sort of catastrophic incidences experienced by other cities such as New York in the short-to-medium term.

Much of the most densely populated parts of Vancouver city are either coastal or on at the mouth of the Fraser River which is particularly susceptible to flooding caused by heavy rainfall and snow melt.

Weather predictions are that by the 2050s, a 25-year rainfall event will occur 2.5-times as frequently.

As the Vancouver city section of the Fraser is tidal, there is the additional flooding risk from rain and/or snow melt combining with a spring tide. By the 2050s winter and spring flows are projected to increase significantly and peak earlier. An increase in windstorms and heavy rainfall could lead to storm surges, which when combined with sea level rise, could cause coastal area flooding.

Policy approach

In 2009, the Greenest City Action Team, a group of local experts including city councillors, academics, scientists and business representatives, was assembled by the Mayor of Vancouver. Their remit was to research and determine the most effective areas for the city to make environmental improvements, by benchmarking leading world cities.

Their first output, the Greenest City Quick Start Recommendations report in April 2009, set out 44 actions grouped in 10 areas from green economy to protecting human health. The report was followed by publication of Vancouver 2020: A Bright Green Future, in October of the same year, which established 10 long-term goals modelled on Sweden's approach to environmental objectives and sustainability. After the council adopted the goals in February 2010, city staff used them to develop an implementation report: Greenest City 2020 Action Plan (GCAP)

A new Greenest City Office was established within the city council to oversee the development of GCAP and, through the Talk Green to Us programme, engage the public and interest groups to develop targets.

Each of the 10 areas was developed by an existing city department working with newly established advisory committees of 10-35 members from universities, the third sector and business. During GCAP's development more than 35,000 people from around the world participated online. In Vancouver itself, around 9,500 people attended workshops and consultation events. The City of Vancouver described it as "the example for best practices in citizen collaboration, and [building] the kinds of partnerships required for achieving the goals and targets".

GCAP has ten main goals, grouped into three areas - carbon, waste and ecosystems - and measured with a total of 15 mitigation targets. The targets are quite varied in terms of their subject, ranging from reducing 'community-based' greenhouse gas emissions to increasing the number of city-wide and neighbourhood food assets.

GCAP has annual implementation updates, the first of which was published in 2012 and the most recent in October 2014. Both the progress reports show positive movement towards all contemporarily measureable goals.

In addition to the mitigation measures detailed in GCAP, the City of Vancouver produced a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, which was approved by Council in July 2012.

The strategy is based on an ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability methodology with the goal of developing and implementing a strategy in two years. It lists over 100 actions with details of funding streams, responsibility, the amount of effort each action is expected to take (small, medium or large) and their priority (when they are expected to be completed). Unsurprisingly, it focuses on flood risk from rain, sea-level rise and storm surges.

The adaptation strategy aims to incorporate climate change adaptation into business, risk management and planning functions across the council. The policy has six areas: heavy rain events, sea level rise, storms and weather extremes, hotter and drier summers, overall changes, and organisational adaptive capacity. Each area has objectives and actions focused on physical infrastructure. For example, 'heavy-rain events' has an objective to minimise rainfall-related flooding, actions to implement a city-wide integrated storm-water management plan and to separate the sanitary and storm water sewers.

The adaptation strategy also details its annual programme to review and evaluate, and to revise and update as necessary every five years. To date, two annual reviews have been carried out but they have been internal City of Vancouver documents without formal published reporting. However, indications from the city council are that progress is satisfactory and a five-year update, due in 2017, is expected to be made publicly available.

While the adaption strategy flowed from GCAP, and both aim to tackle the effects of climate change, they reflect different approaches. GCAP's goals centred on areas such as reduction of Co2 emissions, ecological footprint and energy use as a mitigation strategy – detailing action to help prevent climate change.

In comparison, the adaptation strategy, as its title suggests, puts forward ways to limit the impacts of climate change. The two polices are designed to run in parallel and there is some cross-over between them - for example around tree planting and reducing water use.

Criticism of GCAP

GCAP has been widely commended - nationally and internationally - as a successfully developed and implemented policy. It has been seen as an example of best practice in the field and received several awards. Particular praise centred on the level of public involvement in drawing up the proposals and for focusing on the 'green economy' as a way of driving forward wider environmental benefits.

GCAP influenced the development of many other city policies - for example Transportation 2040 and the Healthy City Strategy. Nonetheless, it is not a statutory planning policy - there is no technical nor legal need for it to be followed - but rather a form of guiding set of principles that give shape to much of the city's strategies for the following decade. Indeed, one commentator described it as "reorganisation of the whole City around the plan".

The aim to make Vancouver the world's greenest city originated as a policy of Vision Vancouver, which has controlled both the city council and the mayoralty since 2008. The forerunner of GCAP - Bright Green Future - formed much of Vision Vancouver's platform for the 2011 elections.

As Vision Vancouver increased its majority on the council, and retained the mayoralty that year, Bright Green Future was effectively endorsed by voters, giving the Mayor a mandate to develop it into GCAP. The Greenest City programme continues to be associated Vision Vancouver and formed part of their successful November 2014 mayoral and city council election campaigns.

Possibly due to Vision Vancouver's electoral mandate, there was less consultation than some expected in GCAP's early stages - "there was a conscious decision…to move quickly…to do things…a desire to get the wheels turning".

According to one commentator, the process, where initial identification of problems and setting of goals was carried out by the Greenest City Action Team group of experts before going to the public, "sought to lend a simultaneous sense of external 'public' legitimacy and internal demand for engagement by city staff to GCAP".

The setting of targets to measure such a nebulous concept as climate change mitigation, will always be difficult, particularly for municipalities where there can only ever be limited actual effect. For Vancouver, where there is both political and public support for the project, it is curious that GCAP and its precursors do not set out their purpose other than becoming the world's greenest city. There is no indication in the city's reports why this rather subjective and abstract goal was chosen, nor how it will be measured.

It appears this lack of clarity and focus on the big picture - the why - has filtered through to the individual targets and indicators - the how. Presumably, the advisory committees involved in the initial goal and target setting considered why those chosen were the most appropriate but this is not outlined in the reports.

The 15 GCAP targets are a mixture of the very specific (for example, total number of trees planted and reducing per-capita water consumption by 33%) and the vague (number of "green jobs" and businesses "greening their operations").

The targets have also come in for some criticism, both in what they are measuring and in the way they are monitored and reported on. The 15 targets have been described "a shopping list of what the city could do, starting tomorrow". They have been seen by some members of the advisory committees that helped draw up GCAP, as "impressionistic reporting on progress toward goals, rather than measurable reporting on actions taken".

While each of the targets and the measures to achieve them are laudable, on their own they often appear disjointed. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the Lighter Footprint goal. The ecological footprint measure of sustainability is alluded to in the Quick Start Recommendations as the "ultimate measure".

In GCAP the target is to "reduce Vancouver's ecological footprint by 33% over 2006 levels". The difficulty is attaching a specific, numerical target to a concept that is problematic to measure. This has led the city to use a proxy indicator to assess progress - "the number of people empowered…to take personal action in support of a greenest city goal".

There is no indication given in GCAP why a proxy is being used, let alone one which is vague and doesn't appear to be directly related to the goal. Such problems have led the GCAP plan to be described as a branding exercise with "show and tell" targets, "greenwash" and "enthusiastic but naïve".

Vancouver's Adaptation Strategy was the first of its kind in the wider Metro Vancouver area. Many of the proposed actions focus on improving the understanding of anticipated challenges and integrating locally specific climate change information into land use, critical infrastructure upgrades and emergency management.

The adaptation strategy is a practical document to the GCAP's aspirations, setting out proactive actions to help protect the city from the effects of climate change. As such it was drawn up mostly by city. As it is largely technical, it did not see the level of involvement associated with GCAP, with consultation work being limited to academics and experts.

As outlined, the adaptation strategy is based on ICLEI's Building Adaptive and Resilient Communities initiative. This has the advantage of being an 'off-the-shelf' programme, therefore saving municipalities the time and effort of starting from first principles. Use of the ICLEI methodology has been welcomed by commentators and seen as working well for the City of Vancouver.

In addition to indications from city council staff, it is clear some of the highest priority work is being completed. For example, one recommendation was to amend the city's flood-proofing policies. Here, the council recently adopted a replacement of Designated Flood Plain Standards and Requirements, including raising construction level requirements to 4.6 metres for buildings in a newly designated flood zone.

However, as the annual evaluations undertaken by the City of Vancouver are for internal use only, a full assessment of the Adaptation Strategy is not yet possible at this stage. The public outline of progress will be given in the five-yearly updates, the first of which is due in 2017.


In common with many local government climate change initiatives, the City of Vancouver's principal focus has been on mitigation. The main policy is the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, which sets out the desire to become the "greenest city in the world by 2020".

On the face of it, this certainly seems a commendable aim and one that could galvanise action. Indeed, there is a wide-spread view among international commentators that Vancouver's GCAP provides an exemplar to other cities pursuing climate mitigation strategies.

In particular, the City of Vancouver consulted widely around the development of GCAP, using a mixture of methods, including opening up comments to a world-wide audience online as well as focused workshops and other events for locals. This public involvement, which was combined with advisory committees of local experts, appears to have given people a sense of community ownership over GCAP, which can only help its implementation.

GCAP is tied into climate change mitigation with several of the targets focused on particular actions such as reducing energy use and requiring new buildings to be carbon neutral. However, other elements appear to be more about making Vancouver itself a nicer place to live - for example ensuring all residents are within five minutes of a green space and increasing the number of neighbourhood food assets.

As with most climate change mitigation policies, GCAP is goal-driven and measured against targets. These have been described as "ambitious but achievable and measurable targets that put the city on the path to sustainability".

However, while some targets and indicators are both (for example, "reducing community-based greenhouse gas emissions by 33% from 2007 levels") others are somewhat vague - "double the number of green jobs over 2010 levels" and reducing the City's "ecological footprint".

This mish-mash appears to stem from a lack of clear definition on the purpose of GCAP. It is to make Vancouver the world's greenest city but how this is measured is not defined, nor is why this should be the goal – for example, why not make it the most efficient city or the most liveable city?

The development of a climate change adaptation strategy was one of the key strategy recommendations of GCAP. Its primary goal is to ensure Vancouver "remains a liveable and resilient city, maintaining its values, character and charm in the face of climate change". Again, these are laudable aims and they are supported by a comprehensive list of actions.

It is acknowledged that many of the adaptation strategy actions are specific and technical and as such were largely developed 'in-house' by the council to guide its policies. Nevertheless, as around a third of actions are prioritised as "by 2014", "ongoing" or "monitor", there is a strong argument for the annual assessments described in the Adaptation Strategy to be made public.

Greater certainty on Vancouver's various goals, indicators and actions would be welcome, as would an understanding on the reasons behind them.

However, it could also be argued that, if setting the target for Vancouver to be the world's greenest city is taking concrete steps to reduce its environment, mitigate impacts and improve its climate change resilience, ultimately it doesn't matter if it achieves the accolade – it should still make the city a better place to live.

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