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Vancouver is set on leading the way in urban environmentalism – tackling the climate emergency head-on. Can Canada’s great-outdoors city really be the greenest metropolis of them all?
The cockpit windows are bathed in green as the seaplane climbs over a rolling landscape of cedar and spruce. Great peaks skirted by swathes of douglas fir fill out the view, as the plane – a Harbour Air-operated single-engine de Havilland DHC-3 Otter – tips its wings left above Grouse Mountain, with its denuded ski runs and sprawling forest, home to a trove of wildlife, coyotes, black bears and cougars included. It’s like something out of Narnia.
Normally, I’d be focusing on Vancouver’s dizzying views – the mist-free mountains, the snaking fjords, the scattering of tree-crowded islands – but on this brilliant-blue winter morning there’s something else to consider. Harbour Air, which connects Vancouver, Seattle, Victoria and communities along the Salish Coast of British Columbia, is celebrating something monumental: the successful launch of the world’s first all-electric plane from the Fraser River the week before.
The battery-operated and emission-free prototype lifted off with the promise of cheap, eco-friendly, carbon-neutral, sustainable flying for all. Talk about a tipping point for travel. A pick-up in speed refocuses my mind and, after a soft judder at around 5,500ft, the voice of Captain Reggie Morisset crackles into the headsets. “You couldn’t have chosen a better day to fly,” he says, brightly. “Unlimited visibility. Light winds. A bluebird day.”
It’s only later, standing cast in skyscraper shadow on a seaplane dock in Downtown, that he speaks of how different Vancouver’s future will be. “Seaplanes are a symbol of our city, just like the trolley in San Francisco or double-decker in London,” Morisset says. “But electric flight is now here and to be at the forefront is tremendously exciting. Going electric makes sense – it’s only a matter of time before everyone else catches up.”
The buzz in Vancouver these days is all about going green. Brimming with next-level eco credentials, which feed into everything from city planning to the food scene, Vancouver has long upheld an ambitious target to lead the world in urban sustainability by the end of 2020. Having lived on the North Shore for the best part of a year, in 2015 (Edgemont Village, right beside Capilano River Regional Park, if you’re asking), I’m keen to feel the pace of change myself. And, from a slew of angles, it’s as invigorating to experience at street level as it is from the air.
Harbour Air’s ePlane project, due to launch commercially in 2022, may be zeitgeist-defining, but there are plenty of other city-wide initiatives far removed from the glamour of emission-free flights. Vancouver’s master plan includes bringing more trees, flower boxes, bike racks, new bike-share stations, electric-vehicle charging points and smarter traffic signals into its turn-of-the-century grid of streets.
The number of backyard chicken coops and rooftop beehives is on the rise, from Gastown to Mount Pleasant, and urban farms are now as common a sight as a Tim Hortons box of doughnuts. Like history repeating itself, the return to a simpler tradition recalls the founding of this once lumber-fuelled backwater, which began 170 years ago with little more than a farm and sawmill on the banks of the Fraser River.
Scrutinise Vancouver’s more recent history and it’s easy to see how it became a beacon of sustainability. In 1971, Greenpeace was born in the city’s Kitsilano suburb; it’s now the world’s most visible environmental group with offices in 55 countries and protests that shake the corporate system, from Argentina to Southeast Asia. It’s hardly surprising, then, that many of the city’s liberals and hippies were early adopters of grassroots eco-activism.
Flash-forward to 2009, when Gregor Robertson, the city’s mayor at the time, made an aspirational pledge to make Vancouver the world’s greenest metropolis. Robertson, who founded Happy Planet (Vancouverite shorthand for organic smoothies, feel-good juices and ethically sourced iced teas), spearheaded the creation of the Greenest City 2020 action plan. Putting the city’s money up front, he bankrolled the purchase of the disused Arbutus freight-railroad corridor, which is now being developed into a north-south greenway, similar in scope to New York’s High Line.
Ambitious, yes, but hundreds of kilometres of bike lanes followed, as did a fleet of municipal electric vehicles, zero-emission building plans, conservation projects and a hybrid-taxi service. Robertson can take credit for a 56 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from city operations since 2007.
There’s plenty more to chew over, too. Consider the Renewable City Strategy, passed in 2015 and tasked with completely powering the city with renewable energy by 2050. Or the fact that more than half of journeys are now made on foot, by bike or on public transport. Now that it’s the most sustainable city in North America with the smallest carbon footprint, the incentive for Vancouver to compete with the likes of Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm and Amsterdam for the world title of greenest city is clear.
Observing Vancouver’s topographical shifts while I cycle the familiar Seawall bike path in Downtown, it’s palpable how intricately bound to nature the place is. On all sides, the city is coddled by inlets, rivers, forests, mountains and valleys, and you’re never too far from abundant, if brooding, natural beauty. It’s as if humankind and nature struck a pact long ago, and have stuck to it: take care of us and we’ll do the same for you.
Even for the less-active visitor, it’s easy enough to experience the city’s green space on a short stroll into Stanley Park, a King Kong-sized urban park so dense with unspoilt nature that even locals get lost. Here, so close to the city’s mini-Manhattan grid of condo blocks and waterfront hotels, beavers build dams and bald eagles swoop from the tips of pine trees. As a reminder that you’re in a wild place, the tideline bears a constant shock of froth from the surge and swell of the Pacific.
This year, another 150,000 trees will be added to Vancouver’s ever-expanding canopy. Not that the city really needs it – it’s in the world’s top-three cities for urban green space – more than a quarter of it is covered by trees – and there’s a sense at times that you can feel the earth pushing out from under the pavements. In Lynn Canyon Park in North Vancouver, for instance, or giddily hovering on a suspension bridge over a cleft of the Capilano River, as I do one afternoon, you could well be lost in the wilds of Alaska.
Of all the ways to explore the more elemental side of Vancouver, the free Green Building Audio Tour is perhaps the most thought-provoking. Some structures come to define a city, but here there are so many stories to tell, from The University of British Columbia’s 18-storey Brock Commons building (until last year the world’s tallest wood building, no less) to the repurposed Olympic and Paralympic Village in Southeast False Creek. Post-Games, the former brownfield site became a frontier for green design, urban agriculture and intertidal fish habitats.
Tuning in to stories about Canada’s smartest, low-emission structures, the tour takes me to the Vancouver Convention Centre’s West building, at the heart of the waterfront precinct. While there’s not much to detain you inside, what catches my eye is its vast turfed roof.
“There’s a purpose to this and it’s not just a green roof to make a point,” project architect Jacques Boudreault, a partner at Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership, tells me. “There’s over 5.5 acres of living roof here, the largest in Canada, and it’s a connection to Stanley Park and invitation for wildlife – butterflies, bees and different kinds of birds that are attracted to the different smells and colours of the grasses. It’s a sanctuary for living things. The minute you introduce the human element, that seems to disappear.”
Another palpable embodiment of progress is Vancouver’s world-leading sustainable food scene. The ‘100-mile diet’ – which involves eating foods sourced from within a 100-mile radius of your home – was first coined in the city by local authors Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon, as was the Ocean Wise concept (now a sustainable fish-conservation programme, co-directed by the Vancouver Aquarium). Today, an eat-local philosophy fills restaurants and markets with an air of expectation.
In the airy atmosphere of the Granville Island Public Market – a nostalgic hangar stuffed with artisan vendors – the stalls are laden with lobster claws, kusshi oysters and wood-scented wild salmon. Next to rows of beer bottles from the city’s microbreweries and sausages, salamis and prosciuttos hung between organic breads and Montreal-style bagels, there’s a line-up of milk, nut, pickle and olive merchants brought together in some sort of odd communion. Outside, along Fishermen’s Wharf, those in need of further sustenance eat harbourside fish ’n’ chips at Go Fish; the food shack only serves local, ridiculously good line-caught cod, sockeye salmon and halibut.
Farm-to-fork bistros can be found on street corners all around the world nowadays, but Vancouver has long been ahead of the curve, with the trend for green-tinged restaurants in full evidence about a decade ago. At the legendary Edible Canada, on Granville Island, the kitchen serves seasonal entrées such as bison tartare, confit duck poutine and Pacific wild salmon, all on beach-combed furniture and upcycled douglas-fir tables. Over at Forage, Welbert Choi’s institution on Robson Street in Downtown, meanwhile, herbs and vegetables are plucked from troughs in the urban garden. Does he also catch his own fish, keep bees and compost the restaurant’s food waste? Of course he does.
Many think Vancouver is already the world’s greenest city. Optimism and a buoyant holiday mood lead me to think so, too. Rare is the place that upholds its belief in the values of nature so vigorously; with its heavy memories of lumberyards, sawmills and railroads, Vancouver is one such city. Indeed, this place of purpose has braided its future with the now-or-never climate-emergency movement. And more is to come: a ban on single-use straws starts in April, with plastic bags to follow in 2021. You might not think these are earth-shattering developments, but at a time when responsibility lies with the world’s great cities to forge a connection between powerful ideas and a concrete movement for change, these of-the-moment signals shouldn’t be lost on you. They certainly weren’t wasted on me.
Mike MacEacheran was a guest of Tourism Vancouver and stayed at the Exchange Hotel; doubles start from £114, room only. The Fairmont Waterfront, with rooms from £178, has an urban-beekeeping programme and is a partner of non-profit Hives For Humanity.
This story appears in Issue 6 of Culture Trip magazine: The Sustainability Issue.