There are lots of great cities in the world but few consistently top the most livable or sustainable city lists the way Vancouver does. 

Maybe it’s an ego thing, a hanging onto the crown, one-upsmanship sort of situation. Or maybe it’s the recent momentum, a sustainability-geared pendulum casually flicked into motion when Mayor Gregor Robertson set the lofty goal of making Vancouver the “greenest city in the world” by 2020. 

Taking the lead 

Either way, Robertson’s task as the protagonist of Vancouver’s green building story is two-fold: cut energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 2007 levels, as per the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, and convince the world that green building is the future of urban planning. 

“Good ideas get scooped up quickly by other cities,” says the mayor. “There’s a good business case for green building.”

But Robertson, who took office in 2008, isn’t convinced exporting the idea is as daunting as it sounds.

“Good ideas get scooped up quickly by other cities,” says the mayor. “There’s a good business case for green building.”

Return on investment

On average, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings see a return on investment hovering around 15 to 20 percent just based on energy efficiency measures, according to the Canada Green Building Council. 

Sure there’s a five percent premium to pay up front on green buildings, says Robertson, but it doesn’t take long to see it swing back the other way and pay dividends. And there’s a wider case to be made for the environmental impact, given that buildings account for 50 percent of extracted natural resources, a third of Canada’s energy use and 35 percent of greenhouse gases. 

While the city has invoked sustainability in urban building since the 1950’s when urban planners put strict requirements on high rises to protect views of the Rockie Mountains backdrop and preserve green space, that same coveted backdrop ensures the only way the city can grow is up. 

“We’re adding another million people in the next 25 years to the 2.5 million already here – there’s not much space to work with so we’re looking at more density,” adds Robertson. “Green buildings enable people to live a low carbon lifestyle close to where they work.” 

Big picture success

So far, results from Greenest City 2020 are promising he says. 

“A single family home built in 2015 has a 53 percent smaller carbon footprint than one built in 2007,” says Robertson. “And that’s using all the latest technology with insulation, windows and heating and cooling.”

But Vancouver’s high-density challenges are by no means unique, which makes the model exportable.

“We’re part of networks that share best practices and district energy systems and there’s a very active exchange between the big cities of the world on these fronts,” says Robertson, adding that implementing sustainable measures like green building has a “keeping up with the Jones’ ” sort of effect on other cities.

He points to Toronto’s deep lake water cooling system which pumps water from Lake Ontario to cool buildings, cutting back on energy costs.

“(There was) a lot of energy efficiency investment in the towers all over the GTA and when that came up, a lot of cities around the world took notice,” says Robertson. “I know Scandinavian cities have now started using ocean water to improve the heating and cooling performance in their cities and we’re looking at it now as well.”

The overarching moral, says the mayor, is every time Vancouver or some other sustainably minded city graces some critics list for livability, the seeds of sustainability are sown. 

A brighter future

“Cities that are embracing these opportunities, they’re thriving, they’re cities people want to live in and they’re cities whose businesses can then export the technology and create jobs in the process,” says Robertson. “It’s the way of the future and cities that drive the pace are going to benefit economically and with quality of life.”