Green Footprints in the Urban Fabric
Cities Plan, Private Sector Executes
By Meirav Even-Har
As hubs of innovation, from green neighbourhoods to green jobs, municipal governments are demonstrating leadership. This trend also provided the theme for the 2012 Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) National Conference and Expo – Beyond Buildings: The Green City. A range of educational sessions offered the approximately 850 delegates both inspiration and pragmatic approaches to sustainability in the building sector, zeroing in on ways to reduce existing buildings’ environmental footprint while enhancing the cityscape.
Keynote speaker, Ken Greenberg spoke about people’s collective need to: “Acknowledge our place in nature. Acknowledge our dependence on natural resources – both renewable and non-renewable.”
He suggested that successful design or redesign of 21st century cities would be based on meeting the needs of residents through communities and eco-districts. That includes making best use of its natural assets, such as waterfront, and improving multi-modal transportation.
Beyond the macro view of city design, there are important links to the everyday practices of commercial building management. New and existing buildings are part of the overarching urban fabric, anchored in public space and consuming publicly provided services. Thus, collaboration between the private sector and municipal governments is essential. In particular, the conference’s closing panel discussion was dedicated to a municipal show, tell and share.
GROWTH GROUNDED IN SUSTAINABILITY
“Buildings are part of the community, but can be a community themselves,” asserted Alison Taylor of Siemens, as she summarized the results of the US and Canada Green City Index, which includes 27 major cities ranked according to their environmental performance and policy.
Leading off the Index are San Francisco on top, Vancouver in second and New York City in third. Toronto – the host city for the CaGBC conference – is positioned ninth.
Attributes of the top three cities support what Taylor calls “progress through action.” Those are long-term programs that demonstrate consistency throughout various administrations, and are innovative, creative and allow for individual choices. This also requires effective planning and transparency.
Other participants in the Sustainable Cities panel included David Ramslie from Vancouver, San Francisco’s Melanie Nutter and Chris Derksema from Sydney, Australia. They credited vision, a strategic plan and ambitious goals and targets as key ingredients for a top-rated sustainable city. As promoted by the panelists, Vancouver’s Greenest City, San Francisco’s Climate Action Plan and Sustainable Sydney 2030 are all bold, long-term plans that link municipal growth with sustainability.
“Civic governments are leading initiatives with hope and morality – building resiliency and rebuilding the economy,” maintained Ramslie, who is Vancouver’s Sustainability Programs Manager.
For Vancouver, the results have been impressive thus far. The City has reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels and anticipates reaching the goal of 6% reduction by end of the year – all while experiencing a 27% population increase along with 18% job growth.
Aside from environmental footprint reduction targets, (water, waste and energy) all three representatives spoke about neighbourhood-scale solutions. Sydney is planning to decentralize its energy by building tri-generation systems throughout the city, which is also linked with the installation of a decentralized water system.
A $12-million renewable energy fund will help Sydney reach its goal of having more than 50% production within the city. Similarly ambitious, San Francisco’s goal of meeting 100% of energy demand from renewables is driving small-scale operations in solar electricity, solar water heating and wind.
According to the Green City Index, Vancouver is aggressively increasing the amount of locally produced and consumed energy. An innovative example is Vancouver’s NeighbourhoodEnergy Utility (NEU), a local provider of heat and hot water to a neighbourhood adjacent to the Olympic village, which is generated via waste heat recovery from untreated urban wastewater.
CARROTS, STICKS & PARTNERSHIPS
Of course, financial incentives are key to encouraging investment for individuals and businesses alike. While cities in Canada are “creatures” of the provinces, which generally limits their resources, civic governments have demonstrated creativity. Expedited building and major renovation permits for green buildings projects is one example.
In recent years, municipalities have also adopted by-laws (or ordinances in the U.S.) to drive sustainability goals. In Vancouver, all new buildings constructed from 2020 onwards must be carbon neutral in operations. In the U.S., cities such as San Francisco and New York have mandated annual public reporting of buildings’ energy performance.
San Francisco’s Existing Commercial Buildings Energy Performance ordinance requires buildings 10,000 square feet or larger to conduct an energy audit every five years. In addition, building owners/managers are required to submit energy performance benchmarks using the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Tool, and to share results with their tenants and the City.
Municipalities typically use some combination of three tactics to meet targets: regulations, financing tools and incentives. Capacity building is also part of the strategy.
Building owners and managers are a key group affected by all these initiatives, the degree to which varies. Sustainable Cities’ panellists also promoted increased collaboration between building owners and local utilities. Melanie Nutter, Director of SFEnvironment, noted that it makes business sense for building owners to piggyback on the investments that utilities may be willing to make to upgrade energy networks.
Ramslie drew an analogy to IT infrastructure that allows computers to function together, and argued that similarly connecting buildings and cities would make them “more than the sum of their parts.”
There are also building-made solutions. Those could be reducing total environmental footprint in existing buildings, and looking for ways to enhance the built form inside and out.
For example, although the density of Toronto’s existing built-up areas may pose a challenge for reconfiguring sites, roofs might be better exploited to capture water or produce energy. Inside, living walls can improve both air quality and aesthetics.
Nevertheless, forging municipal-business partnerships is still likely to involve some cross-cultural hurdles. “Barriers are rarely economic, never technological, but are institutional and behavioural,” Ramslie observed.
Meirav Even-Har is a consultant and writer based in Toronto.