Creating space for transformative conversations


Bright Green Summer: Shauna Sylvester Keynote Speech

June 30, 2015

On the evening of June 30, 2015, SFU Centre for Dialogue Director, Shauna Sylvester, spoke at the Bright Green Summer event celebrating the half-way point of the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. Members of the Greenest City community celebrated the accomplishments Vancouver has made on its plan in a dynamic, interactive evening of fun, light-heartedness, and day-dreaming the next steps as a sustainable city.

Read Shauna's Sylvester's keynote speech below:

Thank you. It is such a pleasure to be here on this Bright Green Summer Evening.

I look around this room and I can’t believe how far we have come in our understanding of what it means to be a "green city". A few weeks ago, when I was reviewing a draft of the Greenest City Action Plan, I was struck by my own evolution. And I'm embarrassed to say, I don' t have to go back too far in time to see that evolution.  

I remember a particular night in 2004 at a Vancity Board meeting. My friend and colleague Cheeying Ho, who, at the time was the founder of Smart Growth BC (and now leads the Whistler Centre for Sustainability) was speaking against a resolution to set up drive through tellers at Vancity branches.

As a mother of a young daughter and a woman who grew up getting my license the day I turned 16 and had my first car within a month, I voted in favour of drive-through tellers.  Afterall I rationalized, they provided a convenient option for our members. I remember the look of disappointment in Cheeying's eyes because I didn't seem to understand that our car centered development was directly supporting urban sprawl and undermining our capacity to create walkable, liveable, healthy and sustainable communities.

Well, Cheeying, your work and the work of dozens of other individuals, businesses and organizations have paid off. You have ushered in a different vision for urban development. This new vision which is embodied in our Greenest City Action Plan ties our future economic and social well-being to the choices we make today in how we live and steward this land together.

And thanks to the efforts of the pioneers in this movement, I have changed. I've moved from my big single family home, to a coop on the west side, I drive a hybrid, I walk or take transit to work, I sort my garbage, recycle my plastics and paper, consume less meat, and reduced my air travel. I also spend most of my working days thinking about how cities can transition to low carbon economies, adopt 100% renewable energy, finance green development and reduce urban isolation.

If I was still a Catholic, I'd say I've been baptised and confirmed at the alter of urban sustainability. But this isn't a church and the Greenest City Action Plan isn't a doctrine of faith. It's a serious blueprint for transforming a city and its modern consumer, throwaway culture.

It's an action plan that demands shifts in the way we eat, commute, live and socialize and if you were raised as I was, you realize, those shifts do not come easy. To suggest otherwise would be to trivialize the distance we have come and the distance we have yet to travel together.

Just ask the residents of 22nd and 23rd between Yukon and Columbia in Riley Park. They created an initiative called Project Green Bloc to measure their ecological footprint and set a course for collective action to reduce it.  Every day for a month, each household calculated their food consumption, waste and recycling, the energy use, their local transportation, and air travel. This information was used to estimate their carbon emissions. Then they set individual and group strategies to reduce it. They use on average 3.8 hectares of land and aquatic based ecosystems to sustain their way of life. The good news: this is below most Vancouverites that use 4.2 hectares and the Canadian average which uses over 7 hectares. Compare this to someone who lives in India who only uses .91 of a hectare. According to Dr. Jennie Moore, in order to sustain current lifestyles, we would need to reduce the global average ecological footprint by 1.7 hectares per capita which represents each person’s equitable or fair earth share. If we continue to live as we are currently doing, we will need more than three or four planets to sustain us.

So, clearly the way I lived for most of my life, the way my generation and my parents’ generation aspired to live is unsustainable and has set us on a course of natural disaster.

I am grateful that The Project Green Bloc residents demonstrated that while reducing our ecological footprint, is no easy task, it is a necessary task nonetheless - a lifestyle transformation that each of us can make.

But you already know that. Many of you in this room are the urban changemakers - the movers and shakers who are designing and shaping this green transformation. Perhaps you are like my daughter or step son - you bike and car share, you choose to live in smaller spaces, you don't collect stuff, you care about how much waste you are producing and you look for creative and fun ways of engaging with people in your community.

I often laugh when I hear a person suggest that we should listen to the views of young people because youth are the future. Youth aren’t the future, they are the present – and being based at SFU, I’m reminded of that daily – whether by my colleagues Shea or Averyl who are passionate about zero waste, Keane or Claire who gently encourage me to bike to work, Sebastian and Robin who remind me of the voices not being heard in a dialogue, or the students of CityStudio who are creating innovative ideas for implementing our Greenest City Plans – they are the teachers and I am the intern who is struggling to learn how to live by doing no harm.

What makes this transition easier is that we live in a city that is governed as if the planet mattered. Our mayor, our city council and our staff recognize that Vancouver’s future is directly tied to our relationship with this physical place – in other words our city is not separate from our environment.

A couple of years ago, my colleagues and I stumbled over a speech that Art Phillips gave on his first day in office as our new mayor in 1973. He talked about the need to create greater civic engagement and to think about the green attributes of our city.

That speech prompted the staff of SFU's Carbon Talks to trace the green history of our city. We wanted to understand the roots of our interest in the environment.   

What we discovered is that Vancouver has an environmental ethos that transcends all political parties. From the 1970s through to today, every city council has built upon the green legacy of the other. Through a series of initiatives from stopping the freeway coming through downtown in the 1960s, the Clouds of Change report in the 1990s, Eco Density in 2000s through to our first Greenest City Action plan in 2011, Vancouverites have recognized the environment as a core value.

So here we are now in 2015,  and we are taking Vancouver to the next phase with the launch of the Greenest City Action Plan 2.0. And what makes this new plan particularly compelling to me is that it recognizes that the environmental challenges we face now, particularly brought about by climate change are even more pressing than we realized.  And while we have made great progress in reducing our green house gas emissions, it isn’t going to be enough. Instead we need to start now and transform our thinking and reposition our city on a course to a 100% renewable energy future.

To this end, on March 25, 2015, the City of Vancouver made the commitment to become a Renewable City – the first city in Canada to commit to relying on 100% renewable energy for our electricity, heating and cooling and transportation by 2050. This commitment places Vancouver at the forefront of a global movement to address climate change. It also sets the stage for innovation and creativity – afterall, do any of us really know what a 100% renewable city could look like?

Indulge me for a moment….

The year is 2050 and we are celebrating the achievement of our 100% renewable city? Where are we? How did we get there? What are we eating? What does the city look like?

If you are an optimist like me, you’re probably considering driverless cars, vertical gardens, a diverse group of happy and connected people, successful companies, energy systems that are created where energy is consumed, beautiful artistic spaces that serve as energy hubs, new kinds of regenerative built forms, great public transportation infrastructure, human scale density with multi-purpose public spaces with clean air and water. Yes, utopia.

Ahh if it was only that easy.

Well, the City of Vancouver knows it isn’t easy but that isn’t enough to dissuade them. The council and staff recognize that when you set a target like 100% renewable energy it’s hard to disguise failure. In fact, they aren’t entirely sure how they are going to get there, but by setting the target they are creating the conditions in this city for innovation and experimentation.

In May, the SFU Centre for Dialogue hosted the Renewable Cities Global Learning Forum, a gathering of the world’s experts on cities and renewable energy. Something special happened at that gathering. Mayor Gregor Robertson and Deputy City Manager, Sadhu Johnson stood up and in front of 300 people, they turned their microphones around.  Instead of making a speech about how much Vancouver has achieved with their Greenest City Action Plan, they asked the experts gathered there to help Vancouver figure out how to transition to a renewable city. So rather than pronouncing, they listened.   

Now there will be critics who will say, why would a city set a target that is so ambitious without a clear plan on how to achieve it? And it’s a good question. But real change happens when you take risks. When you create the conditions for trial and error and when you demonstrate that you are open to learning.

There is a reason why Vancouver is becoming a hub for the green economy– because when you think big, when you set ambitious targets and you invite others to help you achieve them, you become innovation leaders – you also become a destination for people who want to work in a vibrant, healthy and creative community. As the Vancouver Economic Commission can tell you, our pursuit of environmental excellence is paying off with job growth and economic development. So too, I expect will our commitment to becoming a renewable city. It will become a driver for new markets, new jobs and new economic development.

I can't tell you how proud I am of the work that has been done to get us to this moment. You know when I first heard that Vancouver was setting this lofty goal of being the Greenest City in the World, I laughed. Nice promotional phrase I thought, but it’s a steep road to climb and the devil is in the detail. It’s also how I felt when I first heard about the campaign for 100% Renewable Energy in Europe – it’s a bit of an overstretch.

But like the Vancity board member who didn’t quite get the importance of smart growth, it took me a bit more research and exploration to understand that the shift to becoming a renewable city isn’t just important, it’s inevitable. The campaign for 100% renewable energy is a growing global movement and now Vancouver is in the forefront. Our position gives us credibility particularly as we head to Paris in December, where we will be demonstrating that cities are leading global action on climate change.

So I want to take a moment to recognize the leadership of our mayor Gregor Robertson, our Deputy City Mayor, Andrea Reimer who has stewarded this file and our city councillors, present and past, who demonstrated the leadership to set us on such a bold and visionary course.

But a city council is only as strong as the staff who design, implement, monitor and evaluate the plan. In Vancouver we are so lucky to have strong expertise in every department of this city. And they are supported by the innovators within the sustainability team, our incredible Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnson and our passionate city manager Penny Ballam.

But Sadhu and the team will tell you that a city can only go so far in implementing any plan. It takes residents, workers, businesses and civil society to embrace and enhance a vision and make it sing.

Well, that’s where we come in – all of us – the people who have chosen to make Vancouver our home, our place of work and our playground. In order for any of this to work, we as individuals, families, blocks, neighbourhoods companies and organizations need to transform the way in which we live, work and play.  

80% of the high priority targets that were set in the first Greenest City Action plan have been completed. With this second phase, we have the next set of targets. And if my sense of the history of this city is correct, we will continue to recognize that protecting the environment and creating livable, healthy and connected communities are core values that can’t be compromised. We will not only rise to the challenge presented in this next plan, we will create an example that other cities around the world can follow.