The Olympic flag was passed to Vancouver last week. The city is now less than four years away from hosting the games but, until fairly recently, we have not seen much physical evidence of this fact.
That is soon to change.
Architectural and infrastructural projects are moving off the drawing board and on to construction sites as the Olympic deadline looms. In his inaugural speech last December, Mayor Sam Sullivan began by asking "When the world arrives in Vancouver in 2010, what kind of city will they find?"
This is an important question, but even more pertinent to the citizens of Vancouver is what kind of city will we be left with two weeks later?
Sullivan asked the council to "look at the games as an opportunity to help make our city a better place to live." Using the Olympics as a catalyst for urban improvement is the only sound reason for a city to host an international event of this stature; otherwise the games are just an expensive party.
To guarantee that the games are used to make Vancouver "a better place to live" as directed by the city's new mayor, we need to ensure that the sustainable vision outlined for the 2010 Olympics does not get watered down as the plans start to become realized in the next few years.
The time to invest
Much has been made recently about the new city council's changes to the housing mix on the site of the future Olympic Village in Southeast False Creek. The initial idea of one-third each low, middle and market housing has been amended (pending a public hearing on March 7) to a minimum of 20 percent low-income housing across the site, but a goal of 33 percent, and the planning department has been instructed to work directly with developers to find ways to achieve middle-income housing in the area.
Even with the possible reduction in social housing, the area can still be home to a community that is a model for livability and sustainability as long as its current official development plan does not continue to be tampered with. Although the potential decrease in social housing is short-sighted and unfortunate, it was not the only positive agenda for the site; there still remains a strong environmental strategy for Southeast False Creek.
Council's most recent proposal to decrease the amount of daycare facilities (from five to three) could have a negative impact on the plan to reduce vehicle requirements for families that move into the area, but the official development plan still includes other measures to minimize auto use: bicycle lanes, pedestrian paths, bus routes and a nearby RAV stop. There will be a grocery store and other retail through the heart of the community along the main north-south street as well as a mix of restaurants and shops as part of the waterfront. Sports fields, seawall and re-naturalized areas will make up the rest of the site.
The planning department has proposed the non-motorized boating facility and community centre as a special project to demonstrate innovative environmental technologies such as black water recycling (taking the building's own waste water and cleaning it on site). At present, a black water recycling system is prohibitively expensive to install for conventional use, but if you consider the educational value of the demonstration and the investment in sustainable technologies, then it is money well spent.
This is a critical moment to invest in the city's future. If we don't have money for social housing and environmental building in the years leading up to the 2010 games, when will we have the cash?
Taking the LEED?
Construction for Southeast False Creek's infrastructure is already underway and includes progressive solutions for conserving energy and water resources: heating through ground-source as well as heat transfer from insulated high temperature sewer lines, green roofs for 50 percent of the development and a high percentage of native vegetation, some of which will act to collect and clean storm water in combination with swales along the north-south streets. Many new ideas are being tested on the site, including a pilot project for collecting compost from residents (as is now commonplace in Toronto), a vessel composter for the park board land and, most importantly, a new green building strategy.
With construction, renovation and demolition waste representing about one third of the 20 million tons of solid waste sent to landfills in Canada each year and buildings accounting for more than 30 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, green building initiatives need to be taken seriously. Last November, city staff in the planning department presented a report to council outlining a green building strategy for all new construction regulated under part three of the Vancouver building by-law (generally, this means all buildings four stories and higher). What is recommended in the document is to review and revise the city's building by-laws to set a new green building baseline that would be equivalent to LEED certification.
What is LEED? The acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It was developed five years ago as a rating system to prevent false claims of green construction (also known as 'greenwashing'). A project receives credits from five categories (sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources and indoor environmental quality) as well as possible extra points for innovation.
Making green the standard
In 2004, Vancouver was the first city in North America to adopt LEED Gold as the minimum standard for its new municipal construction. Many of the other municipalities in the GVRD have since adopted LEED for their own buildings; this is not only good for the environment, but also will mean millions of taxpayer's dollars saved from long-term operating costs.
According to Karis Hiebert, project planner for Vancouver, many recommendations for the green building strategy came out of the work on the Southeast False Creek Official Development Plan. Staff looked for smart design and construction choices that could be made without prohibitive cost implications. Virtually all buildings in Vancouver already achieve 11 of the 26 credits required to become LEED certified simply because of their urban context (eg. access to public transit) and due to existing building code and by-law regulations (eg. carbon dioxide monitoring for public spaces). The remaining 15 credits could easily be achieved through the proposed by-law revisions.
If accepted, Vancouver's green building strategy will, according to the planning report, "significantly improve market penetration of green building practices and technologies in Vancouver. This will help bring costs down and increase professional capacity, providing an opportunity to create a complementary economic development strategy to create a competitive position for Vancouver." The green building strategy could be implemented in less than one year. If other municipalities in BC and Canada follow Vancouver's example, this could mean that over the next couple of years, LEED could go from being an achievement for an elite group of buildings to becoming a minimum standard for all new construction.
As 2010 approaches, we need to ensure that we are using the winter games to build a positive legacy for Vancouver. The current plans for Southeast False Creek are designed to leave Vancouver with a model of a livable community that can be replicated elsewhere in the region, instead of a bad Olympic hangover.
Helena Grdadolnik will be writing an occasional series on architecture in British Columbia for The Tyee. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts which last year invested $17.6 million in visual arts throughout Canada. Grdadolnik is an architecture critic and an instructor at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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