Vancouver’s Greenest City Plan: A story of citizen engagement

Vancouver’s Greenest City Plan: A story of citizen engagement

When the City of Vancouver began its journey to become the world’s greenest city by 2020, it needed to find a way to get Vancouverites excited about – and involved in – such a bold vision. This frequently required breaking the mold of traditional government communications, including by creating the city’s first Facebook page (2008) and holding it’s inaugural webinar. The city created an “off-brand” website that looked nothing like its official municipal pages (with an easy to remember url – – and an online suggestion box that allowed people to vote on their favorite ideas) and reached out to networks asking them to host Greenest City events to broaden their reach.

The intention behind these efforts was to connect with people where they were, in other words, to make it easier for community members to be part of the process. Public meetings are limited to those who have the time, means and ability to participate. The city wanted everyone to be able to engage, whether that was in person or online from their couch at home.

The Greenest City team created a website that could be updated easily and regularly, and facilitate two-way conversations with its users. The team bravely pledged to respond to every comment received on the site. This, combined with pre-comment moderation, created a full-time job. The added benefit, however, was that responding to comments created an opportunity to further inform people about the city’s efforts. Using social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube also allowed the city to reach beyond those typically involved in municipal affairs and engage a younger audience, like the 20 and 30-somethings who attended a tweetup at the Waldorf Hotel.

Another success was reaching out to other networks. The launch event hosted by Vancouver Pecha Kucha filled the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, which likely wouldn’t have happened had the city hosted a policy event. Another was empowering cultural champions to conduct outreach in their native tongue for audiences whose first language wasn’t English.

After much consultation, the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan was unveiled in 2010 with a range of goals influenced by the ideas of community members. These included growing the green economy, leading on greenhouse gas reductions, creating green buildings, green transportation options, becoming zero waste, providing access to nature, reducing the city’s carbon footprint, providing clean water and providing clean air and local food.

The good news is – it’s working! Green jobs, which the city aims to double by 2020 have increased by 19% in 2013-14, following a national trend across Canada where green jobs now employ more people than the oil industry.  Greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by 6% since 2007, making Vancouver the North American city with the lowest per capita GHG emissions. The city now has 93 EV charging stations, 265km of bike network (and that’s even before you get to the mountain bike trails of the North Shore) and 44% of trips made in the city in 2013-14 were by bike, walking or transit.

The city’s zero waste goal has seen the roll-out of municipal composting programs across all single family homes in Vancouver, with the program now expanded to multiple dwellings and apartment buildings, reducing the food waste that goes into landfill by 12% since 2008.

Vancouver’s sustainability progress hasn’t gone unnoticed – in 2013 it was the WWF Earth Hour City Challenge Global Capital and won awards for Best Overall Green Building Policy, Greenest Municipal Fleet in Canada, and the Willis Award for Innovation with the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators. In 2014 Vancouver was announced as one of Canada’s Greenest Employers and won the overall Green Champion Award with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. At home, Vancouverites also seem impressed – Mayor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver team were re-elected for a third term in office at the end of 2014.

There have been challenges along the way with community buy-in, especially around issues like density and separated bike lanes. While car share programs like car2go, ZipCar and Modo are becoming increasingly popular, many are still quite car dependent outside of major public transit hubs. However, in the case of bike lanes, once they are in place and cyclists no longer have to fight with cars for street space, popularity increases substantially. The city found that ridership along Dunsmuir Street increased 10-fold in the first three months after a separated bike lane was installed in March 2010. 

Vancouver is a global leader in sustainability initiatives, proving that a city can have a growing economy, growing population and implement sustainability policies that reduce carbon emissions at the same time. In 2014, Vancouver became the host city for the TED Conference – the first time the conference devoted to ‘ideas worth sharing’ was held outside of California. In 2015, Vancouver will host the TED Conference again as well as the Renewable Cities Global Learning Forum that will bring city and municipal staff from across the globe to Vancouver for a week to learn from Vancouver’s best practices.

The only way big, bold projects can succeed and ‘stick’ is with public support, and the City found that the best way to engage a broad range of citizens is to bookend public engagement with large public events and social media amplification. Combined with the creation of an integrated internal team that committed to reviewing ideas, this ensured people knew they were being heard, and built a solid base of support for Vancouver’s Greenest City Plan. Kermit the Frog may have said that it’s not easy being green, but as Vancouver is showing it’s increasingly good business, good policy and good sense.


image via (cc) Amy Huva