UBC centre leads the way for low-carbon communities

A new 100-year sustainability plan that takes a holistic view of North Vancouver’s environmental impact has netted a prestigious award for that city and the UBC Design Centre for Sustainability.

The centre, based in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, aims to bridge the gap between the applied research carried out at the university and the practical tools communities need to create a low-carbon future.

As communities struggle to find ways to reduce their environmental footprint, the participation of research initiative such as the UBC Design Centre for Sustainability may be the key to a low-carbon future.

“Cities generally don’t have the institutional knowledge it takes to implement a variety of programs that really work, and that work together,” says executive director Elisa Campbell. “Whether it’s increasing housing density, improving public transit, or community-centre spaces, we need to make sure that the solutions fit the problem.”

The North Vancouver plan earned the Union of BC Municipalities’ Community Excellence Award for Leadership and Innovation. The plan considers how the city can achieve the provincial greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 80 per cent by 2050, despite an expected increase in population and jobs.

The project brought together researchers, municipal staff, citizens and local stakeholders to consider energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions. Looking at mobility, density, water use and the long-term livability of the area, the 100 Year Sustainability Vision is one model of how university research can make a tangible impact in B.C. communities.

“UBC’s work is out there in the real world,” Campbell says. “Conversely, we’re bringing the knowledge we learn from our community projects back into the research environment.”

One of the challenges faced by the program is convincing people of the need to act now.

“The long-term effects of climate change are beyond the purview of a normal person,” Campbell says. “Most people have bought on to the whole sustainability thing, but when push comes to shove, and when tradeoffs start to emerge, commitments become a little weaker.”

Those tradeoffs don’t always have to be negative, she notes.

“Better lifestyles and low-carbon communities are not mutually exclusive or necessarily associated with high costs or negative side effects,” she says. “There are many effective actions that can be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are low cost, such as providing incentives for people to walk or bike to the store instead of driving.”

Just through land use and transportation, it’s easy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent, Campbell says. “We need to start building communities so they are denser. Can you live closer to where you work, or walk to meet most needs? If not, do you have access to efficient and accessible transit?”

The North Vancouver case study sits within a larger project called Sustainability by Design, a collaborative effort to produce a compelling visual representation of what Greater Vancouver region might look like in 2050, at neighbourhood, district and region-wide scales. The centre is presently embarking on a case study with the District of Langley.

“We want to come to the point where sustainability can actually be implemented into communities by using the tools we have created, based on research from UBC,” Campbell says.


By Sean Sullivan