Credit: One Day Vancouver

“Make Vancouver clean and green.” That slogan from back when Vancouver was raising bonds to build Vancouver City Hall in the 1930s seems just as relevant today.

Regulations on land use, rezoning, the thoughtful placement of amenities, deals with developers, and judicious use of the blunt instrument of taxation are all tools at the city’s disposal to help give this city a world-class reputation as a livable city.

But the definition of livability is changing to mean long-term sustainability. On that score, our city is hardly a world leader. As we’ve often heard, if everyone lived like Vancouverites, we’d need four planet Earths to sustain us.

There’s reason for optimism, though. The city’s One Day community-driven project seems to be gaining momentum, likely turning One Tonne Challenge’s Rick Mercer green with envy.

“We realized the city couldn’t control enough things to actually meet our greenhouse emissions targets,” said city of Vancouver’s Climate Change program manager Sean Pander. The city planner was describing how One Day was spawned after the consultation process for the Climate Change Protection Plan. The process was the city’s answer to the global greenhouse gas reduction targets of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

City council, including then-mayor Larry Campbell, voted to implement a community involvement portion of the climate plan, and the sustainability group inside the city’s engineering department built the One Day website to post information about simple steps to save the planet. City staff went out to the community with posters, t-shirts and face-to-face conversations with local businesses and organizations. “We didn’t invent environmental consciousness,” Pander says. “We just tapped into it.”

One Day’s implementation of small steps by motivated individuals complements the city’s continuing legacy of large-scale green initiatives. The objectives for these combined efforts are ambitious, to put it mildly, including reducing the city’s energy use by 30 per cent between 2005 and 2012. In late June, Mayor Sam Sullivan called for even more ambitious and long-term targets, aiming for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050.

The challenges are huge, and the city has put the wheels in motion on some promising, if slow-moving, initiatives.

EcoDensity, a complicated initiative still immersed in a consultation stage about a year after its unveiling, may ultimately help Vancouver maintain itself as a sustainable city well into the next century. The plan focuses on the huge issues of land use, transportation issues and mapping future development.

The planning department’s EcoDensity report due in October may well represent an important milestone. But will it spawn concrete changes or just more plans by the end of the current council’s mandate in 2008? The city’s 2012 green targets will definitely be an incentive to speed things along.

Meanwhile, the Southeast False Creek redevelopment, a decade in the making, is literally laying down the foundation for a sustainable future – though some criticize this sustainability showpiece for not going far enough.

The Olympic Village will be a dense community in the heart of Vancouver, chock full of amenities and community gardens, close to work and heated by a state-of-the-art sewer-heat-recovery system that could cut greenhouse gas emissions in half.

Affordability is an explicit sustainability goal of Vancouver city planners, but the middle-income condos got tossed early in the current council’s mandate. The Southeast False Creek development is still a great showpiece for the city, even if the sewer heat may not compensate entirely for the cold water of economic compromise.

While weighty initiatives like EcoDensity and the Southeast False Creek development grind through the gears of political compromise, community initiatives such as One Day bring more immediate results.

“People can really relate to the tangible benefits of making these small changes,” says One Day outreach coordinator Amy Fournier. “And the momentum is building.”

Businesses have responded to its community outreach, and their customers are asking what One Day is about. For example, a yoga studio went carbon neutral by buying carbon credits. Cafes are now offering ceramic mugs for their in-store customers and a discount to customers who bring their own. More people are biking to work.

If the big ideas are just coming online next year, then smaller-scale, community-driven initiatives may mean the difference between meeting our targets for 2012, or just holding on for one more day.