Sustainable cities? Vancouver and London compare notes

Tuesday 5 February 2019

Vancouver and London uncovered their sustainability credentials at the NLA last week – along with the challenges both face from their respective crises in affordability.

This was Sustainable Cities Vancouver and London, part of NLA’s International Dialogue sessions, where a live link up between built environment professionals either side of the Atlantic enables learning and approaches to be shared.

Donald Schmitt, principal of Diamond Schmitt Architects spoke from the Emily Carr University of Art & Design, a building his firm designed a couple of years ago and which has achieved a gold standard. But the backdrop globally was one of unprecedented growth in buildings and populations. On the former, the trajectory is that we will double the built environment in the next 40 years in terms of the volume of construction completed, said Schmitt, while the global population will expand to almost 10 billion people over that period. Schmitt added that buildings consequently consume around 50 per centof the energy in north America and emit some 50 percentof the greenhouse gases, so it was ‘clear that survival as a planet depends being carbon neutral by 2015’.

For its part, Diamond Schmitt has produced metrics it tracks on its buildings over things like heating and cooling loads, discovering the ability to reduce the energy intensity of projects by almost half. ‘It’s still way off but we’re driving in the right direction’, said Schmitt.

Gill Kelley, general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability at the City of Vancouver said the Canadian city ‘punches above its weight’, and was doing many ‘bold things’ for a settlement of its size. Constrained by water on three sides and mountains on the other, it had invented ‘Vancouverism’ – essentially building more compact urban forms – as a way of dealing with that whilst dedicating rare land to agriculture for its 630,000 people at the same time. It had concentrated on liveability, but had become the ‘victim of highly escalating land values’, said Kelley, one survey ranking it the least affordable city in north America, even above Manhattan. Part of its response will be in a new city-wide urban plan, along with new resolutions to bring further climate reductions.

Over in London, another American rose to speak. This was Derek Wilson, senior sustainable development manager at Transport for London Property Development. Wilson said London’s growth by 70,000 new citizens per year was ‘challenging’,especially when coupled with an undersupply of housing, the UK capital only making it to around half the 66,000 units per year goal in recent years. TfL’s budgets were also a key obstacle, hit by a new era of public transport, growing capital and maintenance costs and even Uber affecting ridership in some services. The gap needed to be minded and filled, and this will be where TfL’s property interests will come in, developing sites for 10,000 homes on its land by March 2021 and uplift around Crossrail 2. TfL is also focused on providing healthy streets, driving modal shifts to public transport and active travel.

While Dave Ramslie, chief sustainability officer at Concert Properties said innovation would be helped by shared independent research and case studies plus tools that can help to evaluate design at an early stage, Emma Cariaga, head of operations at the aptly named Canada Water for British Land, showed some of the key sustainable principles of the London project. The 5 million sq ft scheme has sustainability at its heart, starting with its ‘360-degree’ connectivity and accessibility, better connected in the 45-minute time-frame than Liverpool Street or even Kings Cross. The masterplan aims to look beneath the surface of this historic area, creating 16 new streets, six new public spaces and a focus on mixed use, based on extensive, widespread consultation. It will also have one of the first high streets in the capital for 100 years, with 90 per cent of future journeys predicted to be from non-car modes and provision for over 10,000 bicycle spaces. ‘It is a huge opportunity for London to create the town centre of the future’, she said.

In the discussion Marion Baeli of PDP raised the need for a concentration on retrofitting existing housing stock. Paul Fast of Fast+Epp madethe case for using more timber in construction, and author and journalist Hadani Ditmars shared the problems Vancouver is facing in terms of its ‘gridlock’ and the concerns expressed by some locals that new improved transit will only lead to raised land values.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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Sustainable cities – Vancouver and London


At a critical time in the history of cities, when population growth, climate change and shifting economic opportunities are radically changing how we plan and build, how are city leaders and the built environment industry working together to create sustainable places? With the Mayor of London’s ambitious target of making London a zero-carbon city and at least 50 per cent green by 2050, and the City of Vancouver’s goal of running on 100% renewable energy community wide before 2050 by implementing its Greenest City, Renewable City and the upcoming City Plan covering all aspects of urban growth from jobs to transport, this international dialogue event invites exchange between these two major cities about how they are implementing their sustainability agendas.