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First Person: Mike Harcourt, ‘Mr. Sustainability’

Sustainable progress and making places matter

By Andrew Mitchell

Few people have given more thought to the issue of sustainability in British Columbia than Mike Harcourt, former mayor of Vancouver (1980-86) and former premier (1991-98). In a way, the issue of making cities and towns livable for everyone was one of his motivations for getting involved in politics in the first place.

Now a private citizen, Harcourt has redoubled his efforts to refine and evolve his sustainability message while playing an active role with various task forces, committees, government and non-governmental organizations that turn sustainability principles into actual policies on the ground.

While its not always visible, Harcourt says a lot of work has been done behind the scenes that is paying huge dividends. In his new book with city planner Ken Cameron, City Making in Paradise, Harcourt looks at nine key decisions and how they have contributed to Vancouver being consistently ranked in the top-three of the world’s most livable cities.

As chair of the federal External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities, he also co-authored a report called From Restless Communities to Resilient Places: Building a Stronger Future For All Canadians. That report has been well-received, according to Harcourt, and has already resulted in additional funding and autonomy for Canadian municipalities.

Harcourt will lead off Whistler’s third sustainability speaker series Friday, June 15, with a presentation at the Telus Conference Centre. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. and the presentation will get underway at 5:15 p.m., with admission by donation.

The speaker series is presented by the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment, the Whistler Forum for Dialogue and Leadership and the Resort Municipality of Whistler, with future speakers still to be announced.

His topic is: What’s Next on the Path to Creating More Sustainable, Resilient Communities. He will look at ways that Whistler can build on its adoption of The Natural Step framework for sustainability and Whistler 2020 sustainability plan.

Pique caught up with Mike Harcourt this week to talk about the past, present and future of sustainability in B.C. communities.


Pique: Looking at your bio you’ve been involved with sustainability issues for a long time. Did that come before politics, in Vancouver and provincially, or is it something that you started applying when you were in office?

Mike Harcourt: It started with a freeway in the late ’60s, early ’70s. The council of the day and several people from the provincial government were looking at building a freeway along the waterfront from Stanley Park… and wipe out Gastown and China Town, take out Strathcona and thousands of homes. A real mess. The (property owner’s) association got in touch with me, as I was operating a storefront law office at the time giving legal advice to low income citizens, and they asked me to help stop this freeway. And we did.

We basically took on this really dumb idea that would have trashed neighbourhoods, and created an elevated freeway along Vancouver’s waterfront like the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto or in Seattle.

By stopping that project we started a whole new way of looking at the city. Instead of a freeway that would take out the old neighbourhoods, the warehouse district, and a downtown where nobody lived, we ended up with a very different city, a very livable city. It would not be the city it is today if the freeway had gone ahead.


Pique: Not a bad start.

MH: It was all about creating a livable city. We brought in a regional plan when I was elected to council in 1972. I was interested in quality of life issues way back then and carried it on as I became mayor, and the leader of the opposition in the legislature. We looked at issues of land planning and started the Land and Resource Management Place process in 1990. We put through the Growth Strategies Act, which the province and municipalities collaborated on. These were sustainable strategies, although we didn’t call them that yet.


Pique: Looking back, it seems there were a lot of little victories that add up, things that most people didn’t really think about or put together in their heads.

MH: There were some pretty good ones. Just look at the success of Vancouver, and of Whistler. Whistler has been recognized internationally, and has won all kinds of awards for adopting The Natural Step and Whistler 2020, just becoming this model community. And Vancouver has the reputation of being one of the three most livable cities in the world. Certainly we have successes.

I put together a new book with Ken Cameron, who was a GVRD planner, and it’s coming out this September, called City Making In Paradise. In that book we document the nine key decisions we made in the Lower Mainland that rescued us from a lot of the same bad urban planning that has afflicted other cities in North America.

It’s important to note that while we have one of the most livable cities in the world, Vancouver, we’re not sustainable. A long way from it.

Vancouver’s example is a lot different than Whistler’s. When I come up to speak I will be talking about a report… From Restless Communities to Resilient Places, that (the External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities) handed to the prime minister. The federal government has recognized our findings and recommendation that places matter. It’s so important to recognize that Whistler’s challenges are different than Vancouver’s, which are different than Medicine Hat’s. Remote aboriginal communities have a different set of challenges than a big city like Vancouver, or a medium-size city like Kelowna.

Second, the report points out that our cities are suffering from a lack of authority and finances, and that property taxes can’t pay for it all. So we recommended a double devolution of authority from the federal government to provincial governments to Whistler, or Kelowna, or whoever the local government may be.

Third, cities need to prepare sustainability strategies based on all the dimensions of sustainability — not just environmental and economic and social, but cultural as well.

The recommendations have just started to roll out what’s in the report. The Liberals initiated our committee to prepare the report, and the Conservative government has committed to making sure that there are more resources for cities to catch up.


Pique: It seems like that’s a source of frustration in Whistler, finding ways to fund and implement sustainability and Whistler 2020 while working with provincial and federal governments that have different priorities.

MH: Whistler is well down the sustainability path. It is recognized internationally as one of the more sustainable resorts, starting with the adoption of The Natural Step.

You can argue by definition that it’s hard to be sustainable when people jet in or take their SUVs to luxurious surroundings, stay in expensive hotels and eat big meals in restaurants, but people have wealth and will go to destination resorts. That’s something we have to account for.

In that context, Whistler has decided to be more sustainable with the adoption of The Natural Step and Whistler 2020, and has taken steps to limit town size.


Pique: We’re trying anyway.

MH: You’re trying. And in the process providing a lot of housing for low- and middle-income employees you need to run the resort. The bus system is recognized as one of the most successful and well-used bus systems. The convention centre has been revamped with geothermal heating and other sustainable building principles. There are lots of steps that Whistler is taking to minimize its footprint.


Pique: In the ways we’re falling short, is there a vehicle out there to help Whistler, like in the new Local Government Act?

MH: Rather than legislative solutions, the process needs to be more collaborative. Once governments at all levels and the citizens of Whistler agree on next steps, as Whistler has outlined in Whistler 2020, everybody should put resources into the pot to bring those ideas about.

The federal government, in its March budget, based on dialogues… with the municipal affairs minister and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, something like $39 billion has been put aside this year and over the next seven years to go to communities to deal with the kinds of issues we’re talking about.

What our report recommends is that municipalities work with the province and other communities to have sustainable strategies, and integrated regional sustainability plans. What government needs is a collaborative approach, a co-operative way of thinking, joint action plans, resource plans, and come together… whether it’s for climate change planning, economic development and negotiations with First Nations, affordable housing — the whole range of present challenges that Whistler is facing. We’re saying no one government can do it, come up with one solution and impose it on others. It has to be everybody, using the same plan, and putting in the resources they can bring to the table — financial resources, legislative resources, jurisdictional resources.


Pique: Would you say you were encouraged by all the recent changes and the attention that sustainability issues are getting in the media?

MH: I’m quite encouraged. We have a lot of daunting changes we’ll have to bring about, but I think most Canadians, for an example, get climate change. They know it’s real, that we’re changing it, and they want it fixed. They also know we can’t sustain the way of life that we’ve been leading, there’s just too much imposition on our natural capital, on what the earth’s carrying capacity is.

The real challenge is for our elected people, their advisors and citizens in general is how do we do that? People get the “what” on climate change, but they also want a prosperous economy. They want social sustainability, with housing and solutions to crime and drug issues, and how we welcome new immigrants. Culture is an important component of any sustainabile community, and people see the need to be more creative and innovative in the way we bring about sustainable solutions to all these issues. It’s the “how” that’s giving us trouble.

Which is great when we have a community like Whistler that is an early adopter of The Natural Step, which is one of the best approaches to move us towards sustainability — there are others, and all are similar but the four system conditions of The Natural Step are pretty straight forward.

Then Whistler took the next step and developed initiatives, indicators, benchmarks, all kinds of ways to measure sustainability.

The challenge in Whistler now is to refocus and regroup, and take the next steps. One of the reasons I was asked to come up is to have a look at some of the present challenges and what a small community can do to take those next steps in The Natural Step… and also as a municipality to take a more regional approach for the whole of the corridor, including Pemberton and Squamish, and to be more inclusive of First Nations.

Whistler will also have an opportunity to play a role nationally and internationally, sharing their experience and helping other communities to develop their own strategies.


Pique: Most of the reporting on the environment seems to be negative, but in your work you seem relentlessly positive. Does that make it easier to get the message across?

MH: People need to see that there are hopeful solutions, it’s not all despair and fearful predictions about the world falling apart. One of my criticisms of the environmental movement is that while they’re good at being theatrical and raising alarms they are not so good at solutions, and offering hope. Also, too many focus on the environment without taking into account the other dimensions of sustainability, like a prosperous economy — people need jobs, they need homes, they need to create wealth, and a lot of social issues need to be addressed. First Nations are no longer content to be on welfare reserves, they want economic development and self-government.

Culture is always overlooked, but it’s important because it’s central to the history of a place, the geography, the buildings… and is one of the dimensions of sustainability in the new book.

A lot of what we need to cover will be discussed in more detail at a round table before the public talk, which is also what was discussed in (From Restless Communities to Resilient Places). The goal isn’t just to talk about the challenges in putting the plan into action, but to try and come up with some solutions as well that we can share with the community during the presentation.