January 05, 2012 Features & Images » Feature Story

Getting Greener 

The Centre for Sustainability is helping Whistler find its way to better, cheaper, greener living.

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"I wouldn't at all say that Whistler is sustainable," says Cheeying Ho over the phone – a surprisingly candid admission from the director of the Whistler Centre for Sustainability. "We say Whistler is on the journey."

It's a fair enough observation. Whistler – like all ski resorts – suffers from some serious environmental challenges: people fly from all over the world to get there, burning up fossil fuels on the way; gondolas and outdoor hot-tubs use heaps of energy; trees have been slashed to make way for ski runs; and the development of hotels and golf courses encroaches on nature. Whistler also has its asphalt plant belching pollution and tarnishing its "green" image. But this community has taken some good, prominent steps in the sustainable direction. There are the re-use-it and re-build-it centres to discourage waste. The athlete's village from the Olympics was forced to be built as permanent, not temporary housing; about 90 per cent of its heating needs are provided by the waste heat of the nearby waste-water treatment plant. And Whistler consistently wins awards for its sustainability vision: in 2005, it won the United Nations Environmental Program's international award for "liveable communities," coming first out of 53 competing cities in the category of planning for the future.

Ho lists these achievements like a proud mother: she didn't make any of them happen herself, at least not directly, but she heads the non-profit organization that oversees the people that do. Many of Whistler's forward steps have been spurred by local task forces aiming to meet the goals of Whistler's long-range plan: Whistler 2020, written after community-wide consultations from 2002-2005. This document lists a ream of ambitious if vague criteria for success by that deadline, like "Whistler's energy system is transitioning to renewable energy sources," and "Whistler is globally recognized as a centre of excellence in sustainable community development." Its long-term goal is to see Whistler entirely "sustainable" by 2060: by sustainable, they don't just mean using less water than what falls on our mountains, sending zero garbage to landfill (yes, really zero), and emitting practically no greenhouse gases, but also ensuring that the community is economically self-sufficient and a socially desirable place to live. "We're not just talking about cutting down fewer trees. Sustainability is a community-defined thing," says Ho. Whistler decided it needed a dedicated centre to oversee this process, along with a host of other sustainability-related tasks. So in 2007 the Whistler Sustainability Centre was born, with Ho arriving as its first director in 2008.

The Centre has a grab bag of different duties in addition to overseeing Whistler 2020. It runs programs to teach local people and businesses the benefits of sustainable practices, and give them tips on how to achieve them. It organizes local events, like 2010's TEDx talks on sustainability, open to the whole community. And it offers other communities the benefit of its experience by helping them — for a fee — to build their own sustainability plans of action.

While the Centre's aims are hard to argue against, its existence hasn't been free of controversy. Whistler's newly-elected mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, for example, has called its seed cash, which helped it to get started, "an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money." Others have grumbled that the Centre's substantial budget seems incongruous in a time of economic hardship. But Ho is convinced that the ill will comes from people who don't really understand the Centre's finances or what it has achieved. That includes helping to produce prize-winning community development plans, and churning about 30 local businesses, so far, through workshops designed to get them to swap their practices for more sustainable ones.

"I think people haven't taken the time to find out what they do," says Stephanie Sloan, a former councillor and realtor in Whistler with no particular ties to the Centre, who happened to be at a recent event sponsored by them. "It was Whistler's brainwave in the first place," she points out — not an idea foisted on the community. "It's our vision for the future."

Money Matters

The Centre is a non-profit, running on an annual budget of about $650,000 per year. Half comes from consultancy fees that the centre charges to its out-of-town clients, including the provincial government and other municipalities. About a quarter comes from Whistler, which shifted its budget for overseeing Whistler 2020 to the Sustainability Centre when it was founded; the Centre doesn't charge any additional consultancy fees for this service, says Ho. And the final quarter comes from a grab bag of other sources, including government grants, workshop fees and more.

Some, like Wilhelm-Morden, say they don't quite see why keeping the Whistler 2020 project running should cost as much as it does — about $190,000 a year (though Wilhelm-Morden admitted when we spoke that she didn't yet know much yet about the process, having just been elected mayor). Others think the price a very reasonable one. "My sense is that they're probably getting a hell of a deal. Otherwise they'd have to pay municipality workers to do it," says Mark Roseland, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University, which isn't affiliated with the Whistler Centre, but is familiar with its workings. "You want experts, and an enterprising non-profit with experience is a good place to be in charge of that."

The budget for the Whistler 2020 work is sure to decrease in this year's council budget discussions, says Ho, which probably means scaling back on that part of their job. "We just have to figure out what we can deliver, and do less," she says. "But if we spend less time on Whistler 2020, we can spend more on our other work."

For the first three and a half years of operation, the Centre had access to $120,000 per year "seed money" to help it get up and running. This came from the resort's old two per cent "hotel tax"; resorts like Whistler charged hotel guests this additional tax, and some fraction of the total was returned by the government to the 14 B.C. resort municipalities for suitable development projects, like developing a Centre for Sustainability. In 2010, Whistler received a grand total of $7.5 million from the reinvented pot of gold — vastly more than any other resort community. This seed money is the "tax dollars" that Wilhelm-Morden takes issue with. But Ho counters that argument. "That money was for building tourism opportunities. I think it was really innovative of Whistler to spend it this way," she says. "And it's not local tax dollars, at all, no matter how you look at it." As of Dec. 31, 2011, this issue became a moot point: that cash stream was only intended to help get the Centre running in its early years. It has now run dry, and the Centre has to stand on its own two feet (appropriately, in other words, it has to be financially sustainable).

Is that likely to happen? The jobs the Centre pulled in for 2011 suggest that it is. This year, the Centre earned $360,000 — more than half of its total budget — from external contracts, including with the Lil'wat Nation, Sun Peaks resort, Invermere, Kimberley, Osoyoos, Fernie, Harrison Hot Springs, and more. In December 2011, it won a $50,000 contract to help the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District create its integrated sustainability plan.

All this cash goes towards paying subcontractors for specific jobs, travel, promotional material, events and activities, and the wages of the five staff members. Ho declines to confirm her salary, saying only "I get paid well. Some people feel that's unfair because of the current economic conditions."

Ho was headhunted for her position back in 2008. Before this, she was the first executive director of Smart Growth BC – a non-governmental organization created in response to growing concerns about the negative impacts of urban sprawl on both the environment and the happiness of people living within it. Its goal was to help promote "fiscally, socially and environmentally responsible land use and development" through education and policy advocacy. Though it's hard to point to any specific developments that turned out differently because the organization existed, it boosted awareness around the issues. The group produced neighbourhood plans for Maple Ridge, Squamish, Oliver, and Prince George, held annual conferences, advocated for farmland protection in the Vancouver area, and more. "The term 'smart growth' is now part of the lexicon of most local governments in B.C. — this was not the case before the organization was created," says Ho.

Coming up to Whistler was an easy decision for Ho. Not only did the job offer the interesting challenge of working in a tourist-based community, but also the lifestyle beckoned. "Living in Whistler is pretty awesome," she says. Though most of her days consist of hitting the desk by 8:30a.m. to trawl through email, attend meetings, organize events and churn out workshop proposals untill 5 or 6 p.m., other days offer more interesting fare. Arthur DeJong, Whistler Blackcomb's Mountain Planning and Environmental Resource Manager, once gave Ho a guided tour of the steps Whistler Blackcomb is taking to minimize impact on the natural environment. "He took me skiing for a couple of hours to show me what he's done on the mountain," she laughs. "That wasn't a typical day."

Long-term vision

Overseeing Whistler 2020 isn't a trivial pursuit. The project currently involves some 15 task forces on topics from the "built environment", "energy", "water", "transportation" to "arts, culture and heritage." Each has one or two-dozen participants, from local company owners to council members; the Centre for Sustainability has been tasked with ensuring that the right mix of people is on board. The town keeps track of 96 "indicators" — things like carbon dioxide emissions or water use — so the community isn't working blindly but can track how their actions affect the real world; the Centre for Sustainability compiles that data into background reports. And the Centre updates the 2020 vision document as things change.

Up until this year, the task forces have met once a year, often in marathon six-hour sessions over a couple of days, co-coordinated by the Centre. "If it weren't for us, they'd never get together," says Ho. Task force members like Arthur DeJong and Greg McDonnell, who have both been on committees for years, say the transition from municipal hall oversight to the Centre has been pretty seamless, without making much of a difference to the actual running of the program. "If anything they've made it more streamlined," says DeJong.

Ho says this process is now due for a change. Rather than working with task forces that are in charge of specific areas of progress, she says, the Centre is thinking about instead focusing on a given industry (like food and beverage, for example) and seeing which businesses would like to tackle any-or-all aspects of sustainability previously covered by those 15 task forces. Those that do would be helped along by the Centre. So instead of task forces pushing specific agendas, there would be individual businesses working on progress across all agendas. "We're not entirely sure yet what the new process is going to be," says Ho.

How is Whistler doing on its Whistler 2020 vision so far? On some things great progress is being made. "Whistler is way ahead of other communities in terms of what we recycle — we process more types of plastic than the city of Vancouver," says Ho. And about 82 per cent of people working in Whistler live in Whistler, exceeding the target of 75 per cent, and beating out other similar resort communities. Carbon dioxide emissions are down from a peak of 152,000 tonnes in 2001 to 115,000 tonnes in 2010; they have dropped 12 per cent from 2007. That's thanks in part to things beyond Whistler's control, like a provincial standard for the inclusion of renewable fuel in diesel and gasoline, or people switching home heating to natural gas after a pipeline arrived in Whistler. Other factors include capturing and flaming methane emissions from the landfill starting in 2007. But there's a way to go: the official community plan goal is 33 per cent below 2007 levels by 2020.

In other areas, Whistler is slipping. Air quality has gone down (but to be fair that's largely thanks to the 2009 forest fires). Energy use is on the rise: in 2010 Whistler chewed through 3.22 million GJ, with a goal of 2.76 million GJ for 2020. And water use is rising: Whistler residents use twice as much water per person as the residents of Banff, and the community uses twice as many litres as the 2020 goal.

Does the Centre feel responsible for that? "We feel impatient that we can't help change to happen faster," says Ho. She points out that the Centre doesn't have the power to make anyone do anything they don't want to, or penalize anyone either. "We don't have regulatory powers. Our role is really limited to education."

Shifting behaviours

An example of the Centre's educational role can be seen in its flagship 2010/2011 program, trendily named "iShift." The idea was to get businesses to devote themselves to shifting their practices in a greener, more sustainable direction. That could mean anything from committing to recycling; sourcing re-used materials for shop furniture, or aiming to buy locally produced foods.

Thirty businesses went through the program, which was helped along by a one-time $94,000 government grant. For a nominal fee of $250-$500, each business, including Canadian Snowmobile Adventures, Prior Snowboards, and The Grocery Store, was given four workshops that outlined why sustainability is desirable, tools for developing their own action plans, and eight to 16 hours of one-on-one time helping them to develop those plans. The businesses were given, for example, PowerPoint presentations and videos to train up their own internal "green team." The key to success, says program co-coordinator Shannon Gordon with the Centre, was convincing companies that it was in their economic interest to be more sustainable. "We're always trying to link it back to the bottom line," says Gordon.

The poster child for a sustainable restaurant in Whistler is the year-old Alta Bistro, started by Ed Dangerfield and Eric Griffith. "In our homes we were recycling and choosing ethical food sources, and then we'd go to work and see ourselves surrounded by waste: no composting no recycling, basically people eating foods that we wouldn't be happy to eat ourselves. So we decided to bridge this gap," says Dangerfield in an online video describing their effort. The bistro has pine-beetle-killed wooden table tops, uses rechargeable battery-powered candles for romantic lighting, sources local and organic foods, filters Whistler water on site (the Rim Rock is following suit), and cans its own veggies in the autumn — not just for the food points, but because it lets them keep staff on salary during the slow period before winter. Much of this, says Dangerfield, is actually cheaper for him than the non-sustainable alternatives.

Alta Bistro participated in the iShift program more as a teacher than as student, laughs Gordon. "I thought the program was great — it really brought a lot of restaurants together to learn from each other," says Dangerfield. Other participants had more to think about. The Edgewater Lodge, for example, got connected with a small business in Squamish that turns old cooking oil into car fuel, and spent some time weighing up the pros and cons of down versus synthetic comforters (they went with synthetic, in the end, as they use less energy to wash and dry). And Whistler Dental wondered how it could reduce its chemical waste (like the amalgams used in fillings). Of course the Centre doesn't have expertise in everything. But its job isn't to come up with answers for these businesses: it's to hold their hands while they come up with the answers for themselves. "They always had good suggestions," says Kylie Adams, manager of Edgewater Lodge. "The Centre has been handy as a resource."

Part of the Centre's tool bag for inspiring such work is to bring inspirational speakers into town, to fire people up and get them willing to change. In February 2010, the Centre held two TEDx events — local, self-run offshoots of the now-famous TED talks, an online collection of inspiring speakers on practically every topic. The Whistler events included speakers like Burnaby-based conservationist Mark Angelo, who founded World River Day; Valerie Langer, who was one of the founding members of the Clayoquot Rainforest Coalition; Bruce Poon Tip, who founded the sustainable adventure tourism company G Adventures; and the internationally-famous Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis, who has studied and written about tribal peoples everywhere from Togo to Nunavut.

In November 2011, the Centre brought ultra-marathon runner Ray Zahab to town to inspire people with his "impossible 2 possible" message: Zahab smoked a pack a day and jokes about his lack of a good career, relationship, or, well, life, before at the age of 30 he decided to turn things around. He became addicted to running crazy adventure races, starting with the 100-mile snowy Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2004. Now he runs a charitable organization that inspires young people to perform similarly ridiculous feats, to help them realize that there are no limits to what they can achieve. His talk, he confessed, didn't actually have anything to do with sustainability — but the point, of realizing the impossible, had resonance for the sustainability gurus in the audience.

"We're working towards a "zero footprint" (on Whistler-Blackcomb)," said DeJong in his talk introducing Zahab. "When I say that, people roll their eyes and say 'who's this idealistic, hairless, environmental hippy? It's not possible.' Well, it is.

"It's a moral imperative and a business imperative. It's good for business, and good for the planet."

Planners for hire

The biggest chunk of the Centre's budget comes from outside clients. Its first big contract came from Williams Lake. In 2009, that community paid out $175,000 to a number of consultants including the Whistler Sustainability Centre to help them develop its own sustainability plan. Again, this doesn't mean prescribing to the community what they ought to be doing, says Ho — instead, they help the community to realize things for itself. Typically, Centre staff head to the paying community for a couple of days to lead a public engagement process, organizing meetings with council members and the public to ask questions like: what do you consider to be sustainable? Where would you like to be 20 years from now? Do you know where you are now on measures of sustainability? Once that's established, they help the community to work out what they need to monitor, and what they need to do, to get from where they are to where they want to be. "It was a two-year process, with a lot of public consultation and feedback," says Liliana Dragowska, planner for Williams Lake. Its resulting plan, which has so far, for example, produced a local bike park and turned the old fire hall into a community art centre, won Williams Lake a 2010 Sustainable Community Award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Could they have done it without the Whistler Centre? "Absolutely not," says Dragowska. "They were definitely the most creative applicants for the job."

In 2010, the Centre worked for Ucluelet, putting together a background report on its greenhouse gas emissions, creating a greenhouse gas monitoring system for them, and writing up a chapter on emissions for the official community plan. "They had to work out our carbon inventory, and how to bring those numbers down. It takes a lot of research and modelling, data mining and number crunching," says Andrew Yeates, Ucluelet's Chief Administrative Officer. "It was phenomenal value for money and a great experience. It's hard to be an expert in everything. It's great to have a group you can go to and trust." Similarly the Centre did a "baseline" energy study for the Lil'wat nation, ending in March 2011. "It provided good scientific backup for what a lot of people knew: a lot of the older houses aren't particularly energy efficient," says Kerry Mehaffey, economic development officer for the Lil'wat. "They did a really great job; diligent and great at fact finding."

The Centre also offers a "QuickStart" scheme to help other towns quickly get their community plans up and running, following in the footsteps of Whistler 2020. In December, it received $100,000 from the Real Estate Foundation, a non-profit founded by the real estate industry to spend the interest earned by its pooled trust deposits on good works. The Centre will spread that out over five communities in the new year.

Intangible results

"If a community is serious about sustainability, you have to put money into it," says Ho. As for complaints that investing in sustainability doesn't seem like a wise move when many people are jobless and the housing market has slumped, the counter-argument is that tourists are increasingly looking for sustainable destinations, and that if Whistler doesn't keep up or establish a lead, then the town will lose out in the near future. "We can't crack the nut of the fact that people get here by jet," says Ho. "But there is evidence that people are increasingly, if everything else is equal, choosing resorts with more responsible tourism practices."

The mountain itself is behind all things sustainable; as far as DeJong is concerned, the more the merrier. "We have the opportunity to become the most aspirational mountain resort in the world," he says. "We can't achieve that without partnerships."

Ho admits that it's hard to point to a particular object that embodies the Centre's achievements. "Our work is much less tangible," she says. "But we're changing mindsets, and thinking and the way business is done. People are thinking about things differently, and that's a big deal."

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