Category Archives: Globe Conference

Where Vancouver, B.C. trounces Seattle: density

I’m back in Seattle and the haziness of the Globe Conference (so many conference sessions on giant, world changing ideas!) is finally lifting from my head.

However, I must return to a theme I explored last week in this post about whether Vancouver or Seattle is greener. In that post’s comments, Mhays said Seattle needs to encourage density to really be the greenest it can be. “We’re doing a good job in many ways, but way behind Vancouver,” he said.

After spending some time there and paying particular attention to the density issue, I couldn’t agree more. Sure, Vancouver has its problems. In one session at Globe, Peter Busby explored one of these saying people in Vancouver that live near the center of the city have lower greenhouse gas emissions than those who live further out. To counter this, he proposes creating density nodes throughout the rest of the city that would allow people to live, work and play in their neighborhoods rather than having to go downtown. (More on Vancouver’s stance on density here).

But when you look at the variety of housing types in Vancouver’s downtown, it just blows Seattle out of the park. Basically, in Seattle, you can live downtown if you want to – or can afford – a condo. In Vancouver however, you don’t have to be confined to a condo to live downtown. They have – gasp! – row houses!

Here are a few images of downtown housing types. They are just a small tidbit of the many varieties of styles I saw:

Photo by Payton Chung

Photo by Payton Chung

The pictures don’t show the difference as clearly as you would see with your own eyes. But basically, in parts of Vancouver’s downtown, you can live in units that are much more like townhouses than they are condos. This row-housing type is shown in the first image and last image. If you look closely, you can also see this type of housing at the base of the second image.

The variety of housing types is sure to attract different kind of people. Not everyone wants to live downtown in a condo… but if you could live downtown in something resembling a townhouse with a bit more private space, suddenly you attract a whole other market.

So… why can’t Seattle do this? Why can’t we bring other housing types downtown? What stops us from having that variety? And is there anything we could do now to encourage it?

Busby had an interesting observation. As cities grow, he said, many new inhabitants will be immigrants from Africa and other areas that are already used to living densely. Generally, he said they are used to small living areas and to lots of walking. We can take advantage of this influx, he said, to “change the pattern of organization” in cities.

Now, I don’t mean to knock Seattle. We have a great city that is moving forward on a number of fronts. But as far as diversifying housing use in downtown… it seems like the same old same old. (And by diversifying, by the way, I mean doing so for different price points as well as in unit styles).

Even in Vancouver, these things aren’t easy. But the important thing is to keep improving. Mayor Gregor Robertson said, “There’s angst about the transition here and potential political disaster associated with that but in Vancouver, we see huge opportunities for change.”

P.S. Nick Christensen of has an interesting article from January on a similar topic here.

Sustainability and the business perspective “never waste a good crisis”

I’m in a fascinating session on sustainability and how large companies consider it to be part of their business. Let me tell you guys, there is some really interesting stuff going on in this world!

John Mitchell of Cenovus Energy of Calgary spoke about his company’s commitment to sustainability. Hesaid sustainability makes so much business sense that it has moved beyond the convincing side and is now an integral part of his company’s strategic division where it is placed on an equal footing with things like longterm planning.

Here’s the money quote: “We’ve moved past having to justify the sustainability payoff. This is integrated in our business this is part of what we do… that approach is a given. What we need to do is identify the right metrics to ensure we are driving the right things,” he said. “This isn’t a  justification anymore. It’s a demonstration and a delivery.”

Speakers in this international session represent Herman Miller, Cenovus Energy, Suncor Energy, Novo Nordisc, and HSBC.

All speakers said sustainability makes sense for many different reasons… it increases ROI, creates value, creates trust and builds brand.

Sharon Walck of HSBC said her company doesn’t think of the sustainability paybacks simply in financial terms because it believes climate change will affect everything in the future. “The business world should be under no illusion… we are now on the path to a new carbon economy,” she said. “I want to contend that the sustainability payoff topic is not singlular,” she said. “We believe this short term focus is quite frankly outdated. Simply put, sustainability means so much more.”

Paul Murray of Hermann Miller has been working on sustainability for his company since 1992. Back then, he said one person per month would inquire about sustainable systems. Now, the environmental part of the Web site gets 1,400 hits per month and 98 percent of RFPs for office inquire about the company’s environmental program.

For the past few years, he said his company has spend a quarter of a million dollars per year on energy efficiency upgrades. That effort has a 33 percent rate of return and pays for itself every three years.

Waste is another area that has saved his company a lot of money. Last year, his company was paid $2.9 million for the materials is recycled however he said when you consider the amount of money saved and made, it is “a $15 million swing.”

Herman Miller has also been working on cradle to cradle practices with Bill McDonough since 1999, which led to intellectual information that is patented. Murray said his company looks at every material in every product and if it has anything toxic in it, asks the supplier to take the toxic materials out. It can’t always happen, he said, but often it can.

Additionally, the office furniture industry has been severely impacted by the recession and other business factors in recent years. Murray said every department at Herman Miller has been impacted and had cuts – except his. “My staff is still intact. I think that tells you how a company like mine values return on the bottom line.”

Suzanne Stormer of Novo Nordisc in Demark also spoke about the global crisis. She said it has created an opportunity for businesses to go further in saving resources. “Never waste a good crisis,” she said. “The economic recession is also forcing us to think smarter, in terms of reducing waste. When you have enough of everything you can do whatever you like but in times of scarcity you are forced to be more creative.”

Speaking of businesses, every business represented at this conference is really looking at sustainability issues, rather than just paying lip service to the ideals. Here are some of the companies here, some of which might surprise you: Dow Chemical, Starbucks, Novo Nordisc, Walmart, HewlettPackard, FedEx, Sears, Seventh Generation, Citigroup, Fito Lay Canada, Kraft Foods, Shell International Petroleum, InterfaceRaise.

Water: the elephant in the room

I’m at the Globe Conference in Vancouver, B.C. and I’m attending a number of sessions on two themes: water and cities and urbanization.

I’m attending the urbanization sessions because it important to see how cities plan to grow more sustainably, and how they plan to be restructured over time. I’m attending water sessions because water is always the big elephant in the room: everyone talks about climate change but many people are more concerned about water. Think about it: water is critical for agriculture, energy and health, not to mention our drinking supply.

The session I’m in right now is called “Water Efficiency: Managing a Valuable Resource.” Sonia Lacombe, senior manager, climate change and sustainability at Ernst & Young in Toronto, spoke about how businesses look at water and said it’s changed a lot in the past few years. “In the past a lot of corporations were not dealing with water like they are now,” she said. “This is now a topic that interests more and more board members.”

Ernst & Young is a professional services firm. She said clients are looking for more information on managing water risk, disclosing water information, regional differentiation such as regional impacts and what regional actions are being done etc. Things driving this concern are consumer concern, competition amongst companies and the business case that companies internally see in water efficiency.

Samir Brikho, chief executive of Amec in London, said his company recently identified water issues as one of the most important areas to focus on because it sees the potential for it in the future.

Joe Deutscher of Dow Chemical Canada said competition is a big driver. His company recently created a water treatment system that replaced an outdated product that created many, many gallons of wastewater, and saved the company 25 percent in capital costs. It was industry competition that drove this innovation, he said, adding that competition is the best way to drive change. “Industry has to collaborate.”

A number of companies, Lacombe said, are considering water impacts even though they are not required to do so via regulations. She is working with a few large European breweries that have considered how to produce goods with the least amount of energy and water possible. “In the absence of regulations, some corporations are really getting organized ahead of time.”

Have you seen companies increasingly looking at water issues?

However change happens in the reuse and efficiency of water operations, one thing is clear amongst everyone who has spoken here: water rates need to grow dramatically for anyone to care about water efficiency and reuse issues, and for change to happen. We pay far more for our cell phone and cable bill than we do for water. How much would you be willing to pay and what would you want your government to be doing with the revenue from increased rates?

What role do cities play in sustainability? Seattle and Vancouver at the Globe 2010 Conference

I’m at the Globe 2010 Conference in Vancouver, B.C. where I just attended the keynote session. For those of you that don’t know this conference, it is focused on the business of sustainability, and the idea that environmental problems provide an opportunity to create business and economic solutions.

Speakers during the keynote included Gregor Roertson, mayor of Vancouver; Frank Wouters, chief executive of Masdar Power, Abu Dhabi, UAE; and James Suciu, president of global sales and marketing for GE Energy in Atlanta, Ga.

The speakers discussed a number of things: Robertson talked about how the successful 2010 Olympics has put Vancouver on the global map, Wouters spoke about the potential for collecting energy and the creation of his company’s green city in the desert; and Suciu spoke about GE’s commitment to the future green economy.

But all of them focused on cities in some way, and the power cities have to effect change. Robertson discussed how Vancouver, B.C. aims to be the greenest city in the world by 2020 and how it is moving towards that goal. But Vancouver is just one of many cities moving in this direction. He said it is the city’s job to push policy and business forward, as national governments have become “frustratingly stagnant.”

“The cities are destined to be the major partners with green business in creating the change and prosperity that we need.”

He said cities that aggressively target this sweet spot between supporting business and driving public policy will lead the future, while pulling more business to them, causing economic success.

I’m wondering where this balance exists. How much of the responsibility rests with cities, and how much rests with federal governments? Anyone have an answer?

Vancouver is doing this in a number of ways. The city council recently voted to have all new buildings going through the rezoning process in the city shoot for LEED gold as of July of this year, he said. It also has the highest number of entrepreurs in North America and a number of federal and municipal incentives, such as paying half the salary of R+D workers.

“A generation ago, our goals would have been seen as an obstacle to business but in 2010, they are a huge opportunity.”

Of course, when I hear about Vancouver and all the great goals they are targeting and achieving, I inevitably compare it to Seattle. It is striking to me that in Vancouver, all buildings going through the rezoning process (representing most buildings built in Vancouver) will have to be LEED gold while in Seattle, you can still get away with building a project in the city that doesn’t have to achieve any green certification at all. Seattle’s green building team is currently working on an update of its green code and is looking at enhancing it… but on these sweeping issues it seems like Vancouver is always one step ahead of us.

(Is Vancouver greener than Seattle overall? Answer our new poll at right!)

In this post, Brent Todarian, director of planning for the city of Vancouver, says the LEED gold move wasn’t made without difficulty, but still, it happened. Here’s how he described it:  “Although Council conveyed sympathy and understanding for the industry’s challenges, and sought to provide flexibility and further consultation and partnership on the details, they ultimately chose to take another key step toward our greenest city goal.”

What would happen if Seattle took that lead, especially in this down market? Would we be able to achieve a similar goal and would we even want to? In this down market, is it the time to be making these type of changes or should we leave it for another day? Thoughts to chew on.

Anyway, I’ll be here until Friday and will post more updates as the conference goes on. I have a feeling cities and their power to create change is going to be a big theme….

Seattle’s getting more BigBellys!

BigBelly trash compactors that is. What’s that you say? You don’t know what a BigBelly is, other than the thing that seems to sit on your father in law’s middle? Well friends, a BigBelly is a trash compactor that holds five times the trash of a normal can. And Seattle – which had three in March of 2008 – is about to be getting 20 more.

First, some history. I wrote about the BigBelly in March of 2008 here in the DJC after meeting its inventor, James Poss, at the Globe Conference in Vancouver, B.C. The BigBelly uses a solar panel to create energy, which it then uses to compact the trash inside it. This means waste haulers have to pick them up less often, which means the people paying haulers save money.

In 2008, Poss said the cans cost between $3,000 and $4,000 but pay for themselves quickly. Poss also said Seattle is a great climate for these things, because they work on ambient light, which exists when it is cloudy or rainy.

In Seattle, the 20 BigBellys will be placed along Third Avenue between Stewart and University streets by the Metropolitan Improvement District and Seattle Public Utilities. There will supposedly be a celebration at the first installation tomorrow (Saturday) from 10:30 to 11 a.m. at the west side of Third Avenue near the Stewart Street intersection.

Now, 20 BigBellys (which at $3,000 a pop totals $60,000) may seem like a big deal. But it’s not. Not when you compare it to Philadelphia, that is, which has replaced 700 downtown garbage cans with 500 BigBellys, according to the AP story which ran in the DJC last week. The story says the cans cost between $3,195 and $3,995 each (do the math, even at the lower end, it cost Philly about $1.6 million) but should save $875,000 per year, basically paying for itself in two years and then continuing to save money after. A press release for the MID says Philly plans to save $13 million over the next 10 years from the compactors and recycling containers that will go next to them.

The story says the cans in Philly will be emptied five times a week as opposed to 19 times for a regular trash can. The cans also have a wireless monitoring system to tell the city when they are full.

But here’s the interesting part: how many cans has Seattle been testing for over a year now? Three. How many cans did Philly test for a year before ordering 700? Three. I’m sure part of that difference has to do with the fact that Philly got some sort of a grant (the story doesn’t say what) for installations. But I think it still underscores how cautious Seattle is about making big decisions. Is Seattle too cautious here or is it smart not to jump into something like this too quick? (If you want to read the negative perspective of BigBelly, check out EcoMetro here.)

The AP story says Philly’s not the only one with BigBelly fever. Boston has 160, says they aren’t concentrated enough and wants more. Entities in New York are using 100. Chicago has 60, and they are being used in parts of Australia, Israel and France.

Seems like somebody at least thinks they’re a good concept.

And even if if weren’t a good concept, the BigBelly sure inspires some great quotes. When I spoke with Poss for the 2008 article, he described BigBelly as “carpooling for trash.”

And the AP story says Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter inititially asked, “What? Who’s got a big belly?” when he was introduced to the devices.

What do you think? Is there enough of a payoff for Seattle to invest in more of these or is our system just fine the way it is?