Becoming the World’s Greenest City with City of Vancouver’s Sadhu Johnston

June 19, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to go across the country to actually Canada. We have Sadhu Johnston on with us right now, who is the City Manager of Vancouver, the Deputy City Manager of the City Manager’s Office in Vancouver, Canada. Welcome, Sadhu, to Green is Good. SADHU JOHNSTON: Thank you so much, John. Great to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Sadhu, you have, first of all, one of the most unique and amazing journeys and biographies, so before we get into the questions and talk about one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, Vancouver, which I’m a great fan of, I want you to share your wonderful journey. How did you get here? What brought you to this moment and to this great position you’re in? SADHU JOHNSTON: Well, I’ve had a passion for doing environmental work for almost as long as I can remember, and it kind of first manifested itself in high school when I had a chance to start our high school’s recycling program, and I got dubbed the Czar of Recycling. Then I had a chance to study this in college at Oberlin in Ohio and was involved with an academic building that was designed to really operate and function like it’s free, producing its own energy and treating its own waste. Then I ended up landing in the mayor’s office in Chicago and had the honor to work with Mayor Daley and worked on greening Chicago, which was just amazing. It’s such a great city. From there, I came to Vancouver a few years ago. My dad is Canadian and he had lived in Vancouver, so I had a chance to experience the city a little bit while I was growing up, and now I just feel blessed. I get to work on greening one of the most amazing cities in the world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just so great. We’re so glad you’re there. It is a gorgeous city, and I want our listeners to hear about all the great things you’re doing, so let’s get into it. In Vancouver, you have an ambitious plan to become one of the greenest cities in the world by 2020. How do you approach even accomplishing this kind of great big goal? SADHU JOHNSTON: Well, the first thing is to have a plan and really have a roadmap to figure out what we need to do, what we need to prioritize, stay focused, and really work together as a team to achieve it with the city and the private sector and our residents. You know, a few years ago, our current mayor and council were elected, and they said, “We really want to build off the successes of making Vancouver an incredible place to live,” and they figured that one of the key ways to do that was to be a green city. So, they really built off the successes of generations. Vancouver currently has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per person of any city in North America, and they’ve found a way to reduce the carbon emissions to below our 1990 levels while still growing our population in that period by 26% and growing our jobs by 18%, so it is an amazing thing. In that same period of time, in the last five years, it’s been rated as the highest quality of life of any city in the world four out of those five years, so I think Vancouver is demonstrating that you can be green and that it’s good and that people like it. People want to be a part of it. So, as you guys say, green is good. Our current mayor and council said, “We want to build off that track record and really take it to the next level.” So they adopted a plan called the Green City Action Plan 2020, which basically sets a path forward for us to be the greenest city in the world in 2020. They looked at the core areas of air quality, food, water quality, energy, carbon, green building, and transportation. They looked at each of those core areas and they looked at leading green cities around the world, Copenhagen and San Francisco and others, and said, “What do we have to do here in Vancouver to be the greenest?” They set forward a path with a plan, the greenest city 2020, so that’s our roadmap, figuring out what we need to do here in the city to lead. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s break it down. You’ve got organics collection, public bike sharing, district energy, electric vehicles, great, great topics, great, great initiatives as a roadmap to 2020. Talk a little bit about the food strategy that you have up there. SADHU JOHNSTON: Well, you know, food is amazing. It is one thing we all share in common, and we all eat every day, and carbon and green buildings, some of these things are a little bit esoteric for some people and they can’t relate to it as much. But food, everyone can relate to and everyone participates in it every day, so we’ve got a food strategy that our council adopted just a few months ago that talks about increasing food assets in the city, local food assets from community kitchens to community gardens to local agriculture, actually growing food in the city. We’ve increased the number of acres by about four or five times in the city, just full-on farming in the city. So, you know, it really sparks people’s imagination and it engages people, and we’ve got from toddlers to seniors participating in growing food here and processing it. I’ve even got beehives in my backyard here in the inner city, and people are just getting into being a part of their local food scene, and it’s really exciting. It engages a lot of people and there’s just so many things you can do to spur the local food economy, and you can really create a lot of jobs in the process. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just awesome. SADHU JOHNSTON: Yeah, we partnered last year with a local clean tech company. They do vertical farming, where you can actually grow food vertically. So, one of our parking garages downtown was kind of underutilized and there was about 50% vacancy, so we were losing money on it, largely because we’re getting people out of their cars. We partnered with this local company called Alterrus, and they built the first vertical farm in North America on top of a parking garage, so now we’re making money off of some of our real estate. They’ve produced about 20 jobs, and in the process, they’re producing 150,000 lbs. of produce in 4,000 square feet up in the sky in Vancouver, so it’s an incredible opportunity. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What a win. What a major win for the city. Wow, wow, wow. For our listeners out there, we have Sadhu Johnston on with us from Vancouver talking about the greening of Vancouver. For our listeners to learn more about this amazing story and this amazing journey, please go to Vancouver.ca. I’m on it right now. I hit the Green Vancouver button, and wow, there are so many great pictures and so many great stories on here, it’s limitless. So, talk a little bit about, Sadhu, about energy efficiency in buildings. How do you go about encouraging buildings to become more energy-efficient in your great city? SADHU JOHNSTON: Well, you know, as much as food sparks people’s imaginations and gets them involved, getting people to think differently about how we use energy is not as easy. It’s a real tough slog, and I’m a part of an international effort called the Urban Sustainability Directors across North America, staff in similar positions as mine looking to green our cities, and this is one area that we all really work a lot on together, saying how do we do this? Natural gas prices are at stark lows; they continue to go down. Electricity, at least here in Vancouver, is low-carbon and pretty affordable, so to be honest, we’ve been struggling with ways to engage people around how we use energy in our homes. We’ve launched a couple of energy retrofit programs, we’ve done a lot with our building code and we actually require certified green buildings based on the U.S. green buildings standards, LEED, which is Leadership and Energy in Environmental Design, so we’ve got a green building code. There’s a lot that we do to green new buildings. But getting people to think differently and actually do retrofits is not easy, so we’ve launched a few programs to help do that. We’re hoping to increase the uptake in the years to come. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about transportation. Cities love to encourage new paradigms and new ways of getting us around and reducing our energy. What is Vancouver doing to enhance walking and cycling and the infrastructure that will encourage those behaviors? SADHU JOHNSTON: Well, there’s such a connection between land use and transportation, and oftentimes we kind of think about transportation in an isolated fashion. I’ve been so impressed with this historic recognition here in Vancouver that the land use and the transportation really are connected. You need to build housing and jobs close to transit nodes, and you also need to make those areas where you do have density accessible to transit, and it’s called transit-oriented development. Vancouver has done an amazing job with that. They’ve really concentrated a lot of the new construction, a lot of the development, in the downtown core, where the majority of people can walk around as their primary way to get around. So, we’re over 40% mode share, which is over 40% of our trips are not in cars here in the city. It’s been really amazing to see people getting out of their cars. We’ve seen about an 80% increase in biking in the last 15 or 20 years, a 50% increase in public transit ridership, so it’s a combination of making sure that things are close to each other and that we have investments in public transit to enable people to get around. Then it’s adding new amenities, like separated bike lanes, so people can ride around town and feel safe that way and really good sidewalks, so it’s a combination of things. Then it’s also we’ve added a lot of car sharing opportunities and now we’re adding bike share, so, you know, when you look at the carbon emissions from the entire city, the largest emitters are our buildings, and the second largest is our modes of transportation, how we get around, so you’ve hit on the two areas that are absolutely critical for reducing our carbon as a society and then as a city. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, let’s lay right over the walking and the cycling infrastructure and the encouragement that you’re giving towards that to the booming and the basically advantages to electric vehicles. How is that going to be integrated into your transportation 2040 plan? How are you going to encourage more people to not only carpool, but use and buy and utilize electric vehicles in and around the Vancouver metropolitan area? SADHU JOHNSTON: Yeah, thanks for mentioning the 2040 plan. About 14 or 15 years ago, Vancouver adopted the really progressive transportation plan, and it prioritized walking as the number one priority, and bikes as the second, and public transit as the third, goods movement as the fourth, and the fifth, actually, was the car. That level of priority has been actually reiterated in our new plan, our transportation 2040 plan. But we do recognize that some people do need to get around by car for whatever reason, because of where they live, because of their own lifestyle, or for other reasons. So, we recognize that people need to get around by car, so we are prioritizing electric vehicle infrastructure. We are buying electric vehicles for our own fleet, and we’re installing infrastructure, electric charging, for people when they’re at work, at home, and on the go. So, we’ve been installing electric vehicle infrastructure, we’re seeing the cars appearing, we’ve worked with a province so there’s a rebate when you buy an electric vehicle, you get some money back, and we’re starting to see the uptake. It’s really exciting. We’re installing a fast charger so you can charge in 20 minutes, and we’ve got about 20 electric vehicles in our own fleet and we’re getting another 10 or 15 this year. So, we’re experiencing it ourselves, trying it out, and then helping the public to get it in their own homes. In Vancouver, particularly, because we have hydroelectricity, which is really low-carbon electricity, when you drive your electric car, you’re almost driving carbon-free. And again, green is good. You feel much better when you have to drive if you’re in an electric car. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last three minutes or so, Sadhu, but I just want to ask you two quick things. A. You have some long-term plans here, 2020, 2014, 2040, 2020. So, how do you get some winds along the way that keep everybody excited and interested and all pumped up? What are some of the winds you’ve gotten recently or are going to get this year to keep everybody totally on the same page? SADHU JOHNSTON: Well, a lot of it’s incremental, you know? We’ve really struggled with engaging our community, and this is a lot of the challenge that cities across North America are having. There are a lot of things you can do, and a certain segment of your population gets excited, but a lot are kind of going on their business as usual, and so we partnered last year with the Vancouver Foundation, they’re our local community foundation. We took a million dollars out of our parking sites reserve, it’s money we save for building new parking garages, and we said, “You know, we’re probably not building any new parking garages any time soon.” Took a million bucks out of it, and I gave it to the foundation, and they put in a million bucks, and now we’ve got the Greenest City Community Fund. Community organizations, individuals, non-profits can apply for anywhere from $500 to $50,000 to green their community. We’ve got thousands of people now across the city that are undertaking projects, like planting urban orchards in their parks and community gardens and doing energy retrofit fairs and working in their schools, so that’s one thing that we’re just really excited about. It’s empowered a lot of people to get involved themselves and it doesn’t take a lot to get a community group really engaged and participating, and so that’s one that I think has been really exciting for us to see, the community getting so jazzed up about participating. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great. So, we’re down to the last minute. Any thoughts for the next generation coming behind you on how to become the next Sadhu Johnston? Because there are so many that really want to make a difference and leave the world a better place than they found, so many coming up in college, high school, and just coming out of grad school now. Any pearls of wisdom for them? SADHU JOHNSTON: Well, you know, I’d say I didn’t have a roadmap myself. My own career has evolved, but the one thing I would say is I’ve just gotten into it and gotten things done. As I said, my first experience was starting a recycling program in my high school and then in college my college job was helping our city to do their recycling program. For me, each step of the way, it’s been about getting involved and really trying to make a difference. Start a college club or start your high school recycling program or a car-sharing program. Find ways to make a difference in your own life today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great advice. For our listeners out there, you can see Sadhu’s great work not only in the great city of Chicago, but now in Vancouver. To learn more what he’s doing in Vancouver with his colleagues, you can go to Vancouver.ca. Sadhu Johnston, thank you for coming on today. You’re going to always be welcome back on Green is Good. You’re both the Czar of Recycling, like they called you when you were younger, and a sustainability superstar, and truly living proof that green is good. SADHU JOHNSTON: Well, thanks, John. Great to be on your show and thanks for your wisdom and sharing this type of thing with so many people. I really appreciate it. It’s so important.