This spring, I took my class of university green-building students on a tour of the HiVE Vancouver, a nonprofit coworking space that serves Vancouver’s social entrepreneurs. The space is elegantly constructed across two brick Heritage buildings in Vancouver and was built with an integrated design process that was initiated through public visioning sessions. The project is aiming for LEED for Commercial Interiors Gold, and all of its furniture came from other offices; some is built from locally salvaged wood. Heavy daylighting, light walls, and compact fluorescent light bulbs all contribute to its energy conservation.

When we walked in, we immediately noticed the row of bike racks filled with hanging bikes—a result of the HiVE’s location in downtown Vancouver, right off major transit, pedestrian, and bike routes.

The HiVE isn’t just a coworking space for social and sustainability entrepreneurs; it is home to some of Vancouver’s leading sustainability thinkers, and, as such, acts as an incubator for social change. Sustainable Solutions Group, Sole Food, BC Sustainable Energy Association, BC Healthy Communities, Canadian Wind Energy Association, and many more depend on it. It is also home to Eesmyal Santos-Brault, the self-described “serial social entrepreneur” who cofounded the HiVE in the spring of 2011, as well as numerous other start-ups, including Recollective, Design Nerds, GBAT Technologies, and the Energy Modelling Institute.

“Innovation requires the cross-pollination of many ideas, especially from different disciplines and sectors,” Santos-Brault says of sustainability hubs. “I’ve seen firsthand amazing examples of innovations in sustainability that would not have occurred if it weren’t for these hubs. We know they work, which is why we see them popping up all over the world.”

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Redeveloped by the Salient Group with a design by Acton Ostry Architects, Flack Block is Canada’s first LEED Gold Heritage building and serves as one of the city’s social and sustainability hubs. Photo: Michael Elkan

As we left the HiVE, I pointed out the Flack Block across the street. In 2008, it was Canada’s first LEED Gold Heritage building, and it, too, serves as a hub for social entrepreneurs. Down Granville Street, we passed the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University (SFU), where I was teaching and where Santos-Brault serves as a mentor and entrepreneur in residence for RADIUS Ventures, a “social innovation lab and venture incubator.” The students seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the number of tech hubs that we passed. One said she had no idea this was happening in Vancouver, let alone that she passed multiple sustainability incubators every day. How did Vancouver get so hub-happy?


In 2005, Helen Goodland, Chris Lindberg, and I cofounded the Light House Sustainable Building Centre, the first green-building hub in Canada. Our goal was to create a one-stop resource center for environmental design and construction. But between then and 2014, Vancouver has become a sustainable-technology boomtown. Today, there are too many local sustainability hubs to count.

“Globally, the market for green-building materials is projected to more than double from $116 billion in 2012 to over $250 billion in 2020,” Goodland says, quoting a report from Navigant Research. “Locally, BC’s green building and energy efficiency sector generates about $8.4 billion in GDP and 76,450 jobs. BC governments are moving towards [carbon]-neutral construction, some as early as 2020.”

So, there is a growing need for innovation, and Vancouver is stepping up the plate. Two years after we launched Light House, GreenWorks Building Supply started as a small green-building products store that has since partnered with West Coast Wood Slabs and Artemisia Metal Fabrication and expanded into a 10,000-square-foot hub for consumer green-building products. In 2009, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson launched the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan with the goal of becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020. The City of Vancouver adopted ten goals, each with one or more measurable targets to be reached within the next ten years.

In 2011, Vancouver added HiVE and the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), the latter of which certainly occupies the largest physical space of all Vancouver’s hubs. The $37-million, 60,000-square-foot building will reduce campus energy use, improve water quality, and sequester more carbon than what is required to build and operate it.


The University of British Columbia’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability arrived in Vancouver in 2011, the same year as HiVE, helping to spark a boom of sustainability hubs that is still active. Photo: Martin Tessler, courtesy of Perkins+Will


Dr. John Robinson, associate provost of sustainability at UBC and the central force behind CIRS, says such hubs “are a critical part of building the business and social networks that we need to accelerate sustainability in the region.” Photo: Martin Tessler, courtesy of Perkins+Will

At UBC’s Sauder School of Business, the ISIS Research Centre leverages business to advance sustainability research and application. The aforementioned RADIUS also serves the sustainability community, and the City of Vancouver’s long-awaited Green Enterprise Zone aims to bring together and support sustainable businesses—not far from the new GreenWorks location in the False Creek Flats. And that’s to say nothing of the Vancouver Technology Centre (in development by the Vancouver Economic Commission), the proposal for a Centre for Social Innovation and Inclusion, or, most recently, the Vancouver Incubator Kitchen, an experiment with making commercial kitchen space available and affordable. Vancouver is banking on sustainability, and it seems to think the hub is the way to get there.



“Nothing is static in Vancouver. Buildings are torn down at a frantic pace and replaced even quicker. The result? One of the most competitive real estate markets in North America with developers gun slinging and architects one-upping one another at every turn. The city’s youthfulness, passion for sustainability, and willingness to experiment provides a powerful counter to all this unrelenting change.”

Exactly what impact this proliferation has had on Vancouver’s ability to move toward true sustainability depends on whom you talk to. “Without a plan and framework, innovation will be ad hoc and difficult to sustain,” says Goodland, whose company, Brantwood Consulting, helped develop a green-building roadmap for Vancouver in 2011 and updated it in 2012.

Dr. John Robinson, associate provost of sustainability at UBC and the central force behind CIRS, says that these hubs “are a critical part of building the business and social networks that we need to accelerate sustainability in the region.” Robinson sees Vancouver’s Greenest City plan as “an incredible catalyst for research, policy, and action in the city” and also supports UBC’s efforts to turn its campus into a living lab of sustainability.

Thomas Mueller, the CEO and president of the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), also believes CIRS has made a substantial impact in Vancouver’s capacity for green innovation. He says it is the center’s “commitment to measuring, verification and sharing” that make it unique. “[This] will be essential to advance our collective knowledge on how buildings can be designed to a high level of sustainability, recognizing financial, technological, institutional, knowledge, and policy barriers.”

The aims of these research and tech hubs are supported by progressive public policies. In 2013, CaGBC recommended the City of Vancouver for the World Green Building Council’s Government Leadership Award for Best Green Building Policy. It won.


Increasing Vancouver’s visibility within the technology field, Janet Echelman’s interactive installation during the 2014 TED conference responded to visitors’ directions. Photo: Ema Peter


1. Make Food Accessible In order to increase food assets by 50% over 2010 levels, Vancouver has drafted a municipal food strategy; supported gardens, farms, and markets; planted public fruit trees; and purchased local food for municipal facilities. So far, it reportedly has increased food assets by 24%.

2. Invest in Alternative Transit Improving cycling and pedestrian safety has made the city more inviting on bike and foot, and Vancouver’s public transportation infrastructure—which includes bus, streetcar, and train—and ridership are well above rates in nearby Seattle and Portland.

3. Mandate Carbon Neutrality Updating the Vancouver Building Bylaw’s energy efficiency requirements and using price signals to reward energy efficiency in new and existing buildings are two strategies being considered to make all buildings constructed after 2020 carbon neutral. Currently, requiring all new building re-zonings to be LEED Gold is raising the bar for the building industry and bringing awareness to the public about what green buildings can be.

4. Aim for Zero Single-family homes are now served with a weekly compost service and garbage pickup every other week in an effort to reach zero waste. The city is also working to divert all recyclables from the waste stream and launching a building-deconstruction program.

5. Embrace Incubators Vancouver is home to innumerable technology accelerators, social hubs, and environmental incubators. These nontraditional approaches to business are sparking innovation and leadership, resulting in new ideas about urban sustainability.   

“What distinguishes Vancouver from other cities is its requirements for private-sector developments to have LEED Gold certification as part of the rezoning process,” Mueller says. “This is in addition to the LEED Gold policy for city-owned buildings since 2004.” This policy resulted in LEED certification for every venue built for the 2010 Winter Olympics, including the Athlete’s Village (a first in Olympic history). The community is considered one of the greenest in the world.

The city’s increased code requirements, according to Mueller, are some of the most advanced on the continent. Vancouver, he says, has “the greenest building code for single-family homes in North America with high targets for energy and water conservation, by way of a list of prescriptive measures including insulation, high-efficiency heating systems, electric-vehicle-charging infrastructure, and pre-piping for solar hot water.”


Considering all of this, it is little wonder that Vancouver was tapped to host TED’s 2014 conference. Mayor Robertson said TED would “enhance Vancouver’s emerging reputation as a ‘global hub for innovation, talent, and entrepreneurial spirit.’” Indeed, the conference upped the profile of local sustainability entrepreneurs and drew local attention to urban issues playing out on the Vancouver stage.

Janet Echelman’s art, for instance, on display for TED2014, provided a jumping-off point into issues core to urban sustainability, questioning how we make networks, how we remain fluid, and how we and our cities respond to the elements: sun, water, and air. In a city plagued by its lack of affordability, this art was free for all to see, floating above the ocean between the Fairmont Vancouver and the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Morgan McDonald, the director of operations for Ledcor Renew, a team within one of Canada’s largest construction companies, says Vancouver has a history of sustainable planning that has brought the city to its current place at the top of sustainability innovation. “I’m proud to live in a highly walkable and bikeable city,” he says. “That’s a product of sustained effort by Vancouver’s people, planners, and politicians over many years.” McDonald is especially proud of the region’s two Living Building Challenge candidate projects: the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre in Vancouver and SFU UniverCity Child Care in Burnaby. “We have a whole network of sustainability leaders and innovators,” he says. “Designers, builders, trades, suppliers, and, of course, owners and municipalities all need to work together to make these projects happen.”

Between the city’s policies and the innovations of these local entrepreneurs, something is clearly working. A July 2014 report from the City of Vancouver showed measurable progress, including a six percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2007; population and jobs, meanwhile, grew by five and seven percent, respectively. A 40 percent reduction in solid waste going to the landfill from single-family homes in 2013 is clearly a result of the Green Bin Program for food scraps. The city boasts 4,166 community garden plots, with a remarkable 481 added in 2013. And green building and design jobs are up 50 percent since 2010.

The Van Dusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre is one of two Living Building Challenge candidates in the Vancouver area.

The Van Dusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre is one of two Living Building Challenge candidates in the Vancouver area.

And yet, if the aim is to become the greenest city in the world, Vancouver still has yet to surpass anything like Seattle’s Bullitt Center, which is aiming to be a Living Building while also serving as a hub for sustainability. Major events like the Olympics and TED can be used to accelerate Vancouver’s development of sustainable businesses and technologies, but as for the vision that pulls it all forward, it comes back to transformation.

I asked Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer what she is most proud of when it comes to the Greenest City plan. “What I am proud of … is that we bit off this incredibly massive chunk,” she says. “The goal is massive and transformative in its aspiration.” 

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