Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Op-Ed. Kaid Benfield on Vancouver's Carfree Olympic Village

The first and most important new mobility option is: to get what it is you want or need, without climbing into carbon transport. And while we here at World Streets tend to spend most of our time looking at sustainable transport modes and good ways of combining them to create superior mobility packages, we also follow car-free (or car-freer) environments and programs around the world. The city of Vancouver has just taken a giant step in this direction as part of their Winter Olympics package, so let us give the word to Kaid Benfield, Director of the Smart Growth Program of the NRDC in Washington, DC for his views on this.

Vancouver’s medal-worthy Olympic Village, one of the greenest neighborhoods anywhere

[For the full text of this article, complete with illustrations and videos, click to]
Vancouver’s civic leaders believe that the athlete’s village built for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and the planned neighborhood that will surround it, will be one of the very greenest neighborhoods in North America. I am inclined to agree.

The village is the central parcel in a larger planned redevelopment of a section of the city’s old industrial waterfront called, somewhat awkwardly, Southeast False Creek. When the Olympics and Paralympics are finished, the village will become a mixed-use community called Millennium Water, which sounds a lot more marketable to me.

I haven’t visited the site, but I have sifted through virtual reams of information about it, and I have paid particular attention to its plans and progress for some time now because Southeast False Creek is participating in the LEED-ND pilot. (It hasn’t been evaluated yet but the development is aiming for a gold level award.) The city’s summary information sheet explains the project’s goals:
“While maintaining heritage ties to the past, SEFC is being planned as a model sustainable development based on environmental, social and economic principles where people will live, work, play, and learn. SEFC will be a mixed-use community, with a focus on residential housing. This complete neighbourhood will ensure that goods and services are within walking distance and that housing and jobs are linked by transit.”

The 80-acre site’s mostly mid-rise buildings will provide ample density to support retail and walkability while still leaving 26 acres available for park land, including playgrounds and space for community gardening. There will also be an elementary school and new civic center. Some of the site’s historic buildings (notably including the Salt Building, shown in the photos) will be preserved, along with other reminders of its historic past. Transportation options will include rapid transit, a “skytrain,” a streetcar, multiple bus lines, three new greenways with cycling facilities and, of course, a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. The site also needed and received extensive brownfield remediation.

Most of the development’s buildings will qualify for a LEED-gold building certification (in addition to the LEED-ND goal for the project as a whole). One of them has been designated as a “net zero” building that will have no net carbon emissions. It will be converted to 64 homes for seniors after the Games. And the developer is aiming for a LEED-platinum rating for the community center that will be the village’s focal point during the Games and the most publicly visible of the neighborhood’s buildings afterward.

Southeast False Creek/Millennium Water will also sport the city’s first renewable district heating system, which will provide heat and hot water to all the neighborhood’s buildings, including those in the Olympic village. It will be the first time in North America that heat recovered from wastewater will provide a primary source of energy for an urban neighborhood. The wastewater technology will be supplemented by solar hot water.

The city began planning development of the site in 1997 and committed to a vision of sustainability in 1999. Eventually it will be home to 16,000 residents. Close to 3,000 will be housed there for the Games.

The environmental accomplishments and goals of the Olympic village (officially Village A, since there is a second athlete’s Village B in Whistler, BC, where downhill events are being held) are summarized in an overview on the Olympics’ official site. In addition to those mentioned above, they include ecological restoration of the waterfront; reintroduction of intertidal marine habitat and indigenous vegetation, and extensive green stormwater infrastructure. As shown in the images, most of the buildings will have green roofs. Other laudable elements include accessible design, job training and procurement for inner-city residents, and impressive (and sustainable) public art, including traditional and contemporary works by Inuit, Métis, and other First Nations indigenous artists from across Canada.

The village’s sustainability features are seen by the Games as part of a larger goal of sustainability throughout the Olympic venues and events, and by the city as consistent with its’ leaders vision of becoming “the world’s greenest city.”

As with any large development, especially infill and especially one receiving subsidies in the context of a recession, the project has not been without controversy. This is well-documented on the Web and was succinctly summarized by Jonathan Hiskes on Grist. The project was planned to be financed largely by Millennium Water’s investors and recouped by them after the Games as its units were sold. But a major source of the developer’s capital collapsed with other financial institutions and the city had to come to the project’s financial rescue (to be repaid when the development sells). There were also the usual construction problems and cost overruns. The financial squeeze meant that, unfortunately, some of the project’s Phase I affordable housing had to be scaled back. In addition, some Vancouverites have long resisted the idea of the city’s hosting the Games at all, and the village became a bit of a rallying point for the opposition.

But now the village has been completed and was handed over to the city on schedule, in November. It has received glowing reviews not just from environmental writers but also from real estate observers who believe Millennium Water will be a huge commercial success when it is handed back to the developer (see, for example, here and here). Based on what we can see, that’s hard to argue with. I can’t wait to see it for myself.

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* For full text complete with illustrations and videos, click to]

About the author:

Kaid Benfield is Director of the Smart Growth Program of the prestigious Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC. –, He describes himself as "Attorney, recovering litigator, cyclist, blogger, dreamer." He writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment. For more posts, see his blog's home page at

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  1. More on this at - Vancouver Olympics a Living Laboratory for Urbanism! - Brent Toderian, Thu, 02/25/2010 -
    (I have copied the first bit on 'traffic.)
    . . .

    North America's Largest "Traffic Trial" Ever?

    Cities like Copenhagen, and more recently New York, have embraced the value of traffic trials or pilots, in demonstrating effects of mode changes, dispelling myths, or just learning what really happens to traffic when you make a change, despite what the models say. Vancouver has used many such trials as well, including this summer’s very successful closing of a lane of traffic over our Burrard Bridge (one of three bridges connecting the downtown peninsula to the rest of the city) to give it to cyclists.

    But has there ever been as huge an urban traffic trial as this in North America? The transformation of an entire mobility system in a large city and complex downtown? We know that Vancouver is the largest and most urban setting thus far for the Winter Games, and that many Summer Games have been concentrated in one area, often on the outskirts of the built environment. The highly dispersed nature of our Games across municipalities and across highly urban settings, has made this trial rare if not unique. Massive pedestrianization of countless streets, a necessary 30% drop in car trips in a city that has already shifted significant percentages of trips to walking, cycling and transit in the past few decades, the running of a new streetcar pilot, the aspects go on and on.

    All of this, we believe, gives us a special snapshot picture of a potential future for our city as we continue to move rapidly to more sustainable modes of travel. As we work toward an updated transportation plan for the downtown and broader city, the massive amounts of data, and the general change in perception and attitudes from this temporary transformation, may end up being the most powerful legacy from these Olympics. I strongly believe nothing will ever be the same in how we perceive traffic and movement in our city after this.

    Here are a few of the mobility successes so far:

    * Halfway through the 2010 Winter Games, every day Vancouver is continuing to see record numbers of people walking, cycling and taking transit. We are consistently meeting or exceeding our 30% target reduction in car trips.
    * More than 20,000 pedestrians a day walked across the Burrard and Cambie Bridges to and from Downtown Vancouver.
    * With the good weather in the past few days, cyclist volumes across the Burrard and Cambie Bridges are at high summertime levels with an average of 5,000 cyclists riding to and from Downtown Vancouver every day. The City of Vancouver is providing safe and convenient bike parking spaces near Olympic and Para-lympic venues, LiveCity celebration sites and at the Olympic Village station of the Olympic Line streetcar. Free bike valet services are also available at these locations to encourage cycling.
    * The new Canada Line subway line reached a peak of over 250,000 riders on Thursday February 18, far exceeding the expected numbers of around 100,000 and the SeaBus had 50,000 boardings on the same day, well over twice the normal numbers. The system is handling these numbers well.
    * The Olympic Line - Vancouver's 2010 Streetcar pilot - reached a milestone a few days ago of 300,000 trips since starting on January 21, 2010, and is now averaging 20,000-25,000 boardings each day, making it busier than Seattle and Portland's streetcar networks, even though it has only two stations.
    . . .

  2. Gordon Price, Vancouver CanadaTuesday, 02 March, 2010

    From Gordon Price in Vancouver on this:

    Yesterday, prompted by a release from Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s office, the media went after the transportation story. It’s the dog that, up to now, hasn’t barked: no major screw-ups, and general agreement that things have gone well on the transportation front.

    In fact, the City’s plan – 30 percent reduction in traffic, 50 percent reduction in capacity to downtown, no venue parking – has worked spectacularly well. And TransLink has performed with remarkable flexibility and stretched itself to the limit.

    So now what?

    “You now have a public that sees the possibility,” said (SFU City Program director Gordon Price).

    “We just conducted the greatest controlled traffic experiment in North America.”

    But despite the optimism now, TransLink is about to return to barely adequate service and a probable new round of bickering between cities and the province over how to fund the system.

    “Here’s the embarrassment – now they cut it all back,” Price said.

    “They dock the third SeaBus. They can’t proceed with the frequent transit network. They can’t do what they say they want to do that we could do and that we know works.

    “Maybe now a new political consensus will emerge that not only can we do it, we must do it.”

    As BC Local News reporter Jeff Nagle notes, “the genie is out of the bottle.”

    Mayor’s Council Chair, Peter Fassbender of Langley: “I’d like to believe we’ve developed a transit spirit that says this system can work and it can deliver so let’s find a way to move it forward on the foundation we’ve built in this short period of time.”

    But Transportation Minister Shirley Bond is sticking to her marching orders: ”She’s ‘pretty comfortable’ with the existing set of property, fuel and other taxes plus fares to fund TransLink…. The debate, Bond said, will be about ‘how much should taxpayers, who are actually served by transit, contribute.’ ” – i.e. let the mayors squeeze the property taxpayer ’cause there ain’t gonna be no move on vehicle levies or road pricing from us.

    The only person more missing in action is Gordon Campbell, who as ex-Vancouver Mayor and GVRD Chair, would have been front and centre on this issue. As Premier, it will be up to him if there is to be any real legacy from the spectacular transportation success of the Olympic experience.

    Otherwise, the only debate we’ll be having is how much we’re cutting back.


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