Editor’s note: During our three-week “Escape to Vancouver” campaign to increase the readership of Sightline Daily, we’ll be running a short blog series spotlighting Vancouver, BC, and its contributions to Cascadia. Clark Williams-Derry weighs in first.

Vancouver with mountainsAs you should know by now, we’re offering an all-expense paid trip to Vancouver, BC, as a sweepstakes reward to one lucky reader who gets their friends to sign up for a Sightline Daily email (and if you’re not subscribed, you can also win by signing up now).

If you’re a foodie, you’ll be in heaven—if my experience is any guide, the mealsalone will be worth the (low) cost of admission.

But if you’re a sustainability geek—and I know you are—there are some extra special reasons to visit Vancouver. The metro area is the home of dozens of great ideas, policies, and practices that cities all around Cascadia (and beyond) should consider emulating.

So, to pique your interest, here’s a sampling of five sustainable wonders from Vancouver that are worth checking out on any visit…

    1. Living tall and skinny: 

    Downtown Vancouver has developed a housing style all its own, characterized by tall, slender towers of condos and apartments. It’s more than a fad—it’s a genuine urban sustainability solution. Tall-and-skinny towers house people efficiently (and pleasantly!) in a relatively small area, which helps curb sprawl. And they let lots of folks live close to jobs and stores, which helps cut down on driving—reducing air pollution and climate-disrupting emissions from vehicle tailpipes. Last I checked, traffic volumes in downtown Vancouver had actually fallen of late, even as the center-city population skyrocketed. The credit, or much of it anyway, goes to the city’s efforts to create neighborhoods where people don’t have to drive to get around. The tall-and-skinny style also helps retain an appealing streetscape for pedestrians. Many of the skinny high-rises are set back a bit from the streetline, so buildings rise only a few stories where they meet the sidewalk. To a person out for a casual stroll, many streets still retain a sense of human scale, despite the height of the towers.

    To be sure, the downtown Vancouver style isn’t the only way to create appealing urban density. Still, Vancouver’s solution works well, and the city’s had no trouble attracting residents to carefully planned highrise housing. So it’s no wonder other cities are looking at Vancouver as a model for revitalizing their downtowns.

    2. No highways:

    Check it out: there are no high-speed freeways in city limits. The city of Vancouver resisted the highway building binge that marred just about every other major North American city over the past 50 years. Despite what a highway-centric culture might predict, the lack of a highway has been a big boon for the city, reducing suburban flight, preserving an intact downtown, reducing the incessant car traffic that can make pedestrian life unbearable.

    Other West Coast cities have tried to emulate Vancouver’s example. San Francisco has now demolished two stretches of urban highway, and Portland did the same with a waterfront highway in the 1970s. Seattle’s considering doing the same with the Alaskan Way Viaduct through downtown. The highway-free city used to be the norm; now there are signs that it’s coming back into vogue.

    3. Farms near the city:

    Granted, a lot of the farmland close to the city is occupied by hothouses—hardly sustainable agriculture. Still, it’s possible to stand on working farmland no more than 5 miles from downtown Vancouver, which is the densest urban center north of San Francisco. (Try that in Seattle.) Much of the credit goes to a province-wide farmland protection policy. No US city has a farmland protection policy that’s as strict or effective.

    We can only hope that the policy stays intact. There always seems to be some sort of political attack on it, from folks who want to pave farmland for housing or commercial development. That’d be a shame: there’s so little farmland in BC’s lower mainland that every acre is important.

    4. Refillable beer bottles:

    Admittedly, this is small beer compared with the other items on the list. But it’s still pretty cool: Greater Vancouver’s brewers reuse their glass containers. It’s a bit of a throwback to the old days, when virtually all bottles were reused. But BC brewery’s refilling and recycling system is thoroughly modern enterprise, collecting well over 90 percent of all glass beverage containers. It’s a decent energy saver—and more importantly, a reminder that the prevailing culture of disposability doesn’t have to affect every part of our daily lives.

    5. Transit galore:

    Person for person, transit ridership is over twice as high in Metro Vancouver as in greater Portland and greater Seattle.

    Vancouver’s got commuter rail (the sky train), and some pretty nice pedestrian ferries for folks getting into downtown from north of the Fraser River. But the buses are still the workhorse of the lower mainland’s transit system, accounting for three-quarters of all transit boardings. You can even take a public bus to nearby ski slopes (check out the #232, #236, and #247). Of course, you may not even need transit to get around, at least in downtown. Biking is convenient and rentals are plentiful; and it’s a great city to walk in as well. I’ve spent a couple of delightful weekends in the center city without stepping in a vehicle at all.
    Ok, I admit it, I’m starting to sound a little like carnival huckster. (I swear, there were no kickbacks from the Vancouver tourist promotion board!) But I’m being perfectly sincere:  if you’re into sustainable cities, Vancouver’s got a lot to offer.  And the price of admission is pretty cheap. How ’bout it—are you ready to tell your friends about Sightline Daily?

    Mountain photo courtesy of Stephen Rees under a Creative Commons license.