[William Rees] and one of his students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in the 1990s pioneered a way of measuring the connection between human population and its consumption of resources. It's known as the "ecological footprint." Ominously, Rees found that the 2.2 million people who live in the Vancouver region would need an area 57 times larger than their own city to sustain them. Indeed, if everyone on Earth lived as people in Vancouver did, Rees calculated, it would take four planets to keep them alive.
That message resonated, and it changed Rees' adopted city. To a degree probably unmatched anywhere else in North America, the city of Vancouver has tried to impose notions of sustainability in its decisions on what, where and how to build.
The result has come to be known as "Vancouverism
," an urban motif of public transit instead of freeways, a low-carbon energy infrastructure and gleaming high-rise condominium towers in sunlit, walkable neighborhoods laced with urban parks.
The 2010 Winter Olympic Games next month provide a showcase for how Vancouver is trying to evolve. A $1-billion development that houses the athletes' village generates up to 70% of its power from converted sewage, and the vaulted ceiling of the Richmond speed-skating venue emphasizes that most renewable of resources, wood. Over the last 20 years, Vancouver has managed to more than double the number of people living downtown while also reducing its carbon emissions per capita to the lowest levels of any big city in North America
. The central city has refused to allow a single freeway and recently began to further tighten the noose around automobiles, closing lanes on crowded streets in favor of buses, bikes and sidewalks.
The city has hit up developers to build parks, recreation centers, libraries, day-care centers, and open, public waterfronts to a degree almost unknown anywhere else.
When other cities were erecting warehouse-style retail outlets in the hinterlands, Vancouver built its Costco right downtown -- the first urban Costco in the world, with four 40-story residential towers rising from the top. There's a boutique Home Depot not far away and a Safeway that squats on a second floor, above smaller street-level shops.