Building Change: Bringing Sustainability to our Built Environments

downtown street with people walking, talking and using a mobility scooter

Port Coquitlam, BC. Credit: PictureBC.

building change report coverPeople live in places. The places that we build – small towns, communities, cities, suburbs – all have impacts on our environment and on shared resources, like air, water, greenspace and energy. In Canada, about 60 per cent of our energy is consumed (and about half our green gas emissions are emitted) within built communities.

There’s an enormous potential here for improvement – both in the sustainability of our communities and in the engagement of residents. In our latest report, Building Change, the Real Estate Foundation of BC (REFBC) presents a case for sustainable built environments, along with six priorities for action.

When designed sustainably, our built environments can support a high quality of life in communities that respect the carrying capacity of nature. The development and land use decisions that we make today impact the efficiency, resiliency and vibrancy of our communities. Smart decisions will pay dividends for future generations – low energy and servicing costs, protected greenspaces, affordable housing choices, easy access to shops and amenities. Short-term decision making may lead to one-time boons or political wins, but residents pay for a lack of foresight with increasing infrastructure costs, longer commute times and high housing costs.

In 2015, the REFBC partnered with MODUS Planning, Design and Engagement to learn more about sustainability in the built environment, to gauge progress that’s been made in BC and to identify changes needed to shape built environments that are sustainable in the long-term. We also commissioned a public opinion poll to understand residents’ attitudes on sustainability and the built environment.

Our biggest challenge? The built environment is a complex system with many overlapping parts. With some exceptions, practitioners and policy makers tend to be specialized and region-focused. To gain perspective, we looked at the whole system across BC, including integrated community planning, housing, transportation, buildings, energy and infrastructure.

After an extensive literature review, dozens of interviews and focus groups, and a stakeholder workshop, we found that BC is falling behind. Progress is being made, but it isn’t always being measured, supported or funded. There are gaps in collaboration, particularly between land use and transportation planning. Public engagement is another major gap; residents reported conflicting values and priorities, and a majority felt that they didn’t have enough say in their communities.

After releasing six reports (with over 300 pages of text) and engaging with hundreds of practitioners, we felt it was time to bring the findings and insights together. Released today, Building Change integrates the key insights and ideas into one final report and presents a path forward: six priorities for action and a model for cross-sectoral collaboration.


Those actions are:

  1. Align financial rules with sustainability objectives and use full-cost accounting methods to determine lifecycle, natural capital and external costs of projects.
  2. Support and coordinate with NGOs and others to align efforts, build capacity and establish shared metrics and targets.
  3. Lead with First Nations peoples, who have deep experience in land stewardship and sustainable planning practices.
  4. Make a case for senior government funding in key areas like transit and active transportation, infrastructure renewal, affordable housing and climate adaptation.
  5. Support smart growth by integrating land use and transportation through regional planning strategies.
  6. Build public awareness and support for sustainable built environments.

As a grant funder and a “convener and connector” in the land use sector, the Real Estate Foundation has an opportunity and a responsibility act. REFBC is implementing these findings in our grants program, supporting organizations that collaborate across sectors, supporting work on indicators and progress monitoring, and co-leading a new Smart Growth Task Force.

To create lasting change, the support and involvement of governments, NGOs, planners and ordinary citizens is essential. Collaboration models like collective impact and systems thinking may help to align our efforts and increase the speed of progress.

We are part of a bigger movement of leaders, doers and funders. Our hope is that, by working together, we can build communities that British Columbians will cherish for generations to come.