Real Estate Foundation of BC

To support programming activities of the 2010 Gaining Ground conference, held in Vancouver.

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Gaining Ground: Resilient Cities

With issues of climate change becoming increasingly urgent, in 2006 the Center for Urban Innovation launched Gaining Ground, a conference that focuses on urban sustainability. While the first three conferences were held in Victoria and two others in Calgary, the sixth annual gathering—Resilient Cities: Urban Strategies for Transition Times—was held in Vancouver in October 2009.

As an urban sustainability leader which strives to be a “resilient city”, Vancouver made an ideal backdrop for such a conference. Vancouver has made it a priority to encourage public conversation, inspire a high level of community interest, and enlist a broad base of support for its sustainability agenda. The conference provided a platform for Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson to define his vision of, and leadership commitment to, establishing Vancouver as a green city and an emerging green economy. For the many other North American cities with similar goals and values, the conference was an opportunity to share their successes and failures.

Since the conference was striving for an integrative model to urban sustainability management, the conference community represented a range of roles, professions, affiliations, and interests from across North America. Portland, vying against Vancouver to be the greenest city by 2020, had the largest delegation, including Mayor Sam Adams and Nike’s Director of Sustainability, Sarah Severn. Phoenix, Arizona, a desert-city with four million people and 100-degree weather, was represented by Jon Fink and Rob Melnick from Arizona State University. Majora Carter shared some of the environmental triumphs coming out of her home, the South Bronx, New York. With leaders from across North America enriching the conversation, the conference was a place for trading information and ideas, providing opportunities for cities to adopt and adapt transformative models locally.

As city managers across North America struggle to rethink traditional approaches to urban management, this conference explored strategies, activities, and behaviors for making urban centers more sustainable. In the opening remarks of the conference, Gene Miller of the Center for Urban Innovation explained what it means to be a resilient city:

“By definition a resilient city has an ambitious green action plan and a green economic development strategy, both of which fully engage all city stakeholders. A resilient city is smart about local management and it is wise about the global future. A resilient city has a ‘plan B’ for infrastructure and mobility, economic and social management and well-being when, if, and as temperatures and sea levels rise.”

The program emphasized innovation and practicality, sparking the attendees’ imaginations and offering “take-aways” to support real-life, city-scale initiatives.

The conference was designed to advance the participants’ thinking on three key subjects: sustainability governance, managing sustainable urban systems, and community collaboration. Sustainability governance, a relatively new approach to urban management, places a greater emphasis on whole system management and the communal recognition that natural resources are global public goods. In terms of urban systems management, the speakers identified more efficient ways of managing conventional urban systems, such as supporting the development of green buildings; implementing compost pick-up; and evaluating current land use practices. The conference put an equal emphasis on top-down policies and grassroots sustainability initiatives since achieving sustainable urban consumption requires a high degree of community cooperation.

Charged with the task of presenting the summary address, Mark Holland of HB Lanarc presented a seven page manifesto summing up the work of the conference and setting out a roadmap for action in the immediate future. The manifesto began by acknowledging that “we have undertaken two centuries of industrial and population expansion following a flawed model of our world.” As such, we now have specific obligations in our professional roles to create our collective resilient future since we have no one else to pass that responsibility on to. The manifesto brings the responsibility down to ourselves as individuals, since “we find that all things begin within ourselves.” Acknowledging the overwhelming undertaking, the official declaration of the conference ended on a humbling yet empowering note; “I do not understand the universe enough to yet proclaim that ‘it’s over’ and as a resident of a resilient city and regenerative region, I will have faith in you and I will have faith in myself that we can do this—that we can change.”

While the Resilient Cities Manifesto officially completed the conversation at the 2009 conference, the dynamic dialogue will continue in Vancouver in October 2010 with Eco Logical: The Power of Green Cities to Shape the Future. This conference will focus on the idea that cities need to design and implement completely new strategies for economic and social well-being while reducing all natural inputs.

The Real Estate Foundation has supported the Gaining Ground conferences with $205,000 in grants since 2006 and continues to be a partner today. Under our mandates of public and professional education, the Foundation has supported these conferences for the depth and breadth of real estate and land use related content, and their ability to engage practitioners in conversations that may lead to the wiser use of land and ecological resources.

To hear the speakers from Gaining Ground: Resilient Cities, click here to watch the videos.