But will it float?

Illustration by Alex Pierson

The idea of a sustainable city has been on the receiving end of much fervour and debate in the past while. It’s one of those concepts that seems easy enough to grasp, but is almost impossible to define clearly. The easiest way out is to say a sustainable city is one which leaves the smallest possible ecological footprint, or generates the smallest amount of pollution possible. Lofty? Excruciatingly intricate? Yes, but it’s all the rage in environmental and urban planning circles these days. You can now earn yourself a degree in Urban Sustainability at York University. You can also visit Curitiba, Brazil, which is often heralded as a shining example of urban sustainability, with a public transport supersystem which 85 per cent of its residents use. Compare that stat with here at home, where 90 per cent of people in St. John’s are car-dependent, and you’ve got yourself a fair idea of where we might fare on the sustainability scale.

In fact, St. John’s is the least sustainable city in Canada. At least according to this year’s survey by Toronto-based environmental business ethics magazine Corporate Knights.

Two weeks ago, the magazine released the results from its third annual ranking of sustainable Canadian cities. Bottoming out the Small City category was good old St. John’s, skidding arse-first across the finish line with a final score of 5.10 out of 10, just behind Whitehorse, Yukon. Next in line in that Small City category was Charlottetown, then Saint John, and then Saskatoon. Yellowknife lorded over the section with a mighty score of 6.14.

Yes, Yellowknife, the capital city of the Northwest Territories. They won last year, too, back when we were second last.

But just who are these Toronto punks and where do they get off dissing our car-dependent, non-recycling ways? How much of a right do they have to call us unsustainable? And what the heck does it mean to be called “Canada’s least sustainable city,” if anything at all? We rounded up the editor of Corporate Knights, a couple of local academics, and a city council watchdog to try and help us sort out these questions and figure out what to make of the whole thing.

By Sarah Smellie.

Melissa Shin is the editor of Corporate Knights, which began in 2002 with a mission to create a magazine that fell somewhere between Adbusters and Forbes. They regularly publish articles by the likes of David Suzuki and Globe and Mail columnist Ken Wiwa, and they’re all about sustainability-themed rankings. They’re the folks responsible for the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations rankings, and for anointing Brian Mulroney the Greenest Prime Minister in Canadian History.

“Our magazine is the Canadian magazine for responsible business. And we’re focused on prompting sustainable development in Canada,” says Shin. “We started off just by looking at companies but, realizing that companies operate in cities, we decided to look at municipal policies and what’s happening in cities.” And so the Most Sustainable Cities in Canada Rankings began.

Shin and the Corporate Knights team enlisted the lead adviser from The Natural Step Canada—a non-profit organization which has helped green up businesses like the car-maker Volvo—and a team of advisers from Greening Greater Toronto and Smart Growth BC. Working with a concept of sustainability that incorporates everything from the economic security of the city to its municipal policies, they came up with five categories of “indicators”—specific criteria, like recycling programs and gender diversity on city council. They divided the cities into Small, Medium and Large, then ranked them according to these indicators. All their information was culled from StatsCan reports, academic studies, city websites, and a survey that was completed by a representative from each city hall.

So just how far behind did we end up?

St. John’s vs. Yellowknife.
Thankfully, it turns out pagecount didn’t matter much. St. John’s submitted a six page response, compared to Yellowknife’s five, and the whopping thirteen-pager from keeners St. John, New Brunswick.

Asked how many sustainable planning staff the city employs, and what percentage of the city’s annual budget was directed towards sustainability initiatives, we answered “not available.” We were the only city to use this response.

Yellowknife, on the other hand, says it dedicates approximately three out of its 13 staff to sustainable planning issues, for which 5.4% of its budget is allocated. Their response for this included a detailed breakdown on their annual budget to back up their claim.

St. John’s also gave a flat-out “no” to three other questions on the survey: one on whether we had residential or commercial geothermal or solar programs, and two more about whether or not the city provides incentives to build green buildings or to attract eco-friendly businesses.No, no, and no.

Yellowknife, in partnership with the Government of the Northwest Territories, offers all kinds of incentives for solar, wind, and geothermal systems. They have bylaws to enforce minimum energy efficiency standards on all new buildings, standards they claim to be the toughest in the country. They’re also developing a tax reduction plan for businesses who operate in green buildings under green principles.

Yellowknife listed a municipal goal of a 20% reduction in its operational greenhouse gas emissions by 2014. They estimate they’ll be at par by the end of 2009. In contrast, St. John’s touted its membership in the Partnership for Climate Protection Program, which aims for a similar 20% reduction in emissions by 2010. To fulfill their obligations, the city council did draw up its Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Strategy—but the city’s inaction with respect to these emission reduction goals were a topic of discussion at last summer’s Sierra Club AGM.

Shall I go on? In the survey, the city cites its solid waste diversion target of 50% by 2015, but didn’t, however, mention last fall’s delay with the curb-side recycling program, which would take a huge chunk out of the stream of solid waste headed for Robin Hood Bay.

Yellowknife’s goal is to divert 40% of its waste by 2011. Mind you, in 2008 alone, they already diverted about 16% of that. They’ve got a municipal composting program set to gear up this year which should help them increase that number.

Shin found the volume of “no”and “not available” responses on the St. John’s survey especially discouraging.

“I guess measurement is not a priority,” she says. “Some cities would say, ‘This is not under our jurisdiction’ or that they didn’t have a certain program, and then say, ‘but, we have these programs that we have implemented to compliment that.’ It’s unfortunate that St. John’s has so few programs, but there are quite a few studies that they are undertaking that are important to note—for example they did do that pilot project for curb-side recycling, and they’re a part of the Partners For Climate Change Project—but we’d definitely like to see more.”

So what?
Over in the Geography department at MUN, Chris Sharpe, professor of Urban Studies and city consultant, says we ought to think twice before we pack up and move to Yellowknife.

“It was the media relations person who filled [our survey] out,” he says. “And yet,[at city hall] we have a manager of environmental initiatives, Gerri King. She wasn’t asked to fill it out. Ken O’Brien in the planning office hadn’t seen it either. So there is a legitimate question as to whether the person asked to fill it out was the appropriate one.”

“We also have these answers on the St. John’s survey that say ‘not available,’ and we don’t know how they were dealt with [by Corporate Knights],” Sharpe points out.

According to Shin, these answers were weighted in relation to what other cities responses were to the same question. Sometimes they were treated neutrally, sometimes negatively. This didn’t impress Sharpe.

“We don’t have anyone that’s called a sustainable planner. But we have all kinds of people working on environmental issues, like Gerri King. And it’s entirely unclear how that was weighted, if at all. Furthermore, I couldn’t find any indication of what the weighting is. So there’s no information at all that would allow you to unpack these rankings”

Define “sustainable.”
One of the biggest problems with the rankings, Sharpe says, lies in the attempt to define sustainability.

Corporate Knight’s working definition of “sustainable” was quite broad.

“We used the framework of the five categories of indicators: Ecological Integrity, Economic Security, Governance and Empowerment, Infrastructure and Built Environment, and Social Well Being. That would all contribute to a city that could go on into perpetuity, which is the technical definition of sustainability. If a city is riddled with crime and no one’s voting and no one’s employed, it’s probably going to die.”

Sharpe doesn’t believe such a broad definition imparts much concrete meaning to the rankings, or to our bottom-of-the-heap finish.

“Nowhere do they say they consulted the literature,” he says. “There’s a truckload of literature about what sustainability and urban sustainability is, and no two people will define it the same way. And I think that’s part of the problem—they don’t know exactly what they think sustainability is. Is it a process or is it an outcome? Do you measure sustainability by intent or by result?”

“With respect to these indicators, there’s a question of whether you should even be putting all of these different things together into one index,” he continues. “One of the arguments in the literature is that you shouldn’t try to make a composite issue like this. If you’re interested in air quality, just rank air quality.”

“I think there is a lot of validity to that,” chimes in Robin Whitaker, professor of Political Anthropology at MUN. “Even what kinds of practices constitute true sustainability is debatable. Sometimes things have a lot of symbolic weight, but they end up being more cosmetic than real.”

Lionel West, author of the city council watch-blog St. John’s City Council Business, also agrees that the survey method isn’t perfect. But Neither West nor Whitaker think the results are entirely dismissible.


“I think the study may be a little flawed in the sense that Corporate Knights, themselves, admit that the data is incomplete because not all cities are able to provide answers to all questions,” says West. “Factoring that in, I believe St John’s does have some way to go before we will receive a higher ranking.”

For example, West thinks the city could be a doing a better job enforcing ecologically sound development, asking, “What ‘green’ initiatives has the city requested for the new hotel developments? Are they telling them to create a recycling program within those new hotels? The same for new condo developments? What about the Tiffany Lane project? What are the city’s building code requirements?”

“I found it frustrating listening to Dennis O’Keefe talk about that drive-thru issue recently,” says Whitaker, referring to the proposed moratorium on new drive-thrus in the city. It was quickly lifted following a meeting with officials from Tim Hortons. “He basically said that it wasn’t their job to stand in the way of business, but all I could think was, ‘wait a minute, yes it is your job!’ Businesses aren’t your only constituency… There are so many other issues—social issues, environmental issues—that go along with the territory, and it was disappointing to have them ignored.”

Social ill-being.
The category where St. John’s really skidded out was Social Well-Being. We finished dead last in that one, despite an impressive allocation as the sixth “happiest” city in Canada, as per the Life Satisfaction and Trust in Neighbours Study, conducted at the Canadian Institute For Advanced Research. So what gives?

“Part of what we based our rating on was that you guys have a 77-year life expectancy,” says Shin. “The rest of Canada is somewhere between 79 and 80-something. In Canada, that’s a pretty significant gap.”

Contributing to those early deaths are things like our obesity rates which, at 36% of the population, is one of the highest in the country, and our violent crime rates, which increased by 20% in 2007—the highest increase in the country. Both of these figures come from Statistics Canada reports.

According to Shin, all the categories are intricately linked. Our dismal showing in this category may be a direct result of poor placings in the others. “If the air you breathe is not clean, you might develop respiratory problems,” she suggests. “You may experience high obesity rates because you aren’t encouraged with cycling paths. Buildings which are energy efficient can help you save money on your energy bills … If people are employed, they’re going to be more inclined to vote, and they might be more inclined to run for municipal government and represent the people around them.” She and her team believe that all of these factors play a huge role in the overall well-being of municipal population.

Huh? This is partly our fault?
One of the things the Corporate Knights ranking does stress is that sustainable cities arise from a joint effort and co-operation between the municipality and its residents. As easy as it is to rail against the city for their eco-blunders, us townsfolk aren’t exactly free of fault. And absolutely everyone on the jury agrees.

“For me, the report is not only a reflection on the city bureaucracy and governance but also its citizens,” says West. “The city cannot bear full responsibility for personal issues such as obesity and low commuter use of public transport. Citizens have to accept some of it.”

“We have a pretty decent framework for public participation here,” says Sharpe. “It doesn’t always work, but in general it’s good.” But you only get a handful of people at public forums or discussions.

People don’t come out to discuss principles of city planning. Is that because people don’t know about these opportunities, or they don’t care, or they’re too happy? I don’t know.”

The bottom line.
So where does this leave us? Are we a parasitic, wasteful, unsustainable city, on the road to massive health problems and a despondent, disenfranchised public?

“Obviously there are positive things that are happening in the city,” says Shin. “Your score overall is 5.1 out of 10, it’s still above halfway, and that’s good to see. All cities in Canada have strides to make. The highest score we had was a little bit above 7.5, I think, so there’s not a huge range. There’s room for improvement across the board.”

Again, Chris Sharpe doesn’t think that the rankings warrant much of a response from anyone.

“It seems to me that the reaction to this would be say, ‘Good for Corporate Knights, they’re trying to raise environmental consciousness,’” he says. “In terms of how they defined things and in terms of how they ranked everybody else, yeah, we’re last. So what? Against what standards? This is not something to get our knickers in a knot about.”

He does, however, think there is work to be done within the city if we want to move towards some semblance of sustainability—definable or not.

“I certainly would not want to give the impression that I’m in favor of everything the city does and that we can’t do better,” he says. “We certainly could do better. Are we trying? Yes. Are we trying as hard as we could? Maybe not.”

Now what?
Despite all the setbacks, we do have a few things going for us. Everyone we spoke with—Sharpe, Whitaker, West and Shin—was quick to point out all of the initiatives and programs which have sprung up in an effort to steer the city onto a more sustainable planning path. Projects like BikeShare, the community gardens at the Lantern and in Rabbittown, new neighbourhood associations popping up, the farmer’s market, For The Love of Learning, and the continuous expansion of the Stella Burry Centre, were proclaimed bright spots in an uncertain future, and indicative of good things to come. It seems if change is going to happen, it’s going to happen first at the street level, at the hands an increasingly active and engaged local population.

“In terms of the municipal government, as I said, there are some programs and some initiatives there and that’s good,” says Shin. “But really making these issues a top-line priority—along with things like the police department and the fire department—is crucial. In terms of the citizens, being more active, looking around and seeing what can be done in your area and what can be done without the city government telling them what to do. People do seem to care. It’s just a matter of turning that into action which has effects on the municipal level.”

Speaking about all the public initiatives on the go, Robin Whitaker suggests coordinating some of those things into larger representative bodies would translate into government results.

“Mechanisms that really allow people to be involved in different ways—because not everyone wants to run in an election—will have some kind of an outcome,” she says.
“My [research] is mostly in Northern Ireland, and one thing that came out of the peace process there was a civic forum that worked alongside the assembly with representatives from all aspects of civil society: business, trade unions, the churches, women’s organizations, whatever. It didn’t have decision-making power, just advisory power, and it was another basis for people to get involved in public life. Maybe a model like that would work for us here.”

Lionel West suggests looking to some of the better-ranked cities for ideas and inspiration.

“The city certainly can be more pro-active on sustainability,” he says. “It should consult with other cities in the survey to learn and share ideas with them.”

For someone who thinks sustainability is a tad pie-in-the-sky, Chris Sharpe proposes the most far-fetched idea of them all:

“You want a sustainable city? Then don’t allow any more Kelsey Drives, or Stavanger Drives,” he says, sitting back in his chair and smirking slightly. “Have a policy that prevents any more box stores. I mean, come on, there’s never been much appetite here for saying no to anyone who wants to develop anything, but, theoretically, if all cities across Canada all said no to stores like Wal-Mart, they’d adjust. And they’d do it real quick.”




I love you so much with all my heart. Forever and always. xoxo Valentine name: CA

3 February 2010

  1. RS · February 3, 2010

    St John’s will let the big box stores suck the life from the city, but won’t allow a hotel to cover an ugly vacant lot on Water St because it’s too high (http://www.cbc.ca/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2009/02/12/harbour-hotel.html) Baffling.

  2. AndD · February 3, 2010

    To the baffled RS: I applaud the city if in fact it does block attempts to place a wall of tall buildings in front of the harbour. St. John’s only needs hotels because people come here to visit, live, or do business in a city that is many ways unique in Canada. What makes it unique? The physical and cultural appeal of the downtown is a key factor. We have to protect that, and that is the municipal government’s job.

    There is an unnecessary conflict here. St. John’s has lots of room for commercial development without it having to ruin the downtown area. Some planning by the city, imagination on the part of developers, and positive engagement by citizens could allow other areas to be commercial centres in a way that would dovetail well with the downtown’s role.

    I’m not talking about box stores in inaccessible locations. Consider the current re-planning of Pleasantville as one opportunity. I envision a high-density commercial and residential area with tall buildings higher up on the hill that don’t block views (but have them!).
    Add in the green space, bike paths, walking paths and so on that make the area appealing already. Throw in some lake-side restaurants, a town square, and a focus on people rather than cars and we can have something magical there.

    That’s only one idea. I challenge everyone in the city to envision how we might make it better and post your ideas here.

  3. AndD · February 3, 2010

    Alex Pierson, your illustration is an awesome piece of graphic art. Where can we see more of your work?

  4. Justin Black · February 3, 2010

    One of the city’s jobs is to engage the public. What are their strategies and why aren’t they working. Are there more effective strategies?

    Communication….. There is and can be more passion from the people if we felt our voices were being heard and then acted on.

    Engaging local groups and rethinking the way government seeks public consultation would be great. Most people i know don’t have a relationship with their counsellor. It would be nice, but i’m pretty sure it ain’t happenin.