The little wins for transportation cycling that came about in the post-Expo years led to a growing clamour — for stronger leadership, more supportive policies, and bigger infrastructure investments, as well as complementary programs across Vancouver and the region.
At the same time, many began to lose sight of the fact that some of the initial momentum for the cycling movement actually originated in the environmental movement. (The same holds true today — while the environmental imperative is swinging back around, yet cycling as a possible solution remains somewhat obscured, perhaps overshadowed.)
It was the establishment of the Clouds of Change Task Force by the City of Vancouver in 1989 — one of the first policy committees of its kind in North America — that signalled a rebirth of environmental activism and, backed by science and public sentiment, elevated it to the policy level. And yes, bicycles were part of it.
When I came to Vancouver, I wasn't thinking of myself as an urban guy at all. It was the furthest thing from my mind.
I came to do a PhD at UBC with Bill Rees. This was 1987 — the Brundtland Commission had just come out with Our Common Future, and also when the Montreal protocol was happening. There was the discovery of the ozone layer. Nobody had really thought about it or understood it until then. It was a very interesting time.
I sent this totally outrageous application to Berkeley, MIT and UBC. Berkeley and MIT just said, “Oh my God, stay away from us.” And Bill said, “That sounds great, c'mon up.” I didn't know that much about him.
Bill was also on the City of Vancouver Task Force on Atmospheric Change, which was then renamed Clouds of Change Task Force.
I was the principal researcher they hired; I actually wrote that report. So that just dragged me fully into urban sustainability.
Gordon Campbell was mayor at that time, and he was very in favour of this task force. Gordon Price was the liaison with council.
Living in the West End, and with Gordon Price's prompting at one of these community meetings, a group of us started the West End Recycling Connection. We did small, one-day depots where people who lived in apartments could actually bring in their recycling, because there wasn't any recycling for them. The blue box had just been introduced the year previous for houses, but multi-unit didn't have anything.
I was new to the city, I had no clue Gordon was even a councillor the first time that we had the meeting.
I introduced the motion for creating the task force; it was the first municipal initiative to deal with climate change.
It just intuitively struck me —“Oh yeah, okay. This little band of atmosphere and we're pumping a whole bunch of carbon. Chemistry? Physics? Something's going to happen. So, what can we do that will address it?”
Fred Bass was on that one.
We met every Saturday morning for a year, to look at recommendations to the city about global warming. And I saw the CO2 curve going up like that.
And I'm enough of a scientist, and also I think a fairly good assessor of information, that when I saw the CO2 curve going out of control, I thought, “This is terrible. This is awful.”
A key part of the research I did for Clouds of Change is based on seeing what's been done elsewhere. So every time they said it was impossible, I could say well yeah but they're doing it in Seattle. They're doing it in Toronto. Or they're doing it in Sweden.
That was really important — we weren't just talking about stuff that was a green utopia. There are other places where they also have budgets to worry about, they're also politically accountable at election time, and there are people doing it. It's very, very powerful to be able to lead by example. And that was the argument — let's lead by example.
It was a new idea for groups like SPEC to make the urban connection; most of the environmental groups were focused on what I call "big things that are far away." Oceans and whales and trees and saving parks that most people in the city have never been to.
It's very very different than making the local connection. Recycling and housing and all of the sort of things that are building sustainability. And that was very much a new idea then. Still is for a lot of people, but in those days it was really new.
With the task force’s final report, it became clear a degree of social change was sought that transcended earlier efforts by groups like Greenpeace and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.
The report’s recommendations were broad, deep, and ultimately driven by forces that were intangible to the average urbanite — environmental degradation and a changing climate — yet entirely within the city’s ability to accept and implement. But as with bike lanes, it would challenge the political will of the city’s leadership.
Clouds of Change is what we're facing now. It's important that it went through Council, was approved by Council.
Clouds of Change certainly opened their eyes a little bit that, hey the world is changing. There was a more openness from Council, and from the department, to look at new ideas. “We can't do things the way we did for the last fifty years because things are going to change.”
Clouds of Change was very ahead of its time in terms of the things that we proposed, such as recycling for multi-family buildings. At that time it was impossible.
They were just trying to get their heads around how you do it with single family residential, and once it was policy, it took five years for the engineering department and all the various contractors to figure out how to actually do it.
That was an issue that was a real concern to me — cycling just happened to fit very nicely, because not only could you deal with issues of carbon, but you can deal with issues of health.
So, these big big global issues which you can literally bring right down to the local level so it matches up very nicely with directions the community says they want. Cleaner, greener, safe.
And then of course, your conscience. What are you there for? What do you want to achieve?
Clouds of Change had a really important, interesting story about cycling, and it relates to the whole thing about the environmental community not getting urban sustainability. In Clouds of Change, we put out a discussion paper and had a public meeting at City Hall with all kinds of very interesting speakers. Lots of people participated.
There was literally no, zero, bicycle infrastructure in Vancouver at that time — you just took your life into your own hands if you were out there on the streets. One of the recommendations in Clouds of Change was to create a bicycle rectangle, two north-south and two east-west streets; basically, you would be able to get around if you took out a lane of traffic or a lane of parking on these four streets, and you'd have this rectangle.
We got enormous opposition, and not from the usual suspects — not from the merchants and so on, but from the cycling people. And particularly the couriers and the elite cyclists. This was really fascinating.
At that time, there was a book by John Forester [Effective Cycling: ed.]. It was very popular, and his argument was basically that cyclists just have to be better, and learn how to cycle in traffic. And plus offer them training and so on.
Of course, the couriers and the elite cyclists love this stuff, but they’re basically insane compared to most people — your average person who's trying to get groceries, or has a kid on the back.
Even if their data was correct, which it turns out it wasn't, the perception of safety is almost as important as safety itself. So the whole point of the Greenest City momentum was to change modal shift, was to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes, and you're not going to do that if people feel like it's incredibly unsafe.
So it was a real eye-opener to realize that it was the cycling community that was opposing the most progressive cycling legislation. That was very, very interesting.
You can use cycling as a metaphor, as well as the reality of it. Because it's an expression of who we are, and it's integrated into the fabric of the community in a critical way, while at the same time it's having these effects of reducing the amount of traffic and dependence on cars.
A healthy alternative that makes people feel better, in response to these global issue. It's such a win-win-win.
Hopefully, it matches up with your caucus, because if you're successful, you're going to get credit. And I think the NPA made a big strategic error in not doing that. It did not fit the narrative.
As a citizen and a councillor, I'm very proud of it. But it was too early.
We were a bit ahead of our time, in terms of the things that we did with Clouds of Change, which then kept being reincarnated in Vancouver.
Sam Sullivan called it ‘ecodensity’. It doesn’t seem to matter who the mayor or the council majority is, it basically continues — the Greenest City Action Plan.
In 1992, I started teaching urban sustainability and sustainable communities at SFU. All my students were doing projects that were related to stuff that was going on in the city.
For example, southeast False Creek, which wasn't developed then — and it wasn't going to be, for years and years and years — got its start in Clouds of Change. That's when it was first articulated that the city should have a model sustainable community. My students essentially produced plans for the city for Southeast False Creek
A lot of the things we proposed were actually done later. We were basically proposing the conceptual framework, the strategic direction. It was before there was any rezoning done. Yaletown was a mess, southeast False Creek was still industrial let-go. Things have really changed a lot.
If you look at the trajectory over the last 25 years, nobody's tried to roll it back, which is pretty cool. We've been going in that direction in becoming a greener city.
People argue over doing this versus doing that, but nobody is trying to turn this around and go back.