Getting green in the competitive city

Editors’ note: This is the first part of a series exploring the politics of sustainability, development and urban entrepreneurialism. The second part of this series will build on the analysis put forward by exploring specific case studies in Vancouver.

Vancouver has a complicated relationship with nature. Over the last decade sustainability discourses and city policies are increasingly mobilized to defend private development, in particular, condo mega-projects which are marketed as transit-oriented developments. Sustainability is embedded within a broader language and policy framework of urban entrepreneurialism and relentless ‘global city’ posturing. Urban sustainability is constructed as post-political, striving to avoid traditional ideological divisions between left and right. The post-political therefore presents us with a dramatic break from what is perceived to be the old, tired, and irrelevant politics of class. Third Way politicians — think Tony Blair and Bill Clinton — converged with right-wing populist rhetoric when they adopted a post-class language of politics. Vision Vancouver has also mastered this post-political strategy; as Chief of Staff Mike Magee stated in 2008, “We’re trying to achieve a new place where the old labels fall away. And we’re quite clearly positioned as a progressive centrist party with strong social values and strong environmental values.”

Today the reward in the race for entrepreneurial ‘green’ city status is to become more fully integrated into national and global circuits of capital. Integration into these circuits of capital is now a requisite to solidify greenest city credentials – or as we are now branded conveniently, Vancouver: Green Capital. Never mind the inherent contradictions between capitalist growth and global ecological limits and climate change. These discourses, policies, and the material consequences are riddled with contradictions, which should lead us to question what ‘urban sustainability’ is intended to sustain, and who ultimately benefits from a development and ‘lifestyle’-driven agenda of sustainability. The intent of this analysis is not to reaffirm the conservative war-on-car populism espoused by the NPA and The Province, but rather to challenge assumptions about the seemingly innocent and non-ideological terrain of Vision Vancouver’s urban sustainability policies and decisions. This means questioning how sustainability is articulated in the city and how ecological considerations are produced as post-political. Real answers to these questions would politicize nature by bringing social justice back into the domain of urban environmentalism.

In September 2011, the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC) and its chair, Mayor Robertson, released the Vancouver Economic Action Strategy. The report romanticizes the role of the private sector, as well as the importance of a ‘competitive’ tax regime in competing for the footloose, fancy-free Creative Class, and is framed throughout in the neoliberal language of “[levering] the City’s global profile.” Vancouver, as you may know, is the second-most ‘competitive’ locale with the second-lowest combined corporate taxes and labour costs out of 113 cities globally. Fostering this ‘competitive’ tax environment is a major element of the Economic Action Strategy. The report makes no mention of non-profit and public sectors and their commitments as living wage employers, unless it involves public-private partnerships in which public resources are intended to subsidize private profits. It also concludes that environmental sustainability is good for business and that highly mobile talent – which the City must attract – requires a “dense mixture of activities and people, a vibrant, walkable and bikeable public realm and high levels of investment in digital connectivity and high tech services,” as well as “modest commuting requirements.” A major thrust of the strategy argues that the knowledge economy and their creative workers require particular urban amenities and environments – and it is the City’s role to ensure that these urban spaces are produced.

In July 2011, Vision approved the Greenest City Action Plan (GCAP) which echoes aspects of the VEC strategy, notably through the explicit goal of “[securing] Vancouver’s international reputation as a mecca of green enterprise” and the importance of an updated transportation master plan to provide “the strategies and framework for the next decade of action.” GCAP is certainly not the first major development in Vancouver’s green post-politics, but it does provide a particularly useful lens through which to understand the current state of city affairs. Vancouver’s Greenest City initiative and subsequent policies (notably Transportation 2040) have since built upon and replaced NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity program. Vision’s GCAP acknowledges broader ecological concerns, such as water and energy consumption, and while it is certainly an ambitious document with practical and important deliverables, it remains a policy document to be strategically mobilized to justify (re)developments. Despite Vision’s intention of Vancouver becoming the ‘greenest city in the world’ and addressing global climate change, the City’s less spectacularized – and certainly technocratic – land-use powers remain the most significant domain through which progressive changes can occur.

Challenging these urban sustainability programs in the entrepreneurial city, however, elicits moral questions. How can you be against sustainability? How can you be against fighting climate change? Sustaining an ambiguous, out-there Nature takes on a universal imperative; it becomes a God-like truth in which the environment is taken out of the realm of politics and class conflict. Environmental issues are the primary arena in which post-politics are mobilized. By this logic, urban sustainability thus requires compromise, consensus, and technical-rational remedies. It is precisely because the environment can be mobilized through flashy displays of eco-chic design and competition while simultaneously being relegated to the technocratic realm of ‘green’ building code (LEED), that urban sustainability emerges as the post-political, non-ideological hallmark of neoliberal urban governance. By marrying ecological concerns with the growth imperative of the laissez-faire, creative city ethos, the post-political sustainability fix enables the environment to become a key component of neoliberal global city placemaking and the tax policies, redevelopment strategies, and gentrified landscapes that come with it.

This is not to suggest that environmental initiatives should disappear from the city’s priorities. On the contrary, we need to ensure that social justice is part of environmental justice, rather than sidelined for post-political green spectacles. In doing so, we must question the logic of sustainability discourses and policies. Urban sustainability, as it has been widely constructed through neoliberal urbanism, is increasingly dependent on lifestyle choices and ‘green’ consumption. Who, then, has the financial capacity to eat their Whole Foods organics in their ‘sustainable’ inner city condo? Many people in the region, whether parents of one of BC’s 100,000 children living in poverty, or one of the victims of the province’s structural unemployment, or a recent immigrant, a significant number of people must drive to work from one of the suburbs, eat factory farmed meat from Safeway, and they may not have the time or money to community garden or go to yoga. These aren’t always the cultural choices they are made out to be in public dialogue. For those unable to consume appropriately and fulfill their duty as citizen-consumer in the competitive city, is their right to the city invalid? These are the implicit assumptions of neoliberal urban sustainability, which requires a politicization of nature if we are to bring the social back into the ecological.

Andy Longhurst hosts and produces The City, a weekly urban affairs radio program and podcast, which is available on CiTR 101.9 FM, CJSF 90.1 FM, and at