Michael Harcourt’s story is expansive and rich with success in the sustainability field.

From practicing law, to mayor of Vancouver, to premier of British Columbia, and eventually to full-time sustainability advocate, Michael’s knowledge about the challenges we face and the opportunities to overcome them is inspiring. His self-identified “patient persistence” while working with all levels of civic and local entities has resulted in tangible outcomes and improved energy performance throughout Canada. Speaking with him and hearing his passion for livable cities (and his love for his home in Vancouver) makes us very excited for his presentation on October 29 during our Environmental Awareness Week (EAW).

CannonDesign: Can you tell us a little bit about what you are planning to present for our EAW event?

Michael: I’m very excited and interested in your program and am always looking for new avenues to move this important message forward. This interview is very timely because I just flew back from a conference in Quebec City yesterday with BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association) and, as a trial run, I did the kind of presentation that I’d like to do for CannonDesign.

I began with the fact that cities and urban living are a massive driver in today’s economy ($350 trillion according to a Booz Allen study) and organizations like BOMA and CannonDesign are right in the sweet spot of all of it. City planning is all about choices and consequences and I’ll go into how to implement a sustainable city strategy. Also I’ll go into how the role of energy impacts our lives and how organizations like the Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow (QUEST) are paving the way to implement community energy plans. We’ve had great success implementing these plans in over 180 communities all across Canada.

CD: Wow, it’s encouraging seeing all of that traction around implementing sustainable plans in communities.

MH: It is great because when you think about green buildings, that’s all well and good, but how are you going to cool them and heat them? And if we’re going to change how we transport ourselves—moving more toward walking, cycling, electric vehicles—how are you going to integrate that? Same with power and electricity. In Canada we’re fortunate to have ¾ of our energy come from sustainable means. In the US, it’s almost the reverse at this point. I’ve been lucky enough to head up the Canadian Electricity Association’s Sustainable Electricity Program Advisory Panel and we are making a huge investment ($350 billion) in sustainable infrastructure for Canada’s future.

CD: It seems like Canada is really embracing these strategies in its communities and cities. What do you think the challenges are to roll out something similar in the US?

MH: There’s challenges with leadership. There’s challenges with dealing with the coal industry, which is fighting tooth-and-nail and losing in an economic sense. However, the market is sorting itself out there and with President Obama’s push on clean energy, I think it’s starting to take hold.

CD: Tell me a little bit more about your success with QUEST. What have you seen come out of that type of program and how can we learn from it?

MH: There is a great concrete example in Guelph. We implemented a community energy plan there and now they are seeing an 80% reduction in carbon emissions. QUEST has immense traction now to the point where we were asked by all of the federal and provincial ministers of the environment and energy to advise them of where Canada should be going with its energy future. We convened in a workshop in April of this year and we came up with very specific recommendations where Canada should be making orderly transitions from petroleum-based products and energy to local, renewable energy efficiency and energy conservation tactics. We got a very good response when we presented it to the ministers in July and we are going to keep building that momentum.

CD: Can you talk a little bit about your hometown of Vancouver and how it might be succeeding in ways that are better than other comparable cities?

MH: We are going to take a deep-dive into this topic in my upcoming presentation. We actually identify some of the key decisions made by the city that have made it one of the most livable cities in the world. For example, I show the west end of the city that all of a sudden sprouted dozens of high-rise and condominium towers and I show other neighborhoods where we brought people back into the downtown area after being banned from 1932-1975. That’s right, we couldn’t live in our downtown because of the zoning. People worked downtown and got in their cars and freewayed back to their suburban homes. We changed that dramatically in 1975 with a new council that I was part of. We sought to re-energize the inner city and get people to live in the downtown area and we’ve seen huge success with that plan, bringing well over 100,000 people in over the years.

It’s a very lively downtown now, and there’s a phrase for it called “Vancouverism” because we’ve adopted more micro-planning approvals than other cities that are really unique to Vancouver and can’t be found anywhere else. There’s also great examples of forward-thinking from leaders that brought both a world’s fair in 1986 and the winter Olympics in 2010 and made those events into legacy success stories rather than financial burdens. We are still reaping the benefits of a lot of that infrastructure today such as the rapid transit system, new bridge over False Creek and a trade conference and cruise ship pavilion. So, with the city being pretty tough and ruthless about not getting into debt and thinking long-term, we were able to come out of those two world events as a huge positive.

CD: Any last thoughts?

MH: I just want to reiterate for organizations like CannonDesign, there is huge potential to shape our cities and communities for the better. There are so many opportunities for CannonDesign to be a part of this huge multi-trillion dollar industry of city planning and design. The world is your oyster. If we can plan our cities well, we will reap the benefits for centuries to come.

Michael Harcourt will be speaking in Vancouver on October 29 at Capilano University as part of CannonDesign’s Environmental Awareness Week (EAW). EAW is CannonDesign’s annual celebration of smart ideas, innovative technologies and iconoclastic thinkers that help guide our progress toward becoming a regenerative practice.

RSVP to Michael Harcourt’s presentation >