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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Environmental sustainability gets a passing grade in Vital Signs report, but there’s still lots of room for improvement

From transportation solutions to reducing waste, climate policies are top of mind in Greater Victoria

By Jolene Rudisuela
November 15, 2022
Environment
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Environmental sustainability gets a passing grade in Vital Signs report, but there’s still lots of room for improvement

From transportation solutions to reducing waste, climate policies are top of mind in Greater Victoria

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Environment
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Environmental sustainability gets a passing grade in Vital Signs report, but there’s still lots of room for improvement

From transportation solutions to reducing waste, climate policies are top of mind in Greater Victoria

By Jolene Rudisuela
November 15, 2022
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Environmental sustainability gets a passing grade in Vital Signs report, but there’s still lots of room for improvement
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

With its stunning beaches, lush forests, and abundant parks, Greater Victoria is known for its natural environment. In fact, in the latest Vital Signs report, 69% of respondents said the natural environment is the best thing about living in Victoria. Climate and parks were ranked as second and third.

But in terms of environmental sustainability and keeping these natural areas pristine, the region still has more work to do, according to the report. 

The Vital Signs report is released annually by the Victoria Foundation, as a way to check in on how the region is doing in key areas, as well as identify trends. The 2022 survey was completed by just over 2,500 people. 

This year, environmental sustainability received a B- grade—since the grading system was introduced in 2013, the category has consistently hovered between a B and B-, though the percentage of people who graded it higher than a B has fallen during that time.  

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Greater Victoria’s population is growing at a rapid rate, translating into an increase in development. While the report shows that Victoria’s density has increased, with growth comes challenges. The more people there are, the more waste is produced and the more energy is required. The need for new housing also grows, which comes from either increasing density in developed areas or developing new land. 

The population density of Greater Victoria has increased each census year. According to the 2021 census, the region has 571 people per square kilometre, up from 475 people per sq. km. in 2008. 

“Certainly it’s something that I hear a lot about, and people voice a lot of concern about: the rate at which natural spaces and forests and natural habitat is paved over for more development,” said Katie Blake the executive director of Habitat Acquisition Trust. “There’s an irony in people moving here for the natural environment, but also then that increasing population also having an impact on the natural environment that’s such a draw for people.”

The rate of new housing development has not kept pace with the demands of the growing communities, however. Housing, which received a failing grade in the 2022 Vital Signs report, was the top concern for respondents.

Weighing the protection of natural spaces with the need for more housing is something that all councils are grappling with.

“[Councils should] keep the importance of the natural environment to the population front of mind as they engage in settling bylaws, establishing Official Community Plans, and other plans relating to development and infrastructure,” Blake said. “We can’t let the natural environment become a casualty as we address issues that are so pressing, like housing.”

An increasing population also has an effect on the amount of waste that is created and the amount of water used. More households in Greater Victoria are equipped with devices to conserve water—such as a water meter, low-flow shower head, and low-volume toilet—than BC as a whole. However, the percentage of homes with water metres and low-flow shower heads has decreased since 2013. 

The amount of solid waste sent to the landfill in the region continues to rise and remains above the province’s target. In 2021, the CRD measured 400kg of solid waste per person; the BC target is 350kg per person. Earlier this year, Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins sounded alarm bells as CRD data showed the amount of waste entering the landfill this year was on track to measure 188,300 tonnes, a 13% increase from 2021. This would translate to 430kg per person.  

According to the CRD, 65% of materials sent to the Hartland Landfill are wood waste, organics, paper, and plastic, some of which are already banned from entering the garbage. Currently, district staff are exploring new policies to divert these materials from the landfill, including reducing fees for loads that have been sorted and do not contain banned materials, and expanding the list of banned items to include items like wood, some construction materials, and furniture. 

At the end of 2020, the City of Victoria approved the Zero Waste Victoria plan, with a goal of reducing waste by 50% by 2040. It previously became the first municipality in BC to ban single-use plastic bags, and it is currently working on a single-use plastic strategy that would cover other items like utensils and straws.

This year, it also passed a bylaw to reduce construction waste by salvaging valuable wood and construction materials from homes being demolished in the city. This bylaw has the potential to divert 3,000 tonnes of waste from the landfill.  

Transportation 

One of the biggest areas Blake thinks the region could improve upon to make the region more sustainable is transportation. 

“I think there’s lots of potential for more public transportation options—certainly looking at the Westshore and the car traffic that goes between Victoria and the Westshore,” she said. “Whether we can find a way to reduce reliance on car traffic, I think that’s an important step.”

Overall, transportation received a C+ in the latest Vital Signs report, down from the B it received in 2021. 

According to the report, car ownership in the region is slightly below the provincial average, with 1.6 vehicles per household. (This statistic is the lowest of all BC Transit’s operating areas.) 

Meanwhile, just under half of Greater Victoria residents used local transit in 2021/22, which is on par with the year before. Out of those users, 27% reported using transit to commute to work. Seventeen per cent said they used transit more often than the year before, while 40% reported using transit less often. 

Earlier this year, reporter Zoë Ducklow explored potential solutions to the Colwood Crawl, including a gondola, rail, a ferry, and faster bus routes. BC Transit is already working on increasing service between the Westshore and downtown Victoria with its planned RapidBus line. When it was announced in late 2021, BC Transit said it expected the route to be operating within the three years. Future phases of the RapidBus service include a rapid route from the ferry to Victoria and a line between Uptown and UVic. 

Dan Casey, a transportation planner with Urban Systems, says it’s been great to see the increased investment in public transit. To convert more people to transit usage, it needs to be a competitive alternative to driving by being frequent, reliable, and fast—something these RapidBus lines aim to be. 

Casey says one of the challenges with a region with this many municipalities is planning and funding transportation solutions in a way that will benefit each jurisdiction.

“The drawbacks of having a number of different jurisdictions in the region is each is invested in their own infrastructure. In some other communities, we might see a more regional approach where the investment is made on the priorities of the region as a whole rather than the individual municipalities,” he said. “It’s sometimes tough to fully fund and get behind a regional priority because of the nature of our region.”

That’s not to say there isn’t a regional strategy—the province has the South Island Transportation Strategy, the CRD has its Regional Transportation Plan—but the fact remains that each municipality has its own priorities and timelines, and there is only so much funding to go around. 

Bike lanes are a prime example. While municipalities have been working on their All Ages and Abilities (AAA) path networks, the challenge has been connecting them between municipalities. Esquimalt’s AAA routes are not yet connected to Victoria and Saanich, but work to connect them is happening. Oak Bay, however, remains a district-sized gap in the regional AAA cycling network, as Capital Daily reported this summer

The Vital Signs report shows that there are 920km of bike lanes in the region, but Casey cautions that the majority of those are still just painted bike lanes on the side of roads. 

“I think over time, while we’ve made strides over the last little bit, there’s a hope and a desire to see more of that protected cycling infrastructure,” he said.

At the end of our interview, Casey added that a forgotten piece in the transportation discussion is often the approach to land-use planning. Neighbourhood hubs, walkable communities, and accessible amenities are key to lessening our need to drive and travel too far from home. 

“The need to travel, the demand for transportation is a byproduct of how our community grows,” he said. “When I went to planning school, there was the old adage that the best transportation plan is a good land-use plan.”

Community-led action

Whether through more sustainable transportation options, waste reduction solutions, or retaining natural spaces, it's abundantly clear that bold action is needed to combat the climate crisis. A sobering statistic included in the Vital Signs report pointed to the unprecedented heat dome that fell over the province last summer. In BC, 619 people died from heat-related causes during that time; 24 of those deaths were in Victoria. 

This summer and fall, Victoria underwent its longest drought on record. High heat and extended periods of dry weather can have detrimental effects on the tallest trees to the salmon trying to complete their life cycles. 

As municipal councils ramp up for the start of a new term, many mayors have spoken in their inaugural speeches about their planned focus on environmental initiatives and policies. Former Toronto mayor and sustainable cities advocate David Miller told Capital Daily last week that about 70% of greenhouse gasses come from urban areas. While federal and provincial policies are important to combatting the climate crisis, actions by municipal governments can have a huge effect.

Blake says she is heartened to see the increasing dialogue around environmental issues, and more and more community-led initiatives to help protect our ecosystems at a local level. 

“I think that’s one thing that we’re doing really well,” she said, “people getting involved and taking direct actions that can make a difference.”

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