Westmount going green

By Isaak Olson on October 2, 2008

Linking arms with the growing "green city" trend, Westmount officials have jump started a "sustainable development" initiative by holding the same community-wide discussion that has been building steam around this rapidly-warming globe we call home.

The goal of sustainable development is to meet the needs of the current generation without compromising future generations and other species. The term has evolved over the years and now includes everything from protecting community identity and heritage to careful reduction of pollution and resource consumption. Westmount is one of the thousands of World Health Organization (WHO) sponsored "healthy cities." The WHO Healthy Cities program empowers municipalities to develop responsibly with more focus on the environment, daily living and local values. Healthy cities encourage healthier lifestyles, discourage urban sprawl and promote energy efficiency. Westmount's department heads and the city council have been attending workshops to learn ways to enhance life within the city and make it a more vibrant place to live.

Many city administrations and government bodies around the world have been masterminding ways to preserve everybody's busy-bee lifestyles while still caring for the environment. Reykjavik, Iceland, for example, taps into geothermal and hydropower sources for heat and electricity. Vancouver has a similar plan in place, drawing 90 per cent of electricity from renewable sources. Other cities are taking less traditional routes. Curitiba, Brazil, is using a flock of 30 sheep to keep their municipal parks mown and San Antonio, Texas will soon be wrangling human waste in an attempt to harvest the clean-burning gas called methane to power the city.

With methodologies like this in mind, city officials have invited Westmounters to both learn more about "going green" while weighing in on an inspirational vision statement that will be designed to guide the city's future policies, actions and programs. Joshua Wolfe, Westmount’s newly appointed Sustainable Development Coordinator of the city’s Public Works Department, hosted the first of three meetings. Wolfe, hired on in June, has an educational background in urban planning and has overseen other such projects. The first meeting was held on September 16, drawing in dozens of concerned locals eager to get the gears in motion. Maybe Westmount won't be herding sheep to keep Summit Park neatly trimmed, but there were plenty of ideas tossed around at the meeting — ideas that, with a vision statement in place, may someday solidify and make Westmount a "greener" place to live.

"Sustainable development can mean everything or it can mean nothing," Wolfe told the sizable crowd gathered in Westmount's 109-year-old Victoria Hall. "I am hoping to convince you that it means everything. Compared to the rest of the world, Canada is leaving a heavy ecological footprint. Ecological footprints have to do with the use of Earth's resources like the amount of land needed grow the food we consume, the fibers we produce, the trees we cut and the energy we generate. Canada's footprint is worse than the average. However, in large part due to Hydro Quebec, Quebec uses fewer resources than the other provinces. Our footprint is about the same as Sweden's but it's not as bad as the rest of Canada."

Although the exact amount of influence humans have on Earth's climate change is often disputed, Wolfe said there is plenty of reason to be concerned about where the world is headed environmentally. Organization on a global scale is proven near impossible, yet smaller municipalities, like Westmount, have a lot more pliability when it comes to planning, implementing and communicating. The growing trend of "think globally, act locally" can benefit both the environment and local economy. Buying local and using local resources, Wolfe explained, is ecologically beneficial and it keeps money within the community.

"We can keep money local through a number of methods," Wolfe said. "Instead of purchasing cheap, disposable goods from China, we could spend more money on reliable, longer-lasting goods produced locally. We can also keep our money local by renovating our homes and making them more energy efficient or switching from private automobiles to active transportation and mass transit. We will be employing local people instead of exporting our money to the rest of the world where oil is produced. City governments have a direct link to city life. Small cities like Westmount can really pay attention to local needs. The smaller the city, the more flexible it can be and the more opportunities there are for change."

The ecological footprint of Westmount may be calculated over the next year, Wolfe said. He suspects the city, with a population of 20,865, is leaving a heavier mark on the environment when compared to other similar-sized communities throughout the province. Generally studies show that more affluent communities have a tendency to consume more resources, he said, and this fact becomes clear around the holiday season when loads of empty boxes and wrapping paper are found waiting on the curb for pick-up.

At the meeting, community members made a multitude of suggestions on ways to lessen Westmount's ecological footprint.

Bronwyn Mantel asked Wolfe about encouraging people to install "green roofs," a trendy, energy-efficient roofing style that both insulates the home and better manages rain-water run-off — a heavy hitting pollutant that eventually makes its way into rivers and streams after picking up oils, chemicals and debris. Green roofs, popular in Toronto and other Canadian cities, are partially or completely covered with vegetation and soil (or other growing medium) planted on a waterproof membrane.

"The good news is, this is very possible because most of Westmount's buildings are very solidly built," Wolfe said, noting the planning department has gone to a seminar about green roofs. "Often times in Montreal people want to install green roofs but find it is very expensive because they have to reinforce the structure. We haven't had any engineering studies done, but we think that maybe, given the conditions of local buildings, we could do that. It is a very good idea. The planning department will be taking a stronger role in making Westmount more sustainable and one medium-term objective will be to encourage projects like green roofs to make local buildings more sustainable."

Paul Marriott asked if there were any programs or plans to further take advantage of Hydro Westmount, which is separate from Hydro Quebec.

Although there are no plans set in stone, Wolfe said, there are possibilities being discussed. Besides looking to buy power from other sources, one potential pilot program will investigate the possibility of installing Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) in city streetlights rather than the traditional high-watt bulb. LEDs use much less electricity than traditional bulbs and they have a much longer lifespan.

"With Hydro Westmount, we are still in the discussion stage," Wolfe said. "But there is potential there."

Bernadette Bjornson asked about getting the private sector, like businesses, to financially back a shift toward a "greener" city.

"We can collect taxes and use the money for a variety of purposes, but we can't tell companies to fund programs," Wolfe said. "Generally it would be a discussion about being a good corporate citizen and getting companies to contribute rather than requiring them to give money. I hope that, eventually, discussions will lead to possible collaboration."

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