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Getting Greener

The Centre for Sustainability is helping Whistler find its way to better, cheaper, greener living.



"I wouldn't at all say that Whistler is sustainable," says Cheeying Ho over the phone – a surprisingly candid admission from the director of the Whistler Centre for Sustainability. "We say Whistler is on the journey."

It's a fair enough observation. Whistler – like all ski resorts – suffers from some serious environmental challenges: people fly from all over the world to get there, burning up fossil fuels on the way; gondolas and outdoor hot-tubs use heaps of energy; trees have been slashed to make way for ski runs; and the development of hotels and golf courses encroaches on nature. Whistler also has its asphalt plant belching pollution and tarnishing its "green" image. But this community has taken some good, prominent steps in the sustainable direction. There are the re-use-it and re-build-it centres to discourage waste. The athlete's village from the Olympics was forced to be built as permanent, not temporary housing; about 90 per cent of its heating needs are provided by the waste heat of the nearby waste-water treatment plant. And Whistler consistently wins awards for its sustainability vision: in 2005, it won the United Nations Environmental Program's international award for "liveable communities," coming first out of 53 competing cities in the category of planning for the future.

Ho lists these achievements like a proud mother: she didn't make any of them happen herself, at least not directly, but she heads the non-profit organization that oversees the people that do. Many of Whistler's forward steps have been spurred by local task forces aiming to meet the goals of Whistler's long-range plan: Whistler 2020, written after community-wide consultations from 2002-2005. This document lists a ream of ambitious if vague criteria for success by that deadline, like "Whistler's energy system is transitioning to renewable energy sources," and "Whistler is globally recognized as a centre of excellence in sustainable community development." Its long-term goal is to see Whistler entirely "sustainable" by 2060: by sustainable, they don't just mean using less water than what falls on our mountains, sending zero garbage to landfill (yes, really zero), and emitting practically no greenhouse gases, but also ensuring that the community is economically self-sufficient and a socially desirable place to live. "We're not just talking about cutting down fewer trees. Sustainability is a community-defined thing," says Ho. Whistler decided it needed a dedicated centre to oversee this process, along with a host of other sustainability-related tasks. So in 2007 the Whistler Sustainability Centre was born, with Ho arriving as its first director in 2008.

The Centre has a grab bag of different duties in addition to overseeing Whistler 2020. It runs programs to teach local people and businesses the benefits of sustainable practices, and give them tips on how to achieve them. It organizes local events, like 2010's TEDx talks on sustainability, open to the whole community. And it offers other communities the benefit of its experience by helping them — for a fee — to build their own sustainability plans of action.