How do we galvanize climate action in Vancouver?

Creating a renewed sense of place, block by block

by Erlene Woollard and Patricia Plackett

Lord, make me pure, but not yet!”

No doubt when St. Augustine uttered this prayer in about 380 AD he was not thinking about being pure in the sense of his ‘carbon footprint’.

If you will allow us to belabour a point and if you, like most of us, have struggled with your own purity issues when confronted with the many positive changes needed to protect our planet, then you might well have thought “I am already doing my part and I wish others would catch up and then we can approach this problem with the same purity“. Or if you are as pure as you are willing to be because doing more would be too much of a sacrifice., then a question such as “What can I, a simple individual, do to make a difference?” may surface in your conversations with yourself, in hopes that someone else’s purity will emerge offering a roadmap or a helpful toolkit to get this job done!

Well, we are all in luck! The folks at the Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning (CALP), an interdisciplinary research group at the University of B.C., have put together an accessible “CoolKit” and a set of related workshops to help us achieve useful climate action block-by-block in our neighbourhoods (thereby making it easier in our quest for a renewed purity!)

The CoolKit is a visual “do-it-yourself” toolkit for engaging neighbours on urban blocks and provides a step-by-step visual guide aimed at helping individuals wishing to contribute to positive climate change action within their community. CALP developed a “Cool ‘Hoods Programme” in 2019 to serve as a catalyst for empowering local community-led projects to build resilient neighbourhoods.

CALP is under the direction of Dr Stephen Sheppard and focuses on innovative solutions that bridge research and practice, and bring visualization, science, modeling, land-use and landscape planning as well as participatory processes to community engagement and capacity building on sustainability issues. In other words—it seeks to to translate good intentions into effective actions.

Because communities must ideal with the increasingly adverse impacts of high levels of carbon emissions that contribute to the ‘greenhouse effect’ , resulting in trapped heat that warms neighbourhood environments, CALP has focused on the important role that urban forests play in reducing the impacts of escalating local and regional global warming in parks, streetscapes, natural areas, private households and communal gardens.

 “A healthy urban forest will be vital in a hotter, unpredictable future to protect human health during heat waves, reduce our reliance on air conditioning, reduce flooding, absorb carbon, and provide habitat to wildlife. An urban forest also increases property value and happiness. Our gardens can further help us adapt to climate change by growing food and reducing reliance on imported produce” (CoolKit, p. 4).

Studies of the tree cover in Vancouver reveal that 18% of the urban area is ‘canopy’, of which 62% occurs on private property. City of Vancouver data also reveal that the city loses a large number of healthy and mature trees every year, primarily from private property. Over the past 20 years a total of 23,490 trees have been removed from private properties.

Taking very good care of neighbourhood trees is thus a high priority. Other factors that will help neighbourhoods prepare for the impacts of climate change include cutting emissions through switching to renewable energy sources, driving less, and switching to hybrids or electric vehicles.

Key to the success of these local projects is the concept of a Local Climate Champion who can use the Coolkit to address climate change at the block level with friends and neighbours coming together. CALP research has found that successful projects are typically local, engaging and enjoyable. CALP has accordingly designed its Cool ‘Hoods Champs Programme to recruit, train and empower local champions with a simple and effective process of five steps for implementation at the block level through the application of tree planting, construction of rain-gardens and encouragement of community gardening.

Step 1 – CHATTING (what climate change means in our neighbourhoods, how it relates to theCOVID-19 experience).

Step 2 – MAPPING (mapping vulnerabilities and solutions in each neighbourhood (indoors and/or outdoors). One fun exercise to gauge how effective the tree canopy on a street is would be to go out and ponder whether or not a squirrel could race through the street on trees without ever touching the ground.

Step 3 – RATING: Identifying priorities.

Step 4 – VISIONING: Visioning your future neighbourhood.

Step 5 – ACTING: Creating an Action Plan and implementing this plan through concrete actions.

Political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s historical research reveals that for a peaceful mass movement to succeed, we only need 3.5% of the population to mobilize. Humans are ultra-social mammals and are constantly if subliminally aware of shifting social currents. Once we perceive that the status quo has changed, we flip suddenly from support for one state of being to support for another. When a committed and vocal 3.5% unites behind the demand for a new system, the social avalanche that follows becomes doable, desirable AND successful.

Our current experience with the COVID-19 pandemic not only demonstrates that many of our systems need work but that we can get together and change them! If that change is in the direction of a “new green normal” we are not talking about huge sacrifices. Instead we are talking about a more livable world, a more sustainable world. Positive changes to the natural world around the globe have emerged and proves that even wealthy countries like Canada can undertake dramatic changes if prodded by a common threat. We have proof showing how much we need each other in order to build capacity for resilient communities to do our bit to repair past damage and to reduce and adapt to climate change.

It is oft said “Never waste a good crisis “. In this case let’s not squander a good opportunity! By re-imagining our lives, finding purpose in our neighbourhoods and acting together, block by block, we can build a hopeful future. Hope is planting trees in whose shade you may never sit! Let’s participate in a renovation of where we live and get to know each other better in the process.

The future is now. Game On!


 Further information on the CALP CoolKit is available at this link.



  1. This is definitely “cool”! I live in a West End high-rise, and it might be good to have some suggestions for people in MURBs. Most of this is focussed on houses and residential neighbourhoods. It’s quite research and labour intensive. And it involves, ideally, getting people together. We’ve had little success with that but we still keep trying!

  2. Pat and I took the two-morning workshop from CALP on Zoom. They adapted their in-person content to this medium and, in spite of the requisite occasional glitch, it was excellent.
    One of the course requests of each participant is that we will figure out something creative and accessible towards crafting an action plan that would benefit the community we live in. Drawdown asks for something similar in that we use the knowledge gained towards tangible action. Several discussions have occurred during SE meetings about environmental/safety issues unique to MURBS. Maybe we could continue the discussion in order to come up with some useful ideas to lead to a “plan’. Game on ????

  3. Hi Jill and Erlene,

    Your idea of taking this to MURBs is definitely great, and should be pursued! Our workshops focused on single family low-rise housing since that is the most commonplace in Vancouver neighbourhoods, but the needs and constraints of MURBs are certainly unique and important too. Rooftop community gardens might be an idea, or even transforming underused parking lots! Amazing things can happen even in the smallest of dense urban spaces, as I’ve learnt from my home country Singapore 😉

    Your passion and energy is inspiring; thank you for being a part of this important movement!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *