Here are 7 things experts say could make B.C.'s cities more climate-proof

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  • Climate Change
    Climate Change
Hazy skies from wildfire smoke blanket downtown Vancouver and English Bay on Aug. 13, 2021, as the province dealt with a third heat wave. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)
Hazy skies from wildfire smoke blanket downtown Vancouver and English Bay on Aug. 13, 2021, as the province dealt with a third heat wave. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)

After a year of cascading climate disasters in the province, experts are calling on B.C.'s provincial government and other authorities to shore up long-term housing and urban design strategies to make sure they are climate-resilient.

B.C. experienced a series of disasters in 2021 and the provincial government was criticized for both its short-term emergency plans, as well as for systemic problems that critics said exacerbated the impacts.

Experts say there are numerous issues with how homes and towns are built that the province could address to mitigate climate impacts going forward.

But one expert warned there isn't one single approach that will solve B.C.'s problems — new plans will need to be well-rounded and incorporate all the aspects of a changing climate.

"The tragedy around both [climate] adaptation and mitigation is there aren't any silver bullets — there's a whole lot of silver buckshot," said Alex Boston, executive director of Simon Fraser University's Renewable Cities program. "We just have to load and keep on firing."

1. Fewer single-family homes

Land use is one of the primary determinants of climate change and, according to Boston, should be a primary focus for the province.

Marc Lee, an analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the province's housing stock consists largely of detached homes located far from job sites.

Neighbourhoods full of single family homes are one of the main drivers of greenhouse gas emissions, according to both Boston and Lee. More people living far from where they work means more people driving, instead of walking, cycling or using public transit.

Lee said the province should focus on non-market housing and encourage local governments to rezone land so as many as six homes could be built on a single lot.

Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC
Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC

2. Connecting vulnerable people at home

According to Boston, there is also an important social element to building more densely: connecting vulnerable seniors to young people in times of emergency.

This is particularly important given the disproportionate impact the heat dome had on isolated people in city apartments, according to Boston.

Boston says seniors would be connected to younger people more often in more densely-built communities, lessening the risk of isolation during an emergency.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

3. Improving emergency shelter systems

Lee says the province should improve provincewide emergency systems to be more proactive before and during natural disasters and extreme weather.

Most of all, Lee says the province should mobilize emergency shelters ahead of time if extreme weather is forecast, and make sure those who need shelter from the cold or heat are getting it.

"I think there's a really important burden [with shelters] that has to fall on the provincial government," he said.

4. Increasing number of urban trees

The number of trees growing in a city — known as the tree canopy — should also be a priority for city planners, Boston said.

More trees in urban settings provide a cooling effect for neighbourhoods, lessening the impact of "urban heat islands" created when certain communities have lesser trees than others, he said.

Urban trees also serve as a buffer during flooding events, creating permeable soil surfaces for rainwater to drain into, according to Boston.

David Horemans/CBC
David Horemans/CBC

5. Insulation and cross-ventilation

Instead of focusing on air conditioners during extreme heat events, Boston says homeowners should focus on insulation and cross-ventilation in their homes.

This is particularly important because of how B.C.'s climate is changing, with more weather extremes, according to Boston.

"If you have really good insulation in the building, you can you can keep the heat out and you can also keep the heat in, depending on the time of year," he said.

6. Retrofits for current infrastructure

Lee argues existing buildings must be retrofitted to rely less on fossil fuels, which are used to heat many houses in B.C.

"I think there's a [provincial] role there, for example, in upgrading buildings and shifting off of the heating systems and cooling systems that we have to heat pump systems," he said.

Heat pumps operate off electricity, which is largely derived from renewable energy in B.C., and they can also be used as air conditioners during heat waves.

CBC
CBC

A spokesperson for B.C. Attorney General David Eby, who is responsible for the province's housing strategy, said the government currently provides heat pumps and other climate-change-related rebates to homeowners as part of the province's CleanBC strategy.

"As of September 2021, more than 27,000 rebates have been issued to households in B.C. Additional top-up incentives are available from participating municipalities," read an emailed statement.

7. Regulation to compel climate-proofing

Though the province provides numerous incentives for homeowners and landlords to climate-proof their homes, there are no laws compelling them to do so.

This is particularly problematic for cities like Vancouver, according to Lee, where basement suites are one of the primary sources of affordable housing and are also prone to flood damage.

Boston said regulation should be introduced to ensure homeowners climate-proof their homes, which would include elevating basement suites.

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