Sustainable Vancouver – a Breath of Fresh Air

Cyclists enjoy Vancouver's living rooftops

The Green Side of Vancouver


With rooftop food gardens, indigenous walks and cycling trails, Vancouver is Canada’s capital of sustainable living.

Stylish Vancouver, with its glitzy, glassy skyscrapers reflecting a shimmering waterfront, emanates an undisputed beauty. Yet it also boasts authentic eco-sensitive experiences and green initiatives.

Vancouver already has North America’s smallest carbon footprint, with 90% of its electricity sourced from hydroelectric power. Its mayor has pledged that by 2020, the city will become the world’s greenest. Its south-eastern suburbs around False Creek already operate an NEU renewable energy system, providing sustainably-heated water to residents. And the province of British Columbia has a carbon tax.

Mountain-flanked Stanley Park is Vancouver's eco playground (2)

Most impressive throughout Vancouver’s immaculate residential streets are the communal veggie garden plots. I spot garlic and green beans growing kerbside — all nurtured and harvested by residents on a fence-free, honesty basis. Even the electricity boxes are decorated with leafy murals.

Davie Village Community Garden - in the heart of the city (2)

At Nelson Park, I find Vancouver Farmers Markets, a not-for-profit co-op. The Saturday morning stalls burst with colours and aromas from local, organic berries. I’m enticed by the purple ancient carrots and the giant blueberries that British Columbia grows in abundance. Oh, and the gluten-free dark chocolate lava cake (I’m only human!). Signs read: ‘Mix and match: save a bag!’ and ‘Vendors will take back their food packaging!’ Nice one, Vancouver!

Cycling through Pitt Meadows with Into the Wild

Hiring wheels from Bayshore Bike Rentals, I pedal to Stanley Park’s 9km-long seawall. Designated bike-only lanes border pedestrian paths on this ‘forest in the sea’, alongside horse-drawn trams stating: ‘Organically powered by hay and oats!’

I wheel around Lost Lagoon, only to be stopped abruptly by a wild beaver. Thrilled by the delay, I observe it collecting grasses before swimming across the water to its den. And at Prospect Point lookout, it’s not the sweeping harbour views that enthral me most. It’s the family of four wild racoons that join the path before retreating into the bushes. Splendid.

A beaver carries its dinner home

Talking Trees

Erika, a Coast Salish First Nations guide from Talaysay Tours, welcomes us to the Squamish lands in her native language. She begins her cultural eco walk by pointing out the importance of the cedar tree.

Erika leads the Talking Trees walk

“This is our tree of life. From it, we carved dugout canoes, longhouses for shelter, and weaved its bark. And traditional dancers used the red powder of decaying cedars, mixed with fish oil, for face paint.”

We feel tufts of horsetail, which functioned as sandpaper to smooth wood. “Our people practised environmental harvest,” says Erika. “Bark-cutting was restricted to no more than two hands-widths.”

Erika passes us a salal berry. It looks and tastes like an extra-sweet blueberry, but is superior in texture. First Nations people dried them inside fish eggs to make an indigenous granola. “Our knowledge of resources was key to our survival,” she says. “We depended on sustainability, so no matter how much food there was, we took only what we needed.” I refrain from picking another.

We reach Beaver Lake. Abloom with waterlilies, it’s a living Monet. “The lake is rich in cattail, used for weaving,” says Erika. “But it also carries a legend of xway’xway… pronounced xway-xway. When thunderbird shot a lightning bolt at a tree, it left the xway’xway mask in its bark. These masks are still used by our dancers.”

Locals believe the forest and the sea have a spirit, so everything drawn from the land (wood, food etc.) travels with its spirit and must be treated with respect. It’s an animist, environmentalist culture.

“I never travel without some cedar on me,” says Erika. As we part, she hands me a strip of bark.

First Nations Foraging

I then join Lauraleigh, also a Coast Salish First Nations descendant, for a walk focusing on indigenous plant use on behalf of Stanley Park Ecology Society. The society and its volunteers help to restore the park’s ecosystem by removing weeds and installing wood-duck boxes. They’re currently working on encouraging spawning salmon to return to its waters.

“If these red bell-shaped berries have tiny circles under them, they’re edible,” says Lauraleigh, plucking tiny huckleberries. “We spice our meat and fish with them, and they’re high in Vitamins A and C. And bears love them too.”

Lauraleigh presents her elderberry tincture

Creek-side, we spot skunk cabbage, used for subterranean cooking. Wrapping spring salmon with it gives a peppery flavour. Above, a mature maple tree reveals moss that blankets bark-clasping liquorice fern.

“Liquorice fern root is harvested for throat infections and digestive tonics. And this immune booster here is elderberry,” says Lauraleigh, pulling out a small, pre-blended bottle. “Our people ferment its berry for two months.” It’s a lesson in culinary medicines — in the heart of the city.

Rooftop Gardens

On the roof terrace of the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel (Vancouver’s leading hotel for sustainability), I meet bee-butler, Michael King. He runs apiary tours of 250,000 resident honeybees and a 2,100-foot-square edible garden, which has recently gained organic certification.

Fairmont Waterfront's edible rooftop garden

Rows reveal alpine strawberries, apples, green peppers, garlic, fennel and kale. Michael also raises cilantro, lemon balm, cornflowers and zucchini flowers—all served from rooftop-to-fork in the hotel’s ARC restaurant. And the lavender, mint and rosemary feature in its cocktails.

We see the garden’s ‘Bee&Bee’, affectionately known in Canada as Bee Hotels. This multi-levelled timber apiary is constructed with hollowed plant stems collected from Stanley Park and the Haida Gwaii islands. Pollinating solitary bees find refuge inside.

Michael King by his Bee&Bee

Within a glass observation hive, Michael identifies the Queen bee by her dot and larger size. She lays around 1,500 eggs per day. It’s a reminder that bees are a global keystone species, and 30% of all food sources are due to pollination!

Will Vancouver become the planet’s most sustainable city by 2020? Whether you come here to hike, bike or taste, breathe in deeply, and you may just feel the answer in the air.

Tips for Visitors to Vancouver


Join Paul from Into the Wild. Paul leads blissful hiking and biking day trips through the valley of Pitt Meadows along the postcard-perfect Trans Canada Trail, and the thousand-year-old forests and waterfalls of Lynn Canyon Park. Observe rare waterbirds, blueberry farmers and snow-capped mountains.

Raccoons go walkabout in Stanley Park


When enjoying Vancouver’s food scene, look for the Ocean Wise symbol. Seafood marked with this logo comes from abundant populations. It has been caught by methods that reduce by-catch and limit habitat damage.


Vancouver’s Convention Centre is home to Canada’s largest living roof, growing in just six inches of topsoil. Alongside two beehives, it flourishes with 400,000 native plants and grasses, including: onions, 5ft-high aster, purple-flowered fireweed, and pink sweet pea flowers—all irrigated with rainwater and recycled grey-water. It opened for the 2010 Winter Olympics with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum Standards (a rating system administered by the Canada Green Building Council). This iconic Vancouver landmark also uses seawater to cool the building, and features a kelp forest habitat beneath it, which feeds salmon, otters and mussels.



Based in Adelaide, the festival city, Marie is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer who contributes to various travel and health publications. She has a passion for wildlife and conservation, and enjoys hiking and cycling.

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