Andy Yan: Sustainability is about people, not things

Posted by Joanna Yang & filed under Sustainability Issue 2014.

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With September snow in Calgary and summer flooding in Los Angeles, there is no doubt that extreme weather events are becoming increasingly commonplace due to global climate change. As a Vancouver resident, I can’t help but wonder what this means for my hometown.

I recently spoke to Bing Thom Architects senior urban planner Andy Yan about how the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels and changing precipitation patterns, will affect Metro Vancouver. From urban density to cultural diversity, resource management and sustainability planning, there were a plethora of topics to discuss. Inevitably, we began with a discussion on vulnerable communities that reside in low-lying municipalities such as Richmond, Delta, and Surrey.

Paradigm shift needed in regional planning

Although the community garden movement in Vancouver is one that Yan regards as “noble,” he stresses that our local food security is reliant on the sustainability of large-scale farms in Richmond, Delta, and Surrey. These farms are situated at sea level and built on top of thousands of years worth of Fraser River silt deposits. With sea level rise, it is possible that these farms could cease to exist in the future.

Yan briefed me on the history of farming in Metro Vancouver—a narrative that isn’t mainstream in today’s history and social studies curricula.

“Chinese and South Asian farmers continue to exist and have existed throughout the Fraser Valley and Delta for the past 150 years,” Yan said. “There is a fair portion of Asian Canadians that are actually working in farming industries, and the fact is that they will be affected [by rising sea levels].”

These farming communities will need to grapple with the reality of climate change, and in turn, develop crops that are resilient and sustainable for the future.

Although it seems obvious that the welfare of these communities is relevant for all Vancouverites, farming communities are being left out of the decision making and planning for a sustainable future.

Traditionally, public policy and planning decisions that influence land use and economic development are made in urban spaces, such as in boardrooms at city hall. Often, these meetings are conducted in a language that does not reflect the diversity in Vancouver.

“It’s not just getting something translated into another language, but it’s actually putting yourself into the shoes of someone else,” Yan argued. “This is perhaps just as difficult as getting a document on sea level rise translated into Chinese or Punjabi.”

Ultimately, planning for a sustainable future in Vancouver is intimately tied to the health of these farming communities. Efforts in planning for the future should focus on the contributions of those particular farming communities.

“We need to engage those farms that are most vulnerable to sea level rise and climate change in a discussion,” said Yan.

With experience planning for different communities in various urban settings, ranging from New Orleans to New York, Yan certainly knows what he’s talking about. Urging for a “cultural shift” in planning, he emphasized that decision makers need to “go into the field and meet these folks in their spaces, as opposed to expecting them to meet you downtown.”

Idealistic? Perhaps. But Yan made a good point: If the “rural-urban” divide continues to broaden, then our local food security, the health of our economy, as well as the vitality of our diverse communities will be put at risk.

And one of the biggest challenges in planning for a sustainable future in Metro Vancouver lies in “our ability to reach out to these communities and help them adapt,” Yan said.

So if effective community engagement is what we need to start bridging gaps, where do we start?

Yan suggests an interactive approach: decision makers must “develop a language that can be universal, where people realize they are part of the problem and solution.” It seems that planning for a sustainable future in metro Vancouver requires a bit more intercultural fluency and mutual understanding on all parties.

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About Joanna Yang

Joanna Yang
As an avid people-watcher and aspiring filmmaker, Joanna is interested in telling stories that are often ignored. She is a first-generation Chinese Canadian with roots in the sunny island province of Hainan, China.

More posts by Joanna Yang

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